Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

First Sentence: It was a peaceful night at the Brunetti home, and dinner progressed in harmony

Comm. Guido Brunetti is asked by his boss to look into a minor violation possibly being committed by his future daughter-in-law. But it is Brunetti’s wife’s request that has more significance. The handicapped man at their dry cleaner has died of an apparent suicide and she feels it’s sad that no one knew anything about him. As Brunetti begins to investigate, he finds the man has no recorded history of being alive and the mother refuses to speak to the police but claims his papers were stolen. Who really was this man, and who might have wanted him dead.

Leon has a way of describing things so you clearly see them and so you feel the emotions of the characters. It’s lovely when an author doesn’t assume the reader has been following the series from the beginning. Leon starts off with an excellent introduction to Brunetti and his family.

The characters are fully developed and what truly bring the books to life. How refreshing to have a protagonist who works well with his colleagues and empathetic to those around him. He understands the idiosyncrasies of Italian law and politics…"Upstairs, Brunetti opened the online pages of Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper which often delighted him by its manifest distrust of every political party, every politician, and every religious leader.", yet does his best to do his job, often with the help of Signorina Elettra, "...a buccaneer utterly without respect for rules or regulations." He also has a close, loving and intelligent family who love to eat good food, the descriptions of which are mouth-watering.

Leon not only writes dialogue with subtle humor, but she asks philosophical questions that make you think. She is an intelligent writer who uses thoughts well…”Here he was again, assuming that what he thought was what other people must surely think; that his judgments must have universal validity.” She does, occasionally, send the reader searching out a dictionary. Her simple observations often catch you off guard…"Poor people had grandparents; the rich had ancestors." Her observation on how children learn is fascinating.

“The Golden Egg” is a police procedural, but it is also a commentary on society and people. Although it is not a crime story in the usual sense, it is a crime of inhumanity, cruelty and ignorance. The story is fascinating and completely involving with an excellent revelation.

THE GOLDEN EGG (Pol Proc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) - Ex
Leon, Donna - 22nd in series
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fatal Enquiry by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among private enquiry agents, that the most momentous of cases, the real corkers, begin on the blandest, most ordinary of days.
Cyrus Barker has a long history with Sebastian Nightwine going all the way back to their years in China.  Was Nightwine responsible for the death of Barker’s brother?  Yet now, years later, not only is Nightwine coming to London, he has received immunity from the British government and is about to do a major deal with him.  Nightwine recognized Barker will try to stop him and, in turn, is determined to destroy Barker.  The two are locked in a desperate game of wits and violence; Barker with his assistant Thomas Llewelyn at his side and Nightwine with an unanticipated ally.  Will anyone survive?
There is a wonderful sense of time and place from food, to clothes, to technology to the city of London itself.  Even without introduction, the voice of the narrator and the wry humor is so engaging--The Gov’s brows furrowed.  “You’ve been hired to protect someone from me?”  “You’ve been known to take a man apart like a watch.”  Barker considered this.  “Not unless he deserved it.”--one is immediately captivated. The case which is presented to Barker is unexpected and compelling.
Cyrus Barker is a fascinating character; a man of many skills and particular tastes.  We learn a good deal about his childhood and understand that much of what made him as he is.  Llewelyn, Barker’s assistant, has grown as a character.  For those who have been following the series, an interesting change is that Llewelyn takes the lead in much of this story. 
 Particular credit goes to the author for his secondary characters.  These are not cardboard figures but fully realized and developed characters.  Because of that, the reader becomes much more invested in the story and events.
Thomas skillfully inserts actual historical figures into the story but only in ways which would fit with their real lives.  He also educates us on a number of interesting subjects; including the use of ricin, information on the Knights Templar, Knights Hospitaller and the Freemasons; and the creation of the ambulance service.  Rather than ever slowing the story down, the information serves to weaves the story together.  Some authors are so good you want to read sentences or passages aloud to someone else. Will Thomas is so good, you want to read the entire book aloud to someone else just to ensure they experience the same high quality of storytelling as did you.
 “Fatal Enquiry is excellent on every level.  In addition to those qualities already mentions, it has a cleverly constructed, gripping plot with excellent suspense, and a wonderful “Ah-ha!” moment.  It’s hard to wait for the next book in this marvelous series.

FATAL ENQUIRY (Hist Mys-Barker/Llewelyn-London-Victorian) – Ex
Thomas, Will
Minotaur Books, 2014

Monday, March 31, 2014

Blood Alone by James R. Benn

First Sentence: I was hot.

