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Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Christmas Escape

What can be more delightful than finding a book you really want to read under your Christmas tree?  That's how I felt about Anne Perry's annual Christmas novella, A Christmas Escape (#539).

This year's story involves a group of British travelers staying together at a guest house on the volcanic island of Stromboli, off the Sicilian coast.  The weather is milder than at home, and Charles Latterly has nothing to keep him in England.  His wife has recently died, but he realizes that there was never any passion in their relationship; in fact, he is not passionate about anything in his life, and he finds this disturbing.  He hopes that a break from his routine will allow him to take stock of his life and perhaps set a new course for himself. 

There is tension in the group already assembled at the remote mountain side compound just before Christmas and not all the guests are pleasant.  With the volcano looming over them spitting out plumes of smoke and ash, things come to a head.  Several will die and Charles' life will be changed forever.

Ms. Perry can pack a lot into a small number of pages.  There is a mystery, a volcanic eruption, soul-searching, loss, and redemption all mixed together here, with salvation for those who survive.  A cracking good story.

Paw and Order

Private investigators Bernie and Chet return in the latest installment of Spencer Quinn's mystery series, Paw and Order (#538), and it may be their best outing yet!

After Bernie and Chet wrap up a case in Bayou country, instead of returning home to Arizona, Bernie impulsively turns their battered Porsche towards Washington, D.C.   He misses Susie Sanchez more than he thought possible since she accepted her dream job as a reporter with The Washington Post.  Why call and spoil the surprise?  But Bernie is the one who is blindsided when Susie's landlady sends him to the carriage house she's renting just in time to see a man emerge.  Susie claims he's just a source for a potential story, but Bernie isn't convinced.  Chet's disappointed, too, because Susie doesn't have a treat ready and waiting for him.  Chet may be a dog, but he's still a total pro, ready to go, and it turns out that they quickly have a case to solve when Bernie is framed for a murder. 

There are the usual Washington power broker types, mysterious government agents, international implications, and campaign skullduggery here.  Chet is busy following his nose  and dealing with a horse (not something he ever wants to do!), a strange bird that keeps bothering Chet, and an elusive guinea pig where there definitely shouldn't be one!  Can Bernie, Chet and Susie solve this one before too many bodies pile up?

Chet's unique narrative style makes this one of the most entertaining series out there, and a real pleasure to read if you like your murder mixed with humor and just plain doggone good storytelling.  Don't miss this series!  (See also my posts of 6/22/15, 2/11/15, 8/29/15 & 8/14/14.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Great Christmas Knit-Off

Looking for the perfect Christmas read?  I know I always am, and I may have found it in Alexandra Brown's The Great Christmas Knit-Off (#538).  What could be better than Christmas in a quaint English village?  Well, a whole lot if you happen to be Sybil.  She's had a very hard year between being left at the altar at her very expensive Star Wars themed wedding (NOT her idea!), and for her identical twin sister, Sasha!  Plus, something has gone horribly wrong at the housing office where she works in London, and 42,000 pounds seem to have been accidentally deposited in a client's account who promptly went on a lavish spending spree with the money.  Could Sybs - possibly? - been responsible for that disaster, too? 

A visit to her best friend Cher in remote Tindledale seems in order, but nothing goes right on her trip.  Until she arrives in Tindledale shortly before Christmas, where she finds others who have problems even bigger than her own.  But Sybil knows that she can help the elderly Hettie save her Haberdashery Shop with her passion for knitting.  As the community comes together to help her and Hettie, she begins to mend that enormous hole in her own heart, and she well and truly finds the place she is meant to be.

This is promised to be the first book in a series about the people who live in the tidy village of Tindledale.  Yes, there's a promising romance, some drama and suspense, and a lot of humor to keep the reader entertained throughout, and even a bonus knitting pattern at the end for those so inclined!
From what I've learned from this first book, I can't wait to find out more about this beguiling cast of characters!  Highly recommended for your Christmas reading pleasure.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall

Natasha Solomons really had me loving The Song of Hartgrove Hall (#537) right up to the point where Harry Fox-Talbot goes off to Florida searching for his long-lost brother, musical prodigy grandson in tow. The tone of the book went from lyrical descriptions of a decaying English Great House in post World War II England and the music that flowed from its present occupant, a song collector and composer/conductor to a one note parody of the Florida lifestyle.  I'll be the first to admit that comedians would soon run out of topical humor if they ran out of news from Florida, but this is not a satirical novel.  The contrast in writing styles was jarring enough to break the spell Ms. Solomons had cast.  That pause was enough to make me look more closely at the characters that populate this story and realize what a ghastly bunch they were.  I felt as betrayed as a reader as all of the characters in Hartgrove Hall's orbit had been by their friends and relations in oh-so-many ways throughout the plot.  If this hadn't been a Good Reads First Reads giveaway I would have stopped reading right there.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall is told in two alternating timelines: from the day the three Fox-Talbot brothers and their father, the General, arrive at Hartgrove Hall to take back possession of their ancestral home from the occupying forces of the British and Americans who have nearly destroyed it in the process.  Neighbors are demolishing their stately homes because they can no longer afford them, but Jack, George and Harry are determine to keep Hartgrove Hall running despite the General's decision to call in a demolition team.  The sons are given one year to make it a going concern.  Harry must give up his dream of a career in music, but much as he loves Hartgrove Hall he is no farmer.  The arrival of Edie Rose, Jack's girlfriend and a popular singer, changes everything.

