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Friday, August 11, 2017

A Puzzle to Be Named Later

A Puzzle to Be Named Later (#682) is Parnell Hall's latest in his Puzzle Lady mysteries.  It's a fun, easy read, especially if you like to solve crossword puzzles and Sodoku.  In fact, solving the crosswords is actually part of finding the culprit here, as there are clues embedded in the puzzles' solutions.  If you're like me, and borrow any of these books from your local library, your first step will be to photocopy the puzzle grids so you don't spoil the fun for anyone else!

This mystery, set in suburban Connecticut, swirls around a whiz kid pitcher for the Yankees, who just after signing a multimillion dollar contract breaks his arm in car accident.  When he and his attractive young wife move into the local white elephant mansion in Bakerhaven so Matt Greystone can rehab in peace, someone wants to make trouble by leaving scandalous hints via crossword puzzles.  Since Puzzle Lady Cora Felton lives right there in town, she's pulled into the affair for her crosswording skills.  Lucky for her the Sheriff doesn't know she couldn't solve a crossword to save her own life: that's her niece's department!  But once on the trail, Cora is like a dog with a bone - she can't leave it alone.  When first one body shows up, then a second, there are too many people with too many motives to sort out.  It will be up to Cora to make the call on the murderer before the Yankees' season is ruined.

This is perfect fare for a lazy summer afternoon curled up in a hammock with a cold drink by your side.  Cora Felton is quite the character!  I'm going to have to track down more of the Puzzle Lady Mysteries in the future.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Right Side

I love Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie mystery series.  Chet "The Jet" is the narrator for these stories, and although he's entirely professional, he is after all, an easily distracted dog.  Chet never met a cheese doodle he didn't like, even in the middle of a case.  Granted, some of the subject matter covered in these books is pretty grim, so I shouldn't have been surprised that his latest novel The Right Side (#681) is one hundred and eighty degrees from the humorous tone of the Chet and Bernie series.

In this stand-alone novel, Sgt. LeAnne Hogan is recovering at Walter Reed Hospital after surviving an attack on her patrol in Afghanistan.  She lost not only an eye, but a large part of herself.  She's not a particularly likeable character here, but she does manage to bond with her roommate Marci, struggling to adjust to her prosthetic leg.  Marci is motivated to get back to Washington state and her young daughter Mia. 

If only Captain Stallings would stop bugging her to remember her last, failed mission, LeAnne would be much happier.  When she wakes one morning to find that Marci has unexpectedly died, it ;pushes LeAnne beyond her limits.  She sneaks out of the hospital and hops on a bus with no destination in mind.  At some point she acquires a car, driving aimlessly until she arrives in Marci's hometown to find that her daughter Mia has gone missing...

LeAnne Hogan is a stand-in for every veteran who has come back from war damaged, both externally and internally.  Her PTSD has played havoc with her memory and her emotions, but her drive to stand up for herself and do things on her own has survived intact.  It is not until she is adopted by a huge black dog (and she is definitely not a dog person!) that she gradually comes to realize that the dog Goody is protecting her blind side literally and figuratively.  It might be time to start trusting others a little and take the first steps towards healing herself.

The dog is a key character in The Right Side, as unlovely in her own way as LeAnne now feels herself to be.  Both have been damaged, but together they are stronger.  Goody forces LeAnne to think of someone other than herself and to provide vital evidence to solve two injustices. 

Although difficult to read at times, it was equally difficult to put this book down.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Dangerous Minds - A Knight and Moon Novel

What do a Buddhist monk, a disappearing island and the National Park Services have in common?  That's the question Janet Evanovich poses in Dangerous Minds - A Knight and Moon Novel (#680).  How she stitches these elements together makes for a fun to read romp with serious thriller end-of-the-world vibes.  I was glad that I finally got around to reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time last summer since it helped me understand the science here more easily, although that's not a requirement for enjoying Dangerous Minds.  I never thought I'd be saying that about one of Janet Evanovich's books!  Don't get me wrong, I've always been a fan of her writing; Ms. Evanovich also happens to be one of the very few authors who can make literally me laugh out loud.

Eccentric billionaire Emerson Knight needs help figuring out his finances after his father's sudden death.  Financial analyst Riley Moon has been hired to untangle the books, so to speak, but it's not easy dealing with the handsome owner of Mysteriouso Manor.  When one of his former mentors shows up in the middle of the night seeking his help, Riley is dragged willy-nilly into the affair, along with his cousin Vernon whose RV seems to be permanently parked in the back yard of the mansion.  The caper will take them across the country from Washington, D.C. to Yellowstone Park and the Big Island of Hawaii with relentless enemies pursuing them and leaving a trail of bodies behind.  Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Emerson and Riley.  Will they make it out alive?  I sure hope so, because I look forward to reading further adventures of this engaging pair, Emerson Knight and Riley Moon.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Lost Order

A secret society, a treasure hunt, a plot to legally change how our government functions, a few murders, and at the heart of it all, The Smithsonian Institution.  These are the elements of Steve Berry's latest Cotton Malone novel, The Lost Order (#679) and, like most of his novels, many of the people, places and events here are based on historical fact.

Prior to the Civil War, a powerful and influential secret society was formed by Southerners and those sympathetic to their cause - the Knights of the Golden Order.  When the Confederacy was defeated, it went underground, supposedly dying out around the turn of the century.  For many years, rumors have abounded of a secret hoard of gold which vanished along with the Knights.  Cotton Malone and his companion, Cassiopeia Vitt, have been sent to Arkansas by the Chancellor of the Smithsonian to track down clues to the treasure's location.  When Malone is attacked after unearthing some gold coins buried in the woods, they realize that they are not the only ones searching for the gold.

 Meanwhile, Danny Daniels is finding life after being President of the United States boring in Blount County, Tennessee.  He is devastated to learn of  the drowning death of his old friend, Senator Alex Sherwood on his nearby estate.  When Danny attends the funeral, he sees and hears things that make him suspect that Diane Sherwood is not quite the grieving widow she appears to be. Political strings are being pulled, and his gut instinct tells him that the outcome will not be good.  When the head of the Magellan Billet is shot and lies in a coma, Danny Daniels and Cotton Malone begin to pick at the knots tying all these seemingly unrelated events together.

There were some interesting (and potentially frightening!) premises in this thriller about Washington power plays, secret societies and whether or not the treasure of the Knights of the Golden Order still exists somewhere out there as a vast hoard of gold and Confederate Records.  In The Lost Order, the clues were hidden in the Smithsonian, which holds millions of objects of every conceivable type in its many museums, libraries and research centers.  Steve Berry serves on a Citizen's Advisory Board for the Smithsonian Libraries and this novel is his opportunity to highlight this amazing National Treasure.  What better place to set a mystery?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God

After reading Douglas Preston's non-fiction account of a modern-day archaeological find deep in a virtually unexplored region of Honduras, I can tell you one UNESCO World Heritage Site that is not high on my "Must Visit" list - The Lost City of the Monkey God (#678)!  Although Douglas Preston was a member of the expedition in 2012, writing for National Geographic, which uncovered more than one major abandoned city deep in the jungles of remote Mosquitia, the journey there was arduous, dangerous and rife with controversy and consequences for its members.

Rumors have abounded since the time of the Spanish conquistadors about treasures to be found in the cities of the Indians of Central America, but the rough terrain and impenetrable jungles have guarded their secrets well.  Previous expeditions have not fared well.  Modern technology played a major role in pinpointing promising sites for these archaeologists.

Despite venomous snakes, insects too numerous to count, jaguars, drug cartels, constant rain and a site too overgrown to venture more than a few feet from each other without losing touch with the group, what they found there was an astonishing cache of items from a culture previously unknown and unstudied.  Because of the inaccessibility of the sites, most of their secrets are still unknown and untouched.  It will be a race between the scholars wishing to study the sites and the drug traffickers and clear-cutters devastating the areas and looting the sites for the black market trade in antiquities.
And then there are the unwanted souvenirs many members of the expedition brought home - a rare jungle parasitic disease.