If you’re looking for a gentle entry into a story, you won’t find it here. Benn has both his character, and his reader fully involved from the beginning. There is an excellent setup to the crime early in the story. However, even with action that is practically non-stop, Benn manages to include an excellent plot twist.

Each of the Billy Boyle books takes the reader to a different location with a basis on an event in history. It’s nice to have a completely involving story with a bit of education rolled in. Benn’s voice is strong and provides evocative descriptions…”Yellow flowers were clipped by flying lead, scattering bouquets over the dead and dying.”

It is the character of Billy who truly drives the story and Benn skillfully provides the reader with details of Billy’s background. He is also our moral center. His realization regarding the events of his recent past, the effects of the ware, backbreaking labor and poverty on the poor are powerfully expressed, while Benn points out one of the tragic facts of history. “Blood alone moves the wheels of history,” Sciafani quoted [said by Mussolini]. An element that makes the story particularly interesting is Billy’s amnesia. Yet, in spite of it, it demonstrates that he is capable and a survivor, as well as caring and clever. “When I was trying to figure out who I was, I ran into a Sicilian doctor. He told me about amnesia and said I was the most fortunate of men because I was about to discover who I was. He told me some philosopher once said the unexamined life is not worth living, and that I was being given the opportunity to examine mine.”

“Blood Alone” is a very good blending of fiction and actual history with excellent characters and great action.

BLOOD ALONE (Hist Mys-Billy Boyle-Italy-WWII) – VG
James R. Benn – 3rd in series
SOHO, 2008

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Dead in their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

First Sentence: To begin with, it was a perfect English morning: one of those dazzling days in early April when a new sun makes it seem suddenly like full-blown summer.

Flavia de Luce’s mother disappeared when Flavia was so young, she doesn’t even remember her, yet she has always naturally longed for her. Now her mother has been found and is coming home by train. At the station, a stranger whispers a message in Flavia’s ear. Shortly after, he ends up dead under the train. Suicide? Murder? A roll of film found in the attic lead Flavia on an investigation involving Winston Churchill and a Gipsy Moth airplane.

Bradley has such a remarkable voice. You are completely absorbed in the story from the very first page, begins with a twist, and then we are met with one surprise after another.

Flavia is such a wonderful character, and so alive we can sense her emotions. She has the brilliance of a prodigy, the naiveté of a teen, and an insecurity which gives her the overwhelming need to know she’s as loved as anyone else in her family. Some readers find her rather terrifying. However, one could interrupt Flavia as a character who has always felt outside her family. Rather than letting this overwhelm her, she uses her strength and her brilliance to prove her worthiness to herself and to others. In this, she becomes a particularly good role model to young readers.

In Undine, her cousin, Flavia has an intellectual challenger. Dogger, a shell-shocked war veteran seems to be the one person who understands Flavia. In this book, more of his background, as well as his relationship to Flavia’s father, is revealed.

All the scientific and technical information is fascinating. It doesn’t slow the story at all. Instead, it provides the reader with fascinating bits of information.

“The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches” is a wonderful book in an absolutely delightful series. Hopefully, Flavia will take a long time growing up so that we have her adventures for many more years to come.

THE DEAD IN THEIR VAULTED ARCHES (Ama. Sleuth-Flavia de Luce-England-Cont) – VG+
Bradley, Alan – 6th in series
Delacorte Press, 2013

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Harvest by Jim Crace

First Sentence: Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark.

Change is coming and events collide which will change life forever. Three strangers have built a hut and hearth to let the residents of a small, framing village know they are there. This act of smoke from a first fire gives them the right to stay there. The second event is the burning of Master Kent’s dovecote, hayloft and stables. The third event is the arrival of Edmund Jordan and his men. Jordan is cousin to Kent’s late wife. As the land came from her and there were no children, it now legally belongs to Jordan.

It can be frustrating to read a book in which neither the setting nor the time period are undefined. Crace does, however, drop enough hints that one might surmise the setting is England and the time probably in the 1500s/1600s, although it could be a bit later. The story is almost all narrative, which readers can find very boring. However, the book is fascinating and the story compelling.

We are provided with wonderful descriptions and rich language suitable to the time. “Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamor deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives.” Even the meaning of words which are arcane are easy enough to understand, and it does add veracity to the narrator.

Crace has written the story on many levels. He describes life in an agrarian setting and struggle to survive. We learn of the coming transition from crops to sheep and the impact that will have on the villagers. But we also see the dreadful results foolish actions can bring, not only to the perpetrators but to the entire village.