In the intertwining timeline set almost fifty years in the future, we know that Harry and Edie are married with daughters and grandchildren.  He is now an elder statesman of the British music scene, and resident of Hartgrove Hall where a prestigious music festival takes place each year. The story tells us snippets of how that came to be, but it is not until near the end of the novel that we learn the unsavory story behind their outer success.  Even Harry will never know the complete truth about his own life.  It's not an edifying picture, nor one that I can find any sympathy for.  By modern mores I suppose that makes me a prude.  So be it.  I will consign this book to the trash heap.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Wrath of the Furies

As you can tell from the title of Steven Saylor's latest novel - Wrath of the Furies: A Novel of the Ancient World (#536), this is a dark tale, indeed.  Last year's book - Raiders of the Nile  - about young Gordianus, a Roman living temporarily in Alexandria, was a pretty straight-forward adventure story/mystery.  Wrath of the Furies is about pure evil based on accounts recorded by Roman writers of the time.  The gruesome acts are factual here.

Young Gordianus has been living comfortably in Alexandria since his rescue of his beloved slave Bethesda.  But he is concerned because he has not heard from his father in Rome for some time, nor has he any idea where his tutor, Antipater the poet, has vanished to after he abandoned Gordianus in Alexandria.  They did not part on the best of terms after he discovered his tutor was a spy for King Mithridates, but the day Gordianus receives an anonymous fragment apparently torn from Antipater's own journal hinting of unspeakable danger to himself and all the Romans living in lands conquered by Mithridates is the day that Gordianus determines to go in search of him.  Since it won't be safe for him to travel as a Roman, his friends come up with a scheme for him to travel as a mute seeking a miraculous cure from Artemis's temple in Ephesus, with Bethesda and her foreign accent to serve as his interpreter.  That decision will land Giordianus and all whom he cares about in mortal danger from King Mithridates and all who live in his domains. This time it seems unlikely that Gordianus will make it back to Alexandria alive...

Just who did try to lure Gordianus to Ephesus, and why?  That's the mystery being played out here to a surprising conclusion.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The President's Shadow

I wish Brad Melter's latest novel, The President's Shadow (#535)  had lived up to the first two books in this series about Beecher White, toiling deep in the bowels of Washington D.C.'s National Archive.

Here, Beecher is drawn into the inner circle of the President when an arm is discovered buried in the Rose Garden.  To be in such a secluded and well-guarded spot, whoever did it had to have had inside help.  But who is responsible, and what is the purpose behind it?  With no one else to trust, the President is forced to call in Beecher in his role as head of the Culper Ring, founded by George Washington, and sworn to protect the Presidency.  Beecher himself is reluctant to be distracted from the pursuit of discovering exactly what happened to his father many years ago.  Like the arm, any leads to find out have been buried by nameless parties.  With a promise from the President to aid him in his personal quest, Beecher sets out to discover the perpetrator.

It was an exciting read up to a point, but discovering the truth about what happened to his father in the military wasn't a big enough pay off to warrant all the elaborate contortions the plotter(s)? went through to make the revelation satisfying.  I still don't have a clue as to who, what or why the Knights of the Golden Circle apparently mean so much, other than they were presidential assassins.  But if that's true, why didn't the Knights infiltrated in the Secret Service kill off the presidents they were guarding?  Did they meet some sort of acceptable KGC criteria?  Too many loose ends and unexplained coincidences and hints of betrayal never explained to suit me.  I was disappointed in this one.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Boys in the Boat

Another book that came to me highly recommended by friends, Daniel James Brown's non-fiction saga The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (#534) lived up to its hype, I'm happy to say.  For some reason, it took me a long time to finish reading this book.  Not because I didn't find it interesting, but more, I think, because life kept interrupting.

Before reading this book, all I knew about rowing was from watching collegiate teams rowing on the Charles River in different configurations, and driving past the boathouses (Sorry, but no one I knew ever called these shell houses.) on either side of the river with my parents.  I watched the races during the Summer Olympics, and once or twice caught some of the action at the Head of the Charles Regatta.  I couldn't have told you anything about the skills or finesse required for this sport other than that it looked like hard work to me.  Some have praised The Boys in the Boat with a caveat: that you'll learn more than you have wanted to know about rowing.  I disagree with that opinion.  So few people have actual experience of this type of athletic endeavor that understanding the elements that make up a superior performance in the sport is essential: build, muscles, conditioning, brains and brawn for starters, and the technical skills that go into the building of a racing shell and plying its oars are only the beginning.  The art of racing here is between the athlete's ears, and it must be done in conjunction and in perfect union with his or her entire crew.  Nowhere else is the quote "There is no "I" in TEAM" more applicable.  So sue me.  I found it all fascinating. Imagine my surprise at Thanksgiving to find that we have a promising budding rower in our own family!

And that is only one aspect of this remarkable story.  Just who made up this University of Washington crew and how they became America's Olympic team, out-powering their Cal State rivals and elite Eastern rowing teams is astonishing.  The US Olympic Establishment tried to block them, but the Huskies, as in facing and overcoming other obstacles, found a way to claim that berth. 

Juxtaposed against this story of nine rugged individuals, their coaches and their British-born shell builder, is the story of the propaganda coup the Germans were waging for the world's regard in staging a spectacular Olympic Games, the like of which had never been seen before.  I would love to someday see German film maker Leni Riefenstahl's epic movie Olympia some day.  Although she was working for Adolf Hitler, the film includes extensive footage of the American victory in eight man crew.

The photos included in The Boys in the Boat make the people and places in this story come alive.  Thanks, Daniel James Brown, for making them live again in our minds.