It all makes for a fascinating story of real life adventure, professional jealousy standing in the way of knowledge, fraud, fer de lances, and strong advocacy for the National Institutes of Health.  If you think Indiana Jones had a difficult time, check out this story; you won't be disappointed.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Clan Corporate

I just finished the third book in Charles Stross's science fiction series The Merchant Princes (See my posts of 3/20/17 & 4/17/17.) .  In The Clan Corporate (#677) Miriam Beckstein is still futilely struggling against the bounds her powerful relatives in the world of Gruinmarkt are trying to impose on her.  She's been blocked from accessing her start-up company in the world of New Britain, and the prospect of an arranged marriage is being raised with distressing regularity.  What's a modern woman supposed to do?  Suddenly, she's landed in it with both feet and is in serious danger of losing not only her own life, but that of her mother as well if she doesn't cooperate.

In the meantime, this book swerves towards a chink the US Government has opened into Gruinmarkt.  Miriam's ex-boyfriend with the DEA is dragged unwittingly into things when a defector from that world informs him that Gruinmarkt possesses nuclear weapons, and is in a position to deploy them in the United States.  Mike Fleming is groomed to go under cover in Gruinmarkt and quietly make contact with Miriam.  Of course things do not go well at their next meeting and Miriam is forced to jump from the frying pan into the fire...

What's next? I can't wait to read the next book to find out!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow

I read Amor Towles' novel A Gentleman in Moscow (#676) on a friend's recommendation.  Like him, I found it captivated me from the opening pages, although I knew that what I was reading was only possible in the hands of a gifted storyteller.

The gentleman of the title is thirty year old Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov who is sentenced in 1922 to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in the heart of Moscow, under pain of death should he ever attempt to leave.  How does one cope in these circumstances, let alone find one's eventual purpose in life?  The answer unfolds in a series of flashbacks, anecdotes and real time narratives which are alternately tragic, humorous, and  philosophical.  But above all, these serve to illuminate the integrity of Sasha's character.  What a privilege it would be to dine with him in the fabled Boyarsky Restaurant at the Metropol!  Not that the Count is without enemies; he is merely fortunate that his friends have more pull.  I couldn't wait to find out what happened next as the decades pass...

The one cloud that hung over this story when I began reading it was the fate of the real Russian aristocrats, the intelligentsia and the skilled workmen of that time after reading Douglas Smith's recent horrifying non-fiction book  Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy. (See my post of 7/30/13.)  Amor Towles does refer to Count Rostov in his novel as a Former Person, but unless you understand the stigma and danger attached to that label, it's difficult to appreciate how perilous his position was from day-to-day and the burden that knowledge placed on his shoulders.  That's where Mr. Towles skill comes to the fore; anyone could make this a depressing and gloomy book; it takes a master to infuse it with light and the joy of living.

An thoroughly entrancing read.  Highly recommended.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

My curiosity got the better of me when I began to see all the ads for the streaming televised version of  Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale (#675), so I borrowed a copy from the library to read.  Although the series was critically acclaimed, I must admit much of what I glimpsed in the ads for the series  bore no resemblance to what I read.

I might as well say right up front that I did not care for this book.  It was disturbing on one level because of the resemblance of the theocracy which governs The Republic of Gilead to the current political climate in Washington.  Many of those in power would rejoice to see similar reforms, I fear.  But I can see why this book was so popular when it was first published: the mockery of established religions, the parodying of nuns' traditional habits in service of the fertility goals of the government, and the hinted-at cause of the crisis -the thoughtless destruction of the environment and women's control over their own bodies - would win over a large audience.  Not that I disagree with the last two points, but I do find the turn it takes in Ms. Atwood's narrative ludicrous.  It also bothers me that Offred's (We never do learn her name from "before".) location is eventually revealed to be Cambridge, Mass yet the details don't add up here.  Why bother with a real place in a story like this if you can't bother to get the small things right?  Spoiler alert: Offred doesn't know at the end if she is doomed or delivered, but her own narration of events ends there, which would have been troubling, but understandable in its own way.  But here, Ms. Atwood suddenly swerves to a pseudo-scientific analysis of Offred's narration at an academic conference far in the future where every aspect of it is picked apart as dry history.  I found it very jarring, and another reason why I did not like this book.  Oh, well.  To each his own.  I just wonder why they bothered to film The Handmaid's Tale  now.  A rather curious lapse of time since it first came out, I think.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Rich People Problems

Rich People Problems (#674) is the concluding volume in Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asian trilogy (Soon to be a major motion picture according to the cover flap!).  I have mixed emotions about this.  On the one hand, I've enjoyed this dishy glimpse into the private lives of the Asian point-oh-one per centers so much, but on the other, I am sorry to see it come to the end.

Kwan does do a good job of tying up the loose ends here, and most of the parties involved in all three books do seem to get what they deserve, good or bad.  What more could you ask for?  Top designers, beautiful clothing, incredible meals, elegant homes, private planes - it is fun to dream about what that kind of life must be like, but reading Mr. Kwan's novels do make you wonder if it really is all that's cracked up to be.  Alamak! as the ladies here would say!

Spoiler alert:  Tyersall Park is included in the happy endings after suitable anguishing over its fate!

Can't wait to see the movie.  They can't possibly make it as glamorous as the books, but it will be fun to see the producers try!  Now if only they served appropriate food along with the movie...

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Dragon Teeth

Michael Crichton is the author who keeps on giving.  I just finished his posthumously published novel Dragon Teeth (#673) and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It's a rip-roaring Western adventure based loosely on the exploits of two real nineteenth century paleontologists and bitter rivals, Professor Othniel Marsh of Yale, and Edward Drinker Cope, a wealthy scholar.  Fortunately for the reader, William Johnson, the rich young student who winds up reluctantly accompanying Professor Marsh on a summer dig in the West, is entirely fictional.

Johnson's fear that his trip will be a long, boring, dusty summer penance couldn't be further from the truth!  Professional skullduggery, Indians on the warpath and gunslingers with a grudge all contribute to making Johnson's trip to the West more deadly than he could possibly have imagined.  In fact, his family back home in Philadelphia have been notified that he is dead, which only complicates matters...

I devoured this one.  I'm so glad this novel found its way into print1

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City - Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (#672) caught my eye on a display in my local library as a "Staff Pick".  I've learned quite a bit of interesting history from reading Erik Larson's previous books, but somehow, I've never gotten around to reading this one.

The Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a tremendous undertaking, and so clean and visually stunning that Chicagoans dubbed it "The White City" in contrast to the dirty, polluted and crime-ridden streets of the metropolis itself.  With the throngs of construction workers, laborers and fair employees attracted to the Exposition, as well as the visitors come from all over the world to experience its marvels, it is no wonder that no one noticed for a long time that many of those who went to the Columbian Exposition never returned home - most of them attractive young ladies.  Juxtaposing the story of how the Exposition came to be with the career of a serial killer known best by his favorite alias, Dr. H.H. Holmes who used the crowded conditions of Chicago to his advantage makes for an interesting and macabre parallel tale.

In every chapter, facts, figures and famous people appear.  I had no idea that so many things that we take for granted in modern life had their debuts in Chicago, nor that so many engineering problems were solved in ironing out construction issues at the fair.  However, it was somewhat lowering to find that one of America's most lethal serial killers hailed originally from New Hampshire, but comforting to discover that he was finally unmasked by good old-fashioned, dogged detective work with nary a computer in sight!

My only regret is that I did not read this book before my recent visit to Chicago.  I would have looked at the city differently, but that's certainly a good motivation to pay the Windy City a return visit.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Saints for All Occasions

Saints for All Occasions (#672) by J. Courtney Sullivan is one of the best novels I've read in a long time.  This story of a pair of Irish sisters who emigrate to Boston in the 1950s reminded me at the outset of one of my other favorite authors, Colm Toibin, but Ms. Sullivan puts her own uniquely American stamp on this tale.

