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Friday, April 29, 2016

The Light in the Ruins

It feels like it's been a long time since I've read such a string of totally absorbing books, and I'm adding Chris Bohjalian's The Light in the Ruins (#563) to that list.   I couldn't wait until I got back from my walk this morning so I could settle down and finally find out "whodunit".

The story shifts back and forth in time from 1955, when a serial murderer is on the lose in Florence, Italy, and the World War II experiences of the Rosati family whose modest Tuscan villa is occupied by the Germans during the war.  As the reader gradually learns, the two stories are interconnected in a way that draws you in deeper and deeper until the final reveal. 

The author uses red herrings quite effectively here I think.  I had my suspicions about the perpetrator, but in the end, I guessed wrong.  What a story teller Mr. Bohjalian is!  I've recommended this book strongly to my husband, and to you, as well.  Atmospheric and compelling.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Silent Creed

Just in time for summer reading my husband has discovered a great new-to-us author with a trove of books to enjoy!  I'm talking about Alex Kava and Silent Creed (#562), the second book in her Ryder Creed series. 

Ryder Creed is an ex-military dog handler who is now using his energies to rescue and train dogs for a series of tasks - search and rescue, recovery or following particular scents.  In the previous book he was teamed with Maggie O'Dell, an FBI forensics specialist.  They are paired again in this taut thriller when both are assigned separately to a catastrophic North Carolina landslide that has affected a remote federal laboratory.  Maggie O'Dell is asked by her Army friend to "check up quietly" on things there.  When one of the research scientists turns up dead in the mud and debris, it's hardly surprising, but the bullet hole in his head certainly is.  When more grisly evidence surfaces, it's a race against time to find out exactly what has been going on in this anonymous lab.  Nothing is what it seems to either Ryder or Maggie, and they and their companions both human and canine are all at risk.

I could not put this one down!  Even better, I know there's GOT to be a sequel!!!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain sure knows how to keep a reader glued to the pages, as most of the world already discovered with her previous best seller The Paris Wife.  Not being a Hemingway fan, it wasn't until I heard Paula McLain speak at our local BookMania! event that I found out for myself just how mesmerizing she can be both in person and in print.  I could not put down her novel about horse trainer and aviatrix Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun (#561).

Ms. McLain had ample materials available with just a simple recounting of the real-life Beryl Markham's notorious career.  I suspect it was probably more difficult to decide what not to include!  Much of the novel pertains to her relationships with Denys Finch Hatton, the legendary big game guide and his lover, Karen Blixen, of Out of Africa fame.  Just how the closed society of Kenya managed to juggle marital relations while staying within certain bounds of propriety was a mystery not often negotiated well by Beryl, but fascinating to observe from the outside.

The descriptions of the African landscape, and Beryl's connection to her work as a horse trainer and ultimately, as a flyer are breathtaking.  A wonderful read!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Perilous Alliance

After three marriages, Ursula Blanchard Stannard is ready to settle down with her young son Harry and breed horses on her two estates.  But the Queen and the heads of her spy networks, Cecil and Walsingham have other plans for her.  In the fourteenth outing of her Elizabethan mystery series, A Perilous Alliance (#560), Fiona Buckley has created another mission for Ursula; one only she is capable of performing.  To cement a relationship between France and England against Catholic Spain, Elizabeth's ministers have proposed a marriage between Ursula, the Queen's illegitimate half-sister, and Count Gilbert Renard, the illegitimate son of King Henri II.

Much as Ursula wishes to refuse her sister's request, she is ultimately persuaded to go through with it for the good of England.  She cannot like him but while rumors swirl around court that there is a spy in their midst Ursula begins to suspect that it might be one of the Count's party.  When one of her servants dies in a fall down the staircase of her Hawkwood estate, Ursula's suspicions are confirmed.  What perils await her upon her marriage to Count Renard?  Nothing goes as planned, though none of Ursula's household believe they will ever see home again...

A number of twists and turns in this page-turning adventure where Ursula's skills in spy craft are used in unexpected ways, and she encounters some unlikely allies.  The best thing about this book is that it can be read as a stand-alone; though once you've met the cast of characters here, you'll probably want to further your acquaintance with them by reading some of the earlier books.  A really enjoyable series.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Murder at the Brightwell

I quite enjoyed Ashley Weaver's debut mystery Murder at the Brightwell (#559).  From its stylish 1930s style cover to the promise of future books in this series following Amory and Milo Ames, it delivered what was promised: a diverting read.