Walter Thirsk, the protagonist, brings life to the story as we are told it through his eyes. We learn both his history and that of the villagers. Through his telling, it becomes a very human story; one that has increasing dread. You sense the fear and uncertainty of the villagers, and of Walter. And yet, in the end, it is a story of survival and perseverance.

“Harvest” isn’t a long read, but it is an impactful one. It is also an allegory as to how those in authority can use rumors to raise suspicion and mistrust in order to achieve their own ends. “Today I’m seeing Privilege, in its high hat. Then comes Suffering: The Guilty and the innocent, including beasts. Then Malice follows, wielding its great stick. And, afterward, invisibly, Despair is riding its lame horse.” Lest you think it is a depressing book, it is not. It is compelling and one I found I couldn’t put down.

HARVEST (Hist Fiction/Mystery–Walter Thirsk-Britain–Undefined/pre-18th century) – Ex
Crace, Jim - Standalone
Vintage, 2013

Friday, March 28, 2014

Death of an Elgin Marble by David Dickinson

First Sentence: It took the British Museum five days to realize that they had lost their Caryatid.

When Lord Elgin brought part of the ancient temple marbles back to London, it became a subject of conflict between England and Greece. Now, one of the Caryatid—a beautiful, 7’ tall maiden who was one of six temple’s columns--has been uncovered as a fake and the real column missing. Lord Powerscourt is asked to handle the case, but soon an art theft also becomes a murder investigation.

One of the many things which makes this book so appealing is Dickinson’s voice, which conveys the style of the period, and use of humor…”It was the stroking [of the statue’s hand] that confirmed to the attendant on duty that this latest visitor was probably insane and certainly needing intercepting before he embraced the Caryatid...”

Dickinson has created wonderful characters in Powerscourt, his wife Lady Lucy—who has a countless number of useful relatives, and Johnny Fitzgerald—an Irish peer who was in the war with Powerscourt, and who is overly fond of drink. I particularly appreciate that Lucy is not a show piece, nor does she run around and help solve the crimes. Instead, she is a clever and intelligent women whose opinion and views others take quite seriously.

We also have Ragg, the director of the museum who reads Shakespeare sonnets to calm down; and Inspector Kingsley who is writing a children’s book on the Elgin Marbles as his cover. For those who have followed the series, it is also nice to see the Powerscourt children, particularly Thomas, now grown.

The pacing of the story is very well done. The story moves nicely at a steady pace, offset by periods of high excitement and/or suspense.

In addition to excellent descriptions, we are also invited to share the wonderful flights of fancy that Powerscourt’s mind can take: “…“Are there any more bids, ladies and gentlemen?’ Powerscourt thought this was like the Jane Eyre moment in the wedding service…” as well as appreciate several well-done metaphors…”…Sokraitis was dying, his liver now a thing of the past, this other organs shutting down one after another like flowers closing at the fading of the light.” The inclusion of Powerscourt’s dream inspires a whole thread lending itself to contemplation and discussion.

“Death of an Elgin Marble” is a bit overcomplicated at times with a tendency to go off on fairly long literary tangents, but it is wonderfully written, with some excellent plot twists and relates the timely issue of to whom to antiquities belong. All-in-all, it was fascinating.

DEATH OF AN ELGIN MARBLE (Hist Mys-Lord Francis Powerscourt-England- Early 1900s) – G+
Dickinson, David – 13th in series
Constable Crime, 2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul by Shamini Flint

First Sentence: Jimi’s hands were clammy.

Inspector Singh has been assigned to Bali to help with security and anti-terrorist measures after a bomb had been set off in the tourist part of the island. Singh feels he has little to offer; his expertise is solving murders. When a body with a bullet hole, killing him before the explosion, is found in the wreckage, Singh is there to find the answers with the help of a Aussie cop assigned to work with him.

The opening—seeing things from the perspective of the bomber—is interesting and rather sad.

There is an immediate charm to Inspector Singh. His doctor has been after him to get some exercise, so he shows the doctor his athletic shoes…and proceeds to stop at his favorite restaurant. After all “Talking about exercise was hungry work.” Although he’s not always likeable, he is self-deprecating and an old-fashioned cop who follows the clues. Brownyn, an Aussie cop assigned to work which him is a complete mystery to him. Yet through their relationship, she decided she wants to investigate murders when she returns to Australia. There is an interesting comparison made between tracking down terrorists and finding an individual killer.