Nora and Theresa Flynn come to America following Nora's fiancĂ©.  When the book opens, she is the matriarch of a family of four.  She calls her younger sister, now living in a cloistered Abbey in Vermont, to inform her of a death in the family.  With Theresa's decision to come to Boston to attend the funeral  the unraveling of family secrets begins.  Moving between past and present, each character's back story is revealed in this absorbing narrative.

It is so easy to relate to how complicated things become in any family, given circumstances that are hardly uncommon.  What makes this book so special is that Ms. Sullivan got the details exactly right, from Brigham's Ice Cream to The Home for Little Wanderers to Cardinal Cushing's weekly radio rosary.  When Theresa's life in the cloister is described, I felt I knew this place, I had seen these things myself.  When I read Ms. Sullivan's Acknowledgements, I found I was right.  But even if you didn't grow up in New England, you'll recognize the family dynamics and alternately find yourself rooting for first one, then another member of the Flynn and Rafferty tribes.

I can only hope that the rest of my summer is filled with such quality reading!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Stalking the Angel

I only discovered author Robert Crais a few years ago, and I'm still catching up on some of his oeuvre, which is why my husband gave me a copy of an older Elvis Cole/Joe Pike mystery, Stalking the Angel (#671), originally published in 1989.  I had to look up the publication date when Elvis gets ready to go clubbing for a case he's working on, and thinks in his outfit he might be mistaken for Donald Trump!  Yes, that was a while back and a few of the other details in the book make you realize just how much everyday life in America has changed since then.  Pay phones!  In the rest room!!!  One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the quality of the narrative.

A rare and culturally significant antique Japanese manuscript has been stolen from a wealthy investment broker's home safe while on loan from an influential Japanese financial partner.  The police aren't acting fast enough to suit Bradley Warren, so his attorney persuades him to hire Elvis Cole to locate and return the book as swiftly as possible.  It's loathe at first sight, but Elvis could use the work.  When the trail leads him to yakuza hangouts, a particularly nasty murder and threats to Bradley's wife and teen aged daughter, Elvis figures he's on the right track.  Things take a very dark turn when Mimi is kidnapped and Elvis vows to return her to her family at all costs.

Just when you think you know who did it, the kaleidoscope turns and changes the whole picture.. Crais keeps you guessing up to the end.  Joe Pike doesn't play as big a role here as he does in later books in this series, so it's interesting to see how the characters have evolved.  I'm glad Elvis Cole never stops being a wiseacre!  A great mystery series.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ripper's Shadow - A Victorian Mystery

I've enjoyed Laura Joh Rowland's Sano Ichiro novels set in samurai-era Japan very much, so I decided to give The Ripper's Shadow (#670) a try.  Sarah Bain has inherited a photography studio from her father, but it's difficult to make ends meet.  When one of her subjects suggests that Sarah take some "boudoir" photos of her and split the profits, Sarah goes along with her idea.

The problem is that when prostitutes' bodies show up in Whitechapel, brutally murdered and mutilated, Sarah recognizes them as the models for her "boudoir" photographs.  She can't go to the police because what she has done could land her in jail.  How can she keep herself and the other women in her photographs safe, and out of the shadow of the Ripper?

Although this is a very dark novel, Ms. Rowland manages to keep the reader guessing in this well known cold case.  Where a less skilled author might wind up the book with a suspect identified, she just ramps up the tension and postulates an even more shocking revelation.  I wasn't sure Sarah Bain and her small circle of unlikely associates were going to make it out of this one alive, so I had to keep reading to find out. 

I think Sarah Bain and company could form a nucleus for an interesting Victorian London series of mysteries.  I hope Ms. Rowland has plans for her future.

China Rich Girlfriend

Kevin Kwan continues the behind-the-scenes story of ultra-rich Asians in Chine Rich Girlfriend (#669) that he began in Crazy Rich Asians.  Rachel Chu and Nick Young, those star-crossed lovers, are back with many of their friends, enemies and confidantes, and of course, their feuding families!  If you enjoyed his feast of food and fashionistas the first time around, Kwan doesn't disappoint here.

There's even more romance and scandals ahead with old enemies and new friends when Rachel and Nick head off to China in search of Rachel's birth father.  When his identity is revealed, he's even richer than imaginable.  But not everyone is happy when their true relationship becomes public knowledge...

It's so much fun to live in a world where Paris couturiers will shut their ateliers for your sole shopping pleasure, flitting from place to place is all done via luxurious private jets, and no one eats in a public restaurant that doesn't maintain private dining rooms for high-end clientele!

Since this is the middle book in this trilogy, a word of advice; don't try to read China Rich Girlfriend without reading Crazy Rich Asians first.  You'll be lost in the tangle of relationships established in the first novel, and you won't appreciate some of the delicious twists and turns served up in this volume.  Can't wait to get my hands on the third book!

Monday, June 12, 2017

Song of the Lion

Anne Hillerman is a worthy successor to her father's legacy of  writing intriguing Navajo-based mysteries.  Tony Hillerman first introduced us to Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito, all members of the Navajo Police whose beat includes the vast Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area of the Southwest.  Anne Hillerman continues that tradition with her latest mystery, Song of the Lion (#658).

Bernadette Manuelito, now married to Jim Chee, is attending a big basketball game at the Shiprock High School.  It's the alums who won a State Championship years ago versus the high school varsity squad, and a very big deal for local fans, who are legion.  During the game, a car bomb goes off in the parking lot, killing an unidentified man.  When the owner of the car is identified as Aza Palmer, a big-shot Phoenix lawyer, and also one of the alums playing in the big game, the search for a motive begins.  In the meantime, Aza Palmer is due to mediate a conference in Tuba City debating the merits of, and a plan of action for a highly controversial resort project proposed to be built on Indian lands in the Grand Canyon. The stakes are enormous.  Could that be why he is being targeted? 

Bernadette's case dovetails with her husband's when Jim Chee is assigned to bodyguard duty for Palmer until the conference is over, but her digging has turned up a possible connection for Lieutenant Leaphorn to a long-ago cold case.  The threads are woven skillfully in this one as we learn more about the main characters and their world.  Recommended.

Hillbilly Elegy

According to my dictionary, an elegy is "A mournful poem; especially a poem composed to lament one who is dead."  J.D. Vance's bestselling Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (#657) doesn't quite fit that definition, but the poor white, mostly rural, way of life Mr. Vance describes appears to be disappearing from the American landscape.  Although Mr. Vance's roots are firmly planted there, the choices he has made to shape his own future have made him an anomaly in that culture.  His story documents that it is not always feasible or easy to straddle such a wide divide.

I found the book interesting, depressing and maddening in turns.  What Vance describes in his memoir I have seen for myself working in different parts of our country.  Poverty, violence, unemployment, alcoholism and drug addiction all play their roles here.  Even though he never actually uses the term "white privilege", it is strongly implied.  I found myself asking the question: if Vance could lift himself out of a life with no prospects by his own efforts, why can't or why don't more follow his example?  When did it become okay to take a job and either not show up for it, or spend the time at work hiding out in the bathroom on multiple thirty minute breaks during the day?  Being fired under those circumstances seems to be just an excuse to "blame the man" for self-inflicted economic woes.

Do I feel sorry that such a way of life seems doomed?  Not really.  Despite Mr. Vance's defense of it, hillbilly culture didn't have much to recommend it as far as I am concerned.  He does do a good job of explaining how our current political climate has emerged, however.  For that reason alone, it's worth reading Hillbilly Elegy to visit an America that many of us didn't even realize existed.

Monday, June 5, 2017

In the Name of the Family

Sarah Dunant's latest novel In the Name of the Family (#656) is a companion book to her previous novel Blood & Beauty.  It's set in the years 1502 and 1503 and chronicles the Borgias at the peak of their power followed by the swift decline of the family fortunes.