Amory and Milo Amory have been living mainly separate lives for most of their five year marriage.  Milo is usually to be found in the Society Pages with a bevy of beauties while Amory spends her time at their country home.  When Gil Trent, the fiancĂ© she jilted for Milo, comes to ask Amory to do him a favor by accompanying him to a party of friends gathering at the seaside hotel The Brightwell to try to dissuade his younger sister from marrying a bounder, Amory is glad to help.  She knows what it's like to marry a handsome rogue and live with the consequences.  When said bounder is found dead on a cliff side terrace at the hotel, clues soon point to Gil as the murder suspect.  When Milo unexpectedly shows up, too, Amory wonders if she's gotten herself in over her head...

The cover blurbs compare the Ameses to Nick and Nora Charles.  Personally, I think the 1930s and their stylish wardrobes are the only things these two couples have in common.  When I think of the Charleses, wit, humor and banter come to mind.  You never doubt the devotion this couple has for each other, though.  With the Ames, it's very different.  Divorce is mentioned here a few times, but the question is: Will they or won't they?  Or will pride stand in their way?  I hope to find out in future adventures of this polished couple.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Summer Before the War

Helen Simonson has done it again with The Summer Before the War (#558)!  I loved her first book - Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - so much, I was half afraid that her second book wouldn't quite measure up.  I was wrong to worry. In fact, I was glad my seat was towards the back of the aircraft after we landed so that I would have enough time to finish reading the Epilogue before I had to deplane, it was that good a read.

Set in the coastal town of Rye, England just before the outbreak of World War I, it follows Beatrice Nash, a young woman who has come to town to be the Latin teacher for the local school.  Beatrice has spent her formative years traveling with her professor father in Europe and America.  She handled all the arrangements herself and writes in her spare time.  Her father's lingering illness and death have turned Beatrice's world upside down, and she must struggle fiercely to carve out a life for herself independent of his family who have made it clear that they have no use for her, nor do they approve of her decision to accept a position usually reserved for men.

The people she encounters and the area around Rye itself come vividly alive in this book as the buildup to the war causes local loyalties and customs to change along with the times.  When the war touches Rye itself with casualties and refugees, the reality begins to sink in as the glory fades.

This is a much bigger book than Major Pettigrew in both size and scope, but the intimate stories of the main characters are never lost throughout.  I think Ms. Simonson is well-deserving of the comparisons of her writing to that of a modern-day Jane Austen.  Settle in for a long and satisfying read with The Summer Before the War, and don't neglect to have a box of tissues handy!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Witches; Salem, 1692

I was very pleased when my husband gave me a copy of Stacy Schiff's latest non-fiction work The Witches; Salem, 1692 (#557) for Christmas.  I've been reserving it to read as a special treat.  In the end, although Ms. Schiff did include quite a bit of interesting information, I did not find that this book lived up to its rapturous reviews.

First of all, if you are looking for a book to introduce you to the events that centered on Salem Village in colonial Massachusetts during 1692 and into 1693, I cannot recommend this book.   This has always been a subject that has interested me, having grown up in the area, and being friends with a descendant of one of the executed "witches".  I know the basic outlines of what happened, but I have to confess that I found Ms. Schiff's account confusing.  I found myself constantly thinking "Huh?"  Just laying out the facts of what happened in this time and place are shocking enough when recounted plainly and would serve as a better platform for Ms. Schiff''s interpretation of the witchcraft ordeal.  The florid language, convoluted sentences and endless looping back to previously introduced people and events made for slow-going and tedious reading, despite her inclusions of pop cultural references.

Actually, speaking of references, that was one of the things I found most curious about this Little, Brown publication.  I am an inveterate reader of footnotes when they contain information that goes beyond the basic bibliographic citations.  That's often where I find some of the more intriguing tidbits which don't quite fit into the main narrative, and can send me off to learn more from other sources.  I don't know if the editors at Little, Brown in their wisdom thought that they would scare off the more general audience this book was aimed at by including the superscripts that lead to those back-of-the-book footnotes, but I was a couple of chapters into The Witches before I realized that there actually were footnotes in this volume.  They're all in the back, neatly numbered with absolutely no correlation to the materials referenced in the chapter!  How frustrating, and a bad decision on the publishers' part as far as this reader is concerned.

It seems in the end that the point Ms. Schiff  wished to make in this book was that the whole incident in Salem could be written off as politics.  While certainly politics did drive the actions of many involved in this episode, I don't think that you can blame the antics of bored, repressed teen-aged girls on politics.  Spite and the associated power that came from having their victims dragged into court played a much stronger role than I think Ms. Schiff credits here.  In fact, if you're at all familiar with this bit of American history, what Ms. Schiff leaves out of this book tells you quite a bit about how she chose to spin her narrative.  I can't recommend this one.