It is interesting to learn the issues of immigration and race from the perspective of Muslims and Hindus in other countries and the different priority murder has to the Singapore police. Singh makes a wonderful rejoinder after an Australian tourist asks whether he is a Muslim. Singh tells him no, and is then asked, “Then why’ve you got that hanky around your head?” “Because I’m a Sikh and our people have been turbaned for longer than you’ve had ancestors out of prison.”. This theme is continued later when he is confronted by a woman whose child had been killed by the bombers. “The bombings were carried out by a very small minority of people. Most Moslems were devastated by what happened.” “Singh knew he was wasting him time trying to communicate to this women that the actions of a few should not be allowed to tarnish the many. …”

There is a wonderful description of the Balinese arts, as well as the food and locations. It makes a very welcome contrast to solving the crimes.

“A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul” is a very good read which includes effective twists and a universal truth.

A BALI CONSPIRACY MOST FOUL (Pol Proc-Inspector Singh-Bali-Contemp) – VG
Flint, Shamini - 2nd in series
Minotaur Books, 2011

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Memory of Blood by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: The following undated document appeared on Wikileaks and is now the subject of a government investigation.

During the cast party, someone has murdered the theater owner’s infant son. The bedroom is locked from the inside and neither blood nor fingerprints are found; only the life-sized puppet of Mr. Punch, lying on the floor.

A cast of characters is always helpful, but usually not very inventive. From Page One, it is clear this will not be your usual read with your usual characters and each is fully developed and fascinating. They are not necessary all people you’d want to know, but each becomes real in your mind. The Peculiar Crimes Unit team, including their long-suffering superior Raymond Lamb, is colorful and imaginative.

You are immediately caught up in the author’s voice; his observations of the English and the wonderful wry humor…”People described Salterton as ageless in a way that wasn’t intended as a compliment. He seemed to exist somewhere between post-menopause and post-mortem.” Throughout, the author punctuates the story with simple statements of truth…”The gap between rich and poor was not just one of wealth but of accountability.” His use of language is to be savored… ”This, then, was Arthur Bryant at work, his furrowed forehead bowed beneath the yellow light of the desk lamp, a shambling Prospero residing over the desiccated pages of his literary arcane, stirring fresh knowledge into the heady stew of ideas that filled his brain.” The dialogue is excellent with some of the exchanges between Bryant and May left to flow unhampered by interruptions of so-and-so said.

The crime itself is anything but ordinary. It is, at times, gruesome. It is also a wonderful entre into the behind scenes working of a theater and the history of Punch and Judy. Fowler is particularly good and teaching the reader about things you didn’t even know you wanted to know.

“Memory of Blood” is a very good book, filled with humor, imagination, suspense, and wonderful characters. I am very happy to say there are, as of now, two more book after this…and eight wonderful books before it.

THE MEMORY OF BLOOD (Pol Proc-Bryant and May-England-Contemp) – VG
Fowler, Christopher – 9th in series
Bantam Books, 2011

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Disappearance in Drury Lane by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: Marianne Simmons came to me on a cold December day when I was packing away my old life in order to begin my new.

While Captain Gabriel Lacey is preparing for his wedding to the lovely Donata, his former neighbor, actress Marianne Simmons, asks him to look for a fellow actress who is missing. This is not a simple request, as there are very dangerous men involved, as well as criminal James Denis, which whom Lacey has an uncomfortable connection.

Gardner’s voice, both in dialogue and text, is reflective of the period. The historical information incorporated within the story brings it to life; i.e., that different theaters were licensed for different types of performances; the spoken word and dramas versus operas or musicals; and the slave trade laws of the period. We also learn the schedule of staying out late and not rising until noon that is the life of the wealthy entitled. The descriptions put us right at Lacey’s side…”A thin dusting of snow coated the ground to either side of the wide, mile-long drive to Pembroke Court. The drive ended in front of the large manor, it’s bricks golden even in the weak winter sunshine.”

It is the characters, however, that really bring the book to life. We gain insight into Lacey’s childhood and life with his father, as well as an explanation as to why he’s marrying Donata; a woman much higher in rank and wealth. Donata is an excellent character. She is a widow, with a son who is heir to a title and estate. She both emotionally supports Lacey and stands up to him.

Lacey is surrounded by interesting characters. Marianne, who once stole candles and food from his rooms, is now mistress to his very wealthy friend. Felicity is a woman of mixed blood. James Denis is very dangerous, yet fascinating. Lacey’s daughter Gabriella, is someone of whom he only recently learned and met.

“A Disappearance in Drury Lane” is a very good read with things tied up in a way that is clever, yet not contrived. It is a series I’m glad to have found, and to know that it will continue.

A DISAPPEARANCE IN DRURY LANE (Hist-Capt. Gabriel Lacey-England-1818) – VG
Gardner, Ashley – 8th in series
JA AG Publishing, 2013