The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Rogdrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI, his two illegitimate children, ruthless and ambitious Cesare, Duke Valentine, and his beloved daughter Lucrezia, now on her way to her third politically advantageous marriage in Ferrara, and finally, the envoy from the Republic of Florence, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Murder and mayhem, conspiracies and corruption, ambitions and emotions all play a role here.

We're all so conditioned to think of Lucrezia in some ways as the worst of the bunch but here she's treated sympathetically, as more sinned against than sinning, and I wonder if Ms. Dunant's portrayal of her isn't more accurate.  Cesare, on the other hand...

Machiavelli is the perfect foil to the Borgias; he admires their strategic thinking, but not the means by which Pope Alexander and Cesare set about making things happen.  He's an observer who finds himself observed in return.  It makes for a fascinating read

Monday, May 29, 2017

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States

Secret Service Dogs - The Heroes Who Protect the President of the United States (#655) by Maria Goodavage is a fascinating read.  While tip-toeing around information which might breach security protocols, Ms. Goodavage has still managed to provide a peek behind the human and canine wall charged with the protection of the President, Vice President, their families and heads of state visiting the United States.

For instance, did you know that Secret Service dogs are specialists?  Some provide security from intruders, some are trained to sniff for explosives any place the President will be visiting, here and abroad, and some dogs' beat is mingling with the tourist crowds outside the White House sniffing for particular target odors.  It's not an easy road to be chosen for the Secret Service for either the dogs or their human handlers, nor is on-the-job training and maintenance neglected.

But I think the most interesting part of this book is the bond between the dogs and their partners.  Once a dog is assigned to his human, living and working together 24 hours a day with the handler and his family creates a lifelong bond.  Their successful partnership depends on their keenly honed ability to read and respond to each other, no matter the circumstances.  Ms. Goodavage spent much time interviewing the human halves of these relationships, and the anecdotes detail the stress, tedium, and physical demands of the job, leavened with the sometimes wacky things that can happen.  Each of the stories is unique, but one theme runs through each: the utter devotion to duty, and the constant drive to perform even better.  It's inspiring.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Third Secret

I decided to re-read Steve Berry's early suspense novel, The Third Secret (#654) because it was one of the few books at my local library that turned up in a search for fiction set in Portugal.  The Third Secret referred to in the title is the final secret from Fatima which was revealed by John Paul II to the public in 2002.  It's been so long since I'd read it, that it was a totally new book to me, and even more interesting in light of the EfM coursework I've just completed.  I know I read it this time with a completely different mindset. 

This is a stand alone novel set primarily in the Vatican, not one of Berry's popular Cotton Malone series.  The protagonist here is Father Colin Michener, papal secretary to Pope Clement XV.  His mentor has been increasingly agitated recently, and is spending much time in the Riserva of the Vatican Library, an area open only to the Pontiff himself.  His visits are focused on the box containing the documents recording the Third Secret revealed by the Virgin Mary to Lucia, a Portuguese peasant girl of ten in 1917.  What could possibly be in the box which impels Clement to send Colin to interview an elderly retired priest in Romania?

As Clement's health declines, the jostling for power increases amongst the ambitious cardinals in the Vatican, some of whom will stop at nothing, even blackmail and murder, to gain the Papal Throne and suppress the secrets the Church holds.

An oldie, but a goodie.  The subject matter here seems just as relevant today as when it first came out in 2005.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Killers of the Flower Moon - The Osage Murders nad the Birth of the FBI

What a grim tale David Grann tells in Killers of the Flower Moon - The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (#653).  Prior to the publicity surrounding this book, I had never heard of the systematic exploitation, theft and murder carried out during the Twenties and Thirties against the oil-rich Osage Indians.  Apparently until a pair of blatant murders, no one else seemed to take any notice either, unless it was to try to cash in on the crime spree themselves.  Although J. Edgar Hoover used this case to maneuver his Bureau of Investigation into a more powerful force under his control, after his agents under the leadership of Tom White solved and prosecuted several of the murders, the books were closed on an investigation that had only scratched the surface of what was really going on out in Oklahoma.  The injustices that occurred then have never been righted.

Despite the carping from critics that this book did not live up to David Grann's previous blockbuster best seller, The Lost City of Z, I find it a fascinating and shaming read.  Perhaps I benefited by not reading "Z", since I had no comparison.  The numerous photos integrated into the text of the persons involved in this story made them concrete.  According to Grann as he began to dig deeper, the extent of the fraud, abuse and betrayal involving millions upon millions of dollars has never been exposed.  There are a few "white hats" in this story, but sadly they are few and far between.  I couldn't help but wonder if Artic oil fields are opened, if the Inuits might face similar problems in the future; it would hardly be surprising.

This book should be on your "Must Read" list.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

First Blush - A Meegs Miscellany

First Blush - A Meegs Miscellany (#652) is a diverting read, to be sure!  Robert Bruce Stewart has taken an element from his Harry Reese turn-of-the-century mystery series and fleshed it out here in a collection of jottings from the pen (and typewriter!) of his wife Emmie McGinniss Reese, co-authoring this volume under the name M.E. Meegs.

Many of the plots of the Harry Reese novels hinge on events Emmie has been inspired to write about and submit to various yellow journals under the pen name M.E. Meegs, hence the subtitle, A Meegs Miscellany,  She gleefully embroiders the actual people, places and problems to suit her own highly-overheated imagination and to serve her own purposes.  The reader is never actually given the opportunity to read any of Emmie's output; rather, they are referred to by either Harry or Emmie herself, or sometimes both in conflicting versions.  It's like watching the weekly dramas at the White House unfold...

In First Blush (which you probably will, as the materials here are rather risque!) the reader is at last given access to the source material, accompanied by marvelous period illustrations.  What a treasure trove!  Some of it is eye-popping, some comical, some ingenious; all of it a window on the character of Emily McGinniss Reese, sole occupant of the unique Emmie-Land.  It's a wonderful place to live for a few hours, but be glad that your residence there is temporary.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Jane Austen Project

What a diverting read!  The Jane Austen Project (#651) by Kathleen Flynn combines several of my favorite genres into an entertaining novel.  Jane Austen tribute?  Check.  The author, Kathleen Flynn is an editor at the Ne York Times, and a life member of the Jane Austen Society.  Time travel?  That's the whole point of the plot; in a future that has undergone drastic changes from our world, a secret team is assembled and trained to be able to successfully blend in when sent back to England in 1815.  Their mission?  To retrieve letters written to and by Jane Austen destroyed by her sister Cassandra after Jane's untimely death.  But paramount to their mission is retrieving the entire manuscript of Jane Austen's unpublished novel, The Watsons.  Key to their assignment, Dr. Rachel Katzman, an emergency medicine physician, and Liam Finucane, an expert on Beau Brummel, is that they do nothing to change history during their year-long stay..

Needless to say, things do not go as planned!  Rachel and Liam, posing as the Ravenswood siblings, do manage to meet and be taken up by Henry Austen, Jane's favorite brother, but becoming intimate with the Austen family generates unexpected consequences and dangers.  As they say, "Be careful what you wish for!"

If you are a Jane Austen fan, don't miss The Jane Austen Project.  What if she could be cured...?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Children Act

Although The Children Act (#650) is ostensibly about a family court judge deciding on whether a boy just short of his majority should be allowed to refuse a life-saving transfusion in keeping with his Jehovah's Witness beliefs, it's really Fiona's story.

Ian McEwan introduces us to Fiona on a Sunday evening when she's reviewing briefs for her next day's hearings in London's Family Court.  Her husband approaches her to tell her that he's going to have an affair.  Although she is preoccupied with cases, his announcement comes from out of the blue.  Before they can really get into it, a phone call interrupts.  Fiona will need to determine if a hospital can go ahead with a transfusion to save an adolescent's life.  A decision must be made within hours.  By the time things are settled for court, her husband is gone with his luggage and their car.

The middle third of this book deals with the issues both for and against the transfusion, moral, ethical and legal.  Under terms of the British The Children Act, Fiona must decide in the best interest of the child.  She feels the only way she can do this properly is meet Adam, the boy at the center.  It's a meeting that will profoundly affect everyone assigned to the case.  Without giving away the ending, I can say that things did not entirely work out the way I expected.

Mr. McEwan's writing is beautiful.  He manages to perfectly capture Fiona's devotion to her responsibilities, even when it come at the cost of her personal wishes.  She and her husband's roles in contemporary society are switched here, and thus even more clearly illuminated. A brief investment of your time will yield positive results in reading The Children Act.

Monday, May 1, 2017

American Gods

I saw that Neil Gaiman's novel American Gods (#649) was going to be on Starz, so I decided to finally read something by him.  It took me an awfully long time to get through American Gods.  I should have known; my husband kept commenting as he read it first, "This is a really odd book."

The premise, according to the Starz trailers, is that the old gods are fading, new gods are rising, and that a war between them is coming.  Odin is certainly trying to gin up his troops against the digital and media gods, using his hired lackey, Shadow to drive him around the country and run his errands, telling him that a war, is indeed, on its way.  As Shadow learns in the end, not so much.  We have all apparently been played by reading this book.

I know that Mr. Gaiman has a legion of avid fans.  He has a vivid imagination and a curious bent of mind (where does he come up with some of his ideas?), but I will never be one of them.  I regret the time I could have spent reading something else.  At least now I know.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Rain in Portugal

First of all, you have to understand that I am not normally a reader of poetry.  However, I have heard Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, interviewed several times on NPR (including one memorable episode of Wait! Wait!), so when I saw of copy of The Rain in Portugal (#648) displayed on a shelf in my local library, I picked it up on a whim.  How was I to know that it was a portent?

Suffice it to say that most of the poems did not go where I expected, and therein lays their charm and delight for this reader.  I cannot say more in praise than I have determined to possess a copy of my own The Rain in Portugal to peruse whenever it takes my fancy.  Thus a fan is born.

Oh, I did mention that this slim volume was a portent, didn't I?  Before the week was out, I had booked my own trip there.  I promise not to write poetry about it!

Burning Blue

After hearing Paul Griffin speak at BookMania! recently, I had to read the book he spoke about, Burning Blue (#647).  Although it is classified as a Young Adult novel (which might put some adults off), this is an engrossing read.  It's all too easy to put yourself in the place of the young protagonists.

The plot revolves around a real-life incident which Paul Griffin responded to as a New York EMT, adapted to a high school setting.  In a matter of seconds, the life of Brandywine Hollows' most popular, brainy and beautiful girl is changed forever when someone throws acid in her face.  She is unable to identify her assailant, and thereby hangs the tale.  When a chance encounter in the school psychologist's office brings loner Jay in contact with her, he resolves to use his hacker skills to uncover the perpetrator.  There are many suspects, and many possible motives, but I have to admit, I never saw the end of this one coming!

It's easy to see why his young adult target audience relates so well to Griffin.  He and Jay Asher, the other Young Adult panelist, held workshops at a local high school before BookMania!, and arranged to have lunch with a group of them the day of the event.  His book touched on trigger points for this group: alienation from the group because you are somehow different, questions of identity and self worth; loss of a parent through death or divorce, love and friendship, trust.  Nothing could make this book more real or compelling.  Read it and find out for yourself.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Hidden Family

The Hidden Family (#646), by Charles Stross is the second book in his fantasy series, The Merchant Princes.  It picks up right where the first book left off (See my post of 3/20/17.), and ends with an event that the reader knows will be continued in the next volume.

We now have not two, but three alternate universes; the geographies of all three coincide, but their history, technological advances and politics do not.  Miriam Beckstein is determined to not become a victim in any of these worlds, and in a bid to keep her independence in the second world, she sees a way to create her own fortune in the third universe.  If she can stay alive, that is.  One of the unfortunate features of all three universes is that there are assassins who can reach her there.  She knows who she can trust in her own world, and gradually she is coming to trust others in her alternate universes.  Those are a lot of balls to keep in the air while walking between worlds, but that's the nature of the high stakes game she found herself in.

Can't wait to read the next installment!

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I've missed Lisa See, and her newest novel, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (#645) does not disappoint. 

As in her previous novels, family is paramount.  Li-yan is Akha, a member of an ethnic Chinese hill tribe in the province of Yunnan.  Her remote village revolves around the collection of tea leaves from their ancient trees.  But Li-yan's mother introduces her to a special, hidden grove of ancient trees high on the mountain.  It's her inheritance, but her a-ma is insistent that no man may visit the grove, nor learn of its location.  In most ways, Li-yan is obedient to the centuries-old traditions that govern the lives of Spring Well Village, but the day she attends the birth of twins with her mother, the village midwife, her thinking begins to change, especially when she falls in love with an unsuitable boy.

When she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock, she is forced from the village.  She takes the child to an orphanage in Menghai, where she leaves her.  Many years later, when her fortunes change, she and her husband return to Menghai to reclaim the child, only to find she has been sent to America to be adopted.  When Li-yan is forced once again to create a new future for herself, it is in the tea trade.  She becomes an expert on Pu'er tea, the rare tea that comes from Nannuo Mountain, her home.  Her life is set on a different course that will lead to profound discoveries.

I found this book very interesting, although a bit disjointed.  I thought the information about how the hill tribes in China lived until fairly recently was fascinating.  Also, as a tea drinker, I was intrigued to learn about a variety that I will make it a point to try in the future.  I hope Lisa See is correct in her prediction that a tea boom is coming the United States.  I never order tea when out because nobody here seems to know how to make it properly.  Warm water with a tea bag on the saucer beside the cup just don't make it.  No wonder Americans don't appreciate tea!  However, when Li-yan's daughter grows up, the switches back and forth between the mother and daughter aren't always smoothly handled, with several techniques being used: letters, medical records, school assignments, narratives, etc.  But still overall, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Portal of a Thousand Worlds

Dave Duncan is a new author for me, but I can guarantee that I'll be looking to read more of his books after finishing Portal of a Thousand Worlds (#644).  Although this is classified as SciFi/Fantasy, it's set in a Victorian Age thinly-disguised China.  Like Guy Gavriel Kay's outstanding Chinese fantasy novel River of Stars, it's grounded in a recognizable setting and culture.

The story moves from the shadowy world of the Gray Helpers, where we meet the orphan boy Tug, so desperate to survive he offers to kill for the Gray Helpers if only they will feed him.  Far away, we meet another boy locked away in a fortress and tortured by his imperial captor.  In this life, he is known as Sunlight, but he has lived many, many lives.  The distant court seeks his knowledge of the opening of the Portal of a Thousand Worlds, predicted to be coming soon.  In the capital itself , Heart of the World, the Empress Mother controls the court with an iron fist and her personal assassin.  No one is allowed to see the Emperor Absolute Purity, and rumors abound that there is something wrong with him, or that he is actually dead.  Meanwhile a rebel army has arisen in the south under the Bamboo Banner determined to drive the Empress Mother from the throne.

Mr. Duncan has taken these threads and woven them together into an enthralling tale of power, lust, betrayal, adventure and illusion across a sweeping landscape, building to the climax of the Portal's opening.  I found it hard to put this book down,but alas, as with all good things the ending came much too soon.

Clownfish Blues

My favorite Florida serial killer, Serge A. Storm, is back in Tim Dorsey's Clownfish Blues (#643), and this time he's skewering the Florida Lottery, worm grunting and the town of Cassadaga.  Okay, Cassadaga is a target for a lot of people who enjoy poking fun at Florida, but nobody does it like Serge and his faithful sidekick.

This time Serge is paying tribute to one of his favorite TV shows - Route 66.  I must admit, that's not a series I know a lot about, so I didn't realize that in its last season, a number of episodes were shot at Florida locations.  Apparently the series stars found a job at each location, so Serge sets out to emulate them, meeting the usual cast of crazies along the way.

Of course when one of the families he meets tells him about a problem with an elderly aunt, Serge does deal out a well deserved end for the caretaker who has cut off all contact with his client's concerned family, and put his name on all her bank accounts.  Unfortunately, that's all too common here.  It's nice for once to imagine that someone so callous actually gets what they deserve!  Of course, that's what keeps me rooting for Serge.  That, and the lists in each book of interesting places to visit here in Florida.  I think I'll give Cassadaga and its mediums and New Age mumbo jumbo a miss, though.  Always a fun read.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Family Trade

How can a day go so wrong?  Miriam Beckstein covers the bio tech beat for a small Cambridge-based trade journal.  Her research assistant Paulie has just given her evidence of money laundering at two of the biggest firms in the country.  It promises to be the scoop of her lifetime.  So why does her boss on the executive floor hustle her and Paulie out of his office and have them escorted out of the building by Security?  And why does her adopted mother insist on today, of all days, on presenting her with a battered locket and a box of clippings about her birth mother's unsolved murder?  All Miriam was looking for was a little sympathy.  She certainly never expected to end the day with threatening phone calls, or worse yet, being chased through the woods by medieval knights on horseback shooting at her with machine pistols!

Fantasy writer Charles Stross grabs your attention in The Family Trade (#642), Book One of the Merchant Princes.  By the time Miriam figures out that her mother's locket allows her to pass between alternate universes located in roughly the same geographical area, her presence has been detected by forces on the other side.  In that universe, she is heir to a title and a huge fortune as a long-lost member of a powerful merchant family moving goods between the two worlds.  Needless to say, where money is involved, not everyone is happy with Miriam's sudden and unexpected reappearance.  In fact, at least two factions are determined to see her dead...

Action, romance, suspense and humor are all part of this fun read.  As Miriam fits together the pieces of her new world, while maintaining a foothold in the equally perilous world she left behind in Cambridge, the plot keeps twisting until Miriam is no longer sure just who she can trust on either side.  She's safe for the moment, but I know that will only last until I get my hands on Book Two!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Shores of Tripoli

Who would have expected a Texan historian to write an exciting naval trilogy about the America war with Barbary pirates?  In The Shores of Tripoli (#641) James L. Haley has given us Lieutenant Bliven Putnam to put on our shelves along with our Horatio Hornblower novels.  When he is first introduced to us, Lt. Putnam is still a midshipman aboard the USS Enterprise.  At age fourteen, he has met the conditions his father had set to leave the farm in Litchfield, Connecticut to go to sea.  His first assignment takes him to the Mediterranean to protect American shipping from the raiders of the Barbary States, who deem it their right to capture and enslave any Christian infidels, or to hold the wealthy ones to ransom.  Putnam sees action in his first engagement at sea which will set the course for his naval career.

Politics plays a much larger role in the navy than Putnam would like to believe, as President Jefferson and the Congress squabble and make treaties with the individual Barbary States which undo the victories which his commander has won, and makes heroes out of those who have blundered badly. By the end of the first volume Bliven Putnam is giving serious consideration to whether he should remain in the nascent navy, or resign his commission.

This story has a bit of everything to keep the reader glued to the pages: page-turning action sequences, political back-biting, romance, and a hero with a strong moral compass to match his interest in the outside world.  James Haley spoke at the 2017 BookMania!, and he stressed his desire to make the story as  historically accurate as  possible - to thread the fictitious Putnam and his friends through the existing canvas of historical events - with enough leeway to make it a can't-put-down story.  I look forward eagerly to his next adventure!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight - An African Childhood

When she was three years old Alexandra Fuller moved with her parents and older sister from England to Rhodesia in 1972.  She remained there until 1981, when her family moved to Malawi and then on to Zambia.  Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (#640) is her memoir of those childhood years spent in Rhodesia during its civil war, and after majority rule took effect there, other African nations.

Through Bobo's eyes (She didn't realize her name was actually Alexandra until she first went to school.) we see both the beauty of her adopted continent, and the life threatening  conditions of drought, poverty, and violence in contrast with the tight-knit society of the ex-pat community there. Her memories are in turn lyric, amusing, tense and appalling.  Physical discomforts are offset by the anodyne of constantly flowing alcohol.

Bobo herself seems to be fearless, handling the loading of weapons as a seven year old to protect their isolated farm as a matter of course.  But disease and accidents have a way of taking their toll, especially on her own family.  She and her surviving sister Vanessa had different ways of coping with the constant vigilance and isolation, as did their parents.  Dysfunctional as the faimily may have been, they did stick it out together.

An interesting perspective on a time and place I never thought much about before.  Recommended.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back

 Janice P. Nimura introduces us to the three young Japanese girls dressed in fussy Victorian outfits on the cover of her non-fiction book Daughters of the Samurai - A Journey from East to West and Back ((#639).  Their stories are quite remarkable.  In 1871, the Japanese government sent an ambassadorial team an on misstion to the outside world, beginning with the United States, to learn more about the Westerners who were forcing drastic changes on Japanese society by the mere fact of their presence in Japan.  At the last moment, it was decided to send five young girls along with this mission to be educated in the United States and return with a thorough knowledge of the language and culture which would benefit Japan when they were able to pass this along to their future pupils and their own children  That was what was supposed to happen, but in the ten years Shige, Sutematsu and Ume spent living with families in Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Connecticut, things at home changed.

The two oldest girls of the original five came home less than a year after leaving for the States so the book concentrates on Ume, the youngest at six, Shige and Sutematsu who graduated from Vassar before returning home.  None of the girls spoke English when they left home.  By the time they returned to Japan, it was at first a chore to even speak Japanese, let alone be fluent in reading or writing it.  They had become, in effect, young American women.

Yet as fascinating as their lives were while living in the United States, their paths on their return took them in separate directions, though they always remained close.  They struggled so hard to adjust and to make the most of the education they had received and to accomplish the mission they were originally charged to perform.  Two of them remained in the public spotlight both in Japan and abroad.  One led a quieter life that perhaps came closest to meeting the ideal of their mission.  All three lived lives of courage, grace and strength.

Daughters of the Samurai was on the New York Times 100 Notable Books List of 2015.  You'll understand why when you read this amazing story.

Dying to Wake Up

It's amazing how your perspective changes when an out-of-the-ordinary event happens to you.  That's the gist of Rajiv Parti, M.D.'s new book Dying to Wake Up (#638) about his Near Death Experience.  At the top of his profession as Chief Anesthesiologist at a prestigious California cardiac hospital he had money, a mansion, a healthy family and lots and lots of "toys".  But it was never enough.  After seemingly routine surgery on his wrist, he finds himself cascading into a series of complications, further surgical corrections and addiction to pain medications until at last, he has an out-of-body experience on the operating table during a desperate attempt to save his life.  Dr. Parti recounts his story of what eventually leads to a profound change in his own life, and those of many around him.

When he was the first doctor a patient waking from anesthesia encountered, many of them tried to tell him of experiences that they had while being operated on; of seeing deceased friends and relatives, a bright light, a tunnel, or even watching their own bodies lying on the table while they hovered above. Prior to his own Near Death Experience, Dr. Parti's reaction had always been to get away from that patient as soon as possible, and never go near them again.  He thought it was simply the affect of the anesthesia, and had no interest in listening to wild tales when there was the next patient to see.  It's different when it happens to you, though.  Many of his colleagues had that same reaction when he tried to tell them about what happened to him.  Not surprisingly, the nurses he talked to in the Recovery Room and ICUs were much more receptive, and shared with him their encounters with patients who described similar events.

What makes Dr. Parti's story more interesting to me is how itt effected his life after he recovered.  He is no longer practicing anesthesiology, but is doing his best to learn a different approach to healing and maintaining health through a mind/body connection, to change abusive practises in his own family and to pay back those who paved the way for him.  Whether or not you believe in this sort of thing yourself, it obviously can have a strong affect on those who do.  Worth a thoughtful perusal.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

To paraphrase one of Dave Barry's favorite sayings about his latest opus Best. State. Ever. - A Florida Man Defends His Homeland (#637); he is not making this up.  If you live in Florida you basically have two choices: you can be indignant about all the news stories, or you can laugh along with the rest of the country. Frankly, I'm disappointed when a weird Florida story doesn't make it into The Week or onto NPR's news quiz show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.

Dave Barry actually made some field trips to check out some of the unique places, people and events which abound here from Key West to Cassadaga.  Some of the stuff he came across even I have never heard of, like the Skunk Ape.  Yes, I have been to Ochopee, but somehow I missed the Skunk Ape Research Center.  Apparently it falls into the same class as the Yeti, Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster. I'll have to keep an eye out next time I drive through the Everglades.  (There is however a lovely church which features the Loch Ness Monster in its stained glass windows - next time you're in the Keys, check out St. Columba's in Marathon, or better yet, attend the Celtic Festival it puts on every January!)

And now that Lebron James has left the state, the high point in South Florida is officially Hobe Mountain.  We pass by it frequently, always checking to see if any intrepid climbers have actually made the arduous trek to the top with the aid of their Sherpa guides.  It's tough to climb in flip flops! Of course Hobe Mountain is a sand dune with an observation platform built on top, and not nearly the same challenge as a hike up one of the towering landfills which dot the landscape here would present.  In its favor, the smells are much more pleasant!

I just hope that my husband never has the urge to check out Lock and Load Miami. In a scary sort of way it does seem like a logical business for Florida...

This is a fun, fast read.  I'm just not sure if it's good or bad for our tourist economy!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Posing in Paradise

Somehow I never pictured Northampton, Massachusetts as Paradise, but apparently back in the day Jenny Lind the Swedish Nightingale did.  Harry Reese also seems to be immune to its charms in Posing in Paradise (#636), Robert Bruce Stewart's latest addition to an amusing turn-of-the-century Harry Reese Mystery series.  Of course, it is his wife Emmie's home town, but even she is resisting the frantic barrage of letters from her mother, begging Emmie to come home and help her!

It isn't until Emmie catches wind of author Henry James' pending speaking engagement in Northampton that Emmie abruptly changes her mind and determines to rush to her mother's aid. Harry is suspicious of the sudden change of heart, but since he has been promised a visit from a "gentleman" with a cauliflower ear to collect on a rather large debt Harry owes, he gallantly escorts his wife on her errand of mercy.

Emmie's orphaned cousins are proving to be more than Mrs. McGinness can handle.  Teen-aged twins Hal and Gloria's romantic entanglements keep her in a turmoil, and as for twelve year old Pluribus, well, he's a child right out of a teacher's worst nightmare...  Unfortunately for her mother's hopes, Emmie is too busy planning how best to get her unpublished manuscript into Henry James's hands to spend much time dealing with domestic angst.

Harry does his best to try to stay out of the way, as well, but then there's that body he discovered shortly after arriving in town that keeps appearing and disappearing, an escaped patient from the local asylum and the unexpected presence in town of one of the Reese's bĂȘte noirs with just a touch of blackmail thrown in to liven things up. Visiting the in-laws is just a little too exciting for Harry's taste!

I can always feel a smile on my face as I read these Street Car Mysteries.  There are many references to both Harry and Emmie's previous adventures in Posing in Paradise, so I would definitely recommend reading both the Harry Reese and Emmie Reese books from the beginning for maximum enjoyment.  I don't think there's anything else out there quite like this couple; the closest comparison I can come up with is Nick and Nora Charles.  If you like the rather absurd situations that silver screen couple finds themselves in, you're likely to become a fan of  the adventures in - as Harry puts it - Emmie Land.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament - Their Enduring Lessons

I spotted a copy of T.J. Wray's non-fiction work Good Girls, Bad Girls of the New Testament - Their Enduring Lessons (#633) at the library the other day.  It proved to be an interesting read.

Ms. Wray  has divided the book into twelve sections, each highlighting a woman named in the New Testament.  She cites where in scripture mention of these women takes place, includes quotations from those stories and places them in context of the time and culture.  It's amazing how much we think we know about some of these women - Mary Magdalene or Mary, the Mother of Jesus - which actually come from other sources, sometimes written centuries after these women or anyone who could have known them have died.  Needless to say, myths and legends abound.  Sorting out what can reasonably be deduced from the Biblical text or contemporaneous historical writings is equally fascinating.  Scandal traveled far and wide even in ancient times!

Ms. Wray teaches religious studies at Salve Regina College and much of the material covered in this book comes from her years of study, research and class interaction.  One of her purposes is to make you want to read more for yourself by presenting things in a new light.  I think she succeeds on many levels.  My only quibble about this book is that it is somewhat repetitious; she knows that many readers may not read the chapters sequentially, so background material covered elsewhere is often presented again several times.  However, if you are curious to know more about some of the female figures who appear briefly in the story of Jesus and the early Christian Church, this book is a good starting place.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

A Rescue for a Queen

Fiona Buckley has added another chapter to the mystery series featuing  Ursula Blanchard in A Rescue for a Queen (#632).  Even at the funeral of Ursula Blanchard's beloved husband Hugh Stannard, Queen Elizabeth's shadow is felt.  Cecil has come to represent the Queen, but he has a mission in mind for Ursula all the same. Margaret Emory, her ward, receives a proposal of marriage from a Dutch business associate of her father.  When the Emorys arrive in person to plead with Margaret to accept this proposal, Cecil is present during the conversation.  In fact, he is the one who suggests that Ursula would be the perfect person to travel with Margaret to the Netherlands and represent the family at the wedding.  The Emorys gratefully accept the offer, and Ursula is hard pressed to refuse.

Of course, there is more to the journey than meets the eye, as Ursula discovers that her mortal enemy, the Countess of Northunberland, is now living in Bruges, not more than seventy miles from Brussels where the wedding will take place.  Ridolfi, the Italian banker caught up in plotting to place Mary Stuart on the English throne, is a cousin of the groom, and is planning to hold the reception for the newlyweds.  Although Ursula will be glad to see his wife Donna again, she seeks assurance from Cecil that Ridolfi has no knowledge of her role in revealing the plot two years prior.  Venturing into a Catholic country ruled by Spain is a daunting prospect, but for Margaret's sake, Ursula agrees to the task, accompanied by her faithful servants, Roger Brockley and his wife, Fran Dale.

Things never seem to go smoothly, and each time Ursula tries to return home, Cecil puts another task on her shouldrs.  When her party meets a most unexpected acquaintance in the Netherlands, it becomes even more difficult to keep up the pretense of being Catholics.  Surely their luck is running out?

This is a very interesting Tudor mystery series.  Ursula is the half sister of Elizabeth I, and her resemblance to her sibling has proven useful in the past for the security of England.  Ursula, despite her loyalty to her sister and her country, is a most reluctant spy, craving a quiet life at home.  Will she ever get her wish?  I hope for the sake of this series that she does not!


If you've been missing Downton Abbey on TV, Julian Fellowes has provided an equally addictive novel in Belgravia (#631).

The story begins as Miss Sophia Trenchard prepares to attend the Duchess of Richmond's ball in Brussels on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.  It is an unexpected invitation arranged by her beau, but much to the delight of Mr. Trenchard, who hopes to climb the heady heights of society,  From his humble beginnings as a market stall holder in Covent Gardens, he has already risen to be one of Wellington's right hand men in supplying the army waiting on Napoleon in Brussels.  Although history is being made on the battlefield, the events of these days will leave a mark on all those attend the ball as well.

Twenty six years have passed when we next meet the Trenchards.  Chance meetings lead to the unraveling of secrets that have lain hidden for a quarter of a century.  There are those who wish to continue to keep the secrets, but there are those who will work equally hard to reveal them.  Reputations and fortunes are at stake!

I found it hard to put this book down.  The reader is let into the secret partway through the book, and it becomes all the more delicious to watch the maneuvering as one after another, the principals involved learn the truth.  If you enjoyed the twists and turns in Downton Abbey. you'll certainly enjoy Belgravia!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Seventh Plague - A Sigma Force Novel

When he was a boy, one of my fellow EfM colleagues was taken to see The Ten Commandments.  He still remembers how terrified he was that night that the green slime of one of the Plagues of Egypt was gong to creep down the wall of his bedroom.  His dad had to come in to calm him down.  Imagine if one of those plagues should strike the modern world.  How frightening would that be?  James Rollins shows us in his latest Sigma Force novel, The Seventh Plague (#630).

An archaeologist stumbles out of the desert after going missing for two years, but dies before he can reveal where he's been or what he has discovered.  His partly mummified body is the source of a strange and deadly disease which claims its victims within hours.  Sigma Force is called in when an old friend of Painter Crowe asks for their help while studying the body.  She is abducted on camera while the two are skyping.  Meanwhile, an attempt is made to snatch the professor's daughter at their cottage in a medieval English town.  Sigma operative Seichan recognizes one of the team as a member of the former Guild.  Nothing good can possibly come from their involvement, but who has hired them, and for what purpose?  Before Sigma Force can rest, they will have ventured from deepest, darkest Africa to the forbidding Arctic Canadian Island of Ellesmere on the trail of discoveries by Dr. Livingston, Mr. Stanley, Nikola Tesla and Mark Twain.

As always, the scariest part of these novels is the science behind the story which makes the nightmare scenarios so very plausible.  Could a microbe have been the source of the Nile turning blood red and spawning the plagues of frogs and locusts?  And could the Exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt have happened much earlier?  These are some of the intriguing crumbs Rollins throws out to his readers.  Entertaining and thought provoking!

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Whole Town's Talking

In Fannie Flagg's latest novel The Whole Town's Talking (#629) she includes everyone - even the folks in the Still Meadows Cemetery!  From the founding of Elmwood Springs, Missouri by Swedish immigrant Lordor Nordstrom through its heyday when even Hollywood stars include the town on tours, and its eventual decline after the interstate sucks the life out of downtown, we meet its citizens with all their foibles and faults and rock solid virtues.

There are good people and bad; everyday joys and sorrows, romances and unrequited love. successful businesses and criminal behavior.  It's all here, told with humor and compassion.  Ms. Flagg is such a skilled storyteller that she makes it seem not only plausible, but natural that when the citizens of Elmwood Springs die and are buried in Still Meadows Cemetery overlooking town, that they wake up to discover that their friends and relatives are there to meet them, and are anxious for news of those left behind.  But even at Still Meadows, there will come a day when some one's voice will no longer be there.  No one knows where they go, or when it will happen...

It's a delightful, touching, often funny set of insights into the life of a close-knit community.  Ms. Flagg has even included a nod to her previous novel, The All-Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion which shone a long-overdue spotlight on the heroic work of the women who served during World War II in the WASPS.  (If you haven't read that story, you ought to!  See my post of 5/22/14.).  One of the ladies of Elmwood Springs finally gets her due here.

Put The Whole Town's Talking on your Must Read List.  You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Die Like an Eagle

What could be more lowering than to have your corpse discovered in a port-a-potty just before the beginning of a Little League game?  How about the possibility that it may have been a case of mistaken identity?

In Donna Andrews' latest mystery, Die Like an Eagle (#628), Meg Langslow has her hands full trying to keep things together for the Summerball league her twin boys and husband are all involved with for opening day.  Most families in Caerphilly, Virginia have moved their boys from the Litttle League teams run by Biff Brown to the alternate Summerball League.  The problem is Biff has decided to jump leagues as well, making up the local rules as he goes along, and keeping firm control of the League's finances, scheduling and team assignments.  His contract with the county to maintain the ball fields and maintain team morale - not so much.  Everyone in town seems to have an axe to grind with Biff, including Meg herself.  Biff hasn't returned a single phone call about a starting date on the Town Square project which is supposed to be completed by Memorial Day!  When the body is revealed to be his half-brother, everyone assumes that the intended victim was Biff.  Meg just can't keep herself from following the clues - after all, she did discover the body - but will Opening Day be ruined for the Summerballers?  Not if Meg has anything to say about it!

This is another enjoyable entry in this cozy mystery series set in a rural Virginia college town.  The cast of characters are all here, but some more surprises are revealed about them in the course of the story.  It's always fun to visit town.

Transformed Lives - Making Sense of Atonement Today

Transformed Lives - Making Sense of Atonement Today (#627) by Cynthia Crysdale was a required Interlude reading for my EfM program.  I understand that many readers found its message very profound.  Suffice it to say for me and my group that the kernels of wisdom were so thickly encased in layers of esoteric academic language that I found it nigh imporssible to decipher any wisdom or knowledge from it.  I was driven to create a glossary in the front of the book to keep track of the many theological terms which even after four years of study, I could not define in my own head.

To me, the most interesting thing about this book was the George Will column I came across published in my local paper on January 12th, describing a hoax which had been perpetrated on the academic community and finally revealed by its author.  His paper had been much admired and written about at the time.  Much of the language Mr Will (and that professor) used here was so reminiscent of Transformed Lives.  If you read that column, you'll understand what I mean.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Dressing A Galaxy - The Costumes of Star Wars

There are obviously Star Wars fans on the staff of my local library, because Dressing A Galaxy - The Costumes of Star Wars (#626) by Trisha Biggar was included in a dsiplay of an assortment of publications devoted to all things related to the series of films.

I do love looking at books filled with textiles and fashion, and this lush coffee table book was just filled with the official studio stills of the actors in their costumes, concept sketches and close-ups of the astonishing detail that went into making the costumes principally in Episodes I - III (which, if you're a Star Wars fan, you know were actually filmed after Episodes IV - VI  - the ones with Mark Hamil, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford.)

Trisha Biggar was in charge of costume design for these three films, and she explains some of the rationale of why the costumes in these episodes are so much more formal and elaborate.  The attention to detail down to the buttons, piping and trim with the matching jewelry and headpieces is amazing, especially considering that the scenes flash by so quickly on the screen that these fine points will never by consciously noticed.  They do, however, contribute to the overall sense of dignity and opulence for many characters, and contrasting circumstances for so many other characters.  It's wonderful to be able to sit and just revel in the colors, shadings and rich materials used here.

The fact that the costume concepts have to include not only humans, but also the denizens of other worlds, whether based on human actors, or computer-generated characters with its own CG wardrobing problems was interesting to read about.

If you love fine materials and appreciate quality craftsmanship, or are a Star Wars devotee, or even better, combine both of these interests, you'll spend some rewarding hours browsing through this volume.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Britt-Marie Was Here

Britt-Marie as she first appears in Fredrik Backman's novel Britt-Marie Was Here (#625) seems prickly, peculiar and uncomfortable, yet by the end of the book, I found myself  rooting for her to make the right choices.  She deserves every good thing that can come her way.

How does Mr. Backman do it?  Britt-Marie obviously falls somewhere along the autism spectrum, and she certainly displays strong components of OCD.  Yet by revealing bits of her back story as she struggles with the break-up of her marriage and transplantation to a dying town in the middle of nowhere when it's the only job the Unemployment Office can find for her ,you gradually come to realize the roots of the deep pain of what she perceives as her failures.

As she is forced to stand on her own two feet for the first time in her life when she lands in Borg she begins to make friends.  And what a motley collection they turn out to be!  If Britt-Marie meets a situation she doesn't know how to handle (She's totally lacking in social skills; she's been told so many, many times!) she cleans.  Borg's Recreation Center has never been so sparkling.  No matter what she does, she cannot seem to escape soccer.  On arrival in town, she's literally hit in the head with a soccer ball.  Who would ever have predicted that she would wind up as the coach of a ragbag time of kids in town?  Or that she will care about the people there, and that the favor is returned in the oddest ways.

But the hardest choices will have to be made when Britt-Marie's straying husband comes to town to fetch her back home.  Will she choose her former "normal" life, or will she continue to discover new strengths within herself?  No one in Borg will ever be the same after Britt-Marie.

Highly recommended!