Thursday, May 16, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

First Sentence:  Blood dripped from the neck of the severed head and fell in a drizzle of red raindrops, clotting into a ruby pool upon the black and white tiles.
 Preteen Flavia de Luce is excited about the opening of the 500-year-old tomb of Saint Tancred and is determined to witness the event.  However, the first body uncovered, is that of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist; dead, and wearing a gas mask.  With her skill at chemistry, detection and a little help, Flavia has yet another murder to solve.
 From the beginning, it is clear that Flavia is a delightful, unusual protagonist.  She is 14 and wonderfully irreverent.  When discussing how to get a bat out of one of the church organ’s pipes, her suggestion is for her sister to “…play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor?  Full throttle.  That out to fix the little sod.”  One cannot help but love her.  She is an outsider in her own family.  She is brilliant, yet has her insecurities.  Her sisters have told her she’s adopted so she collects samples of everyone’s blood to test for matching. Her best friends are Gladys, her bicycle which she anthropomorphizes; and Dogger, the shell-shocked soldier who was with her father during WWII and now works for the family.  There is such a wonderful bond between Dogger and Flavia.  She is daring, but not fearless. 
 It cannot be overlooked that an older man has created such a vibrant, and realistic, young character.  In an interview, he talks about how children of that age are undervalued and too much overlooked yet it’s a wonderful age as they are just on the cusp of adulthood.  The story is told in first person and Bradley has such a wonderful voice…”Whenever I’m a little blue I think about cyanide, whose color so perfectly reflects my mood.”
The story is very much character-driven.  The series started when Flavia was 11 years old; she is now 14 and we are starting to see her mature.  However, those who come into the series late needn’t worry.  Bradley provides sufficient back story for each of the characters for new readers to know who they are and the relationships between.  He also introduces a fascinating new character in the shape of a flora archeologist with a Rolls Royce named Nancy. 
Bradley has a wonderful eye for detail and period.  He provides us with a real sense of post-war England, still in the stages of uncertainty about the future.  He is also able to make chemistry fascinating. 
 Although character drives the story, the plot doesn’t at all suffer for it.  We are taken down curious and shadowy paths.  We, mistakenly, think we know where we are going, and we’re wrong.  We’re given a delightful dessert filled with fascinating tidbits of information, suspense, resolution and a whopping cliffhanger--but not in a bad way--iced with humor and emotion.
 “Speaking form Among the Bones” lags just a touch in the middle, but finishes with a roar.  It is a wonderful book and now ranks among my favorites of the series. 

SPEAKING FROM AMONG THE BONES (Ama Sleuth-Flavia de Luce-England-1950s) – VG+
Bradley, Alan – 5th in series
Delacorte Press, 2013

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Dead Caller From Chicago by Jack Frederickson

First Sentence:  It was March, well past midnight, and it was cold.
Freelance investigator Dek Elstrom is still trying to fight his local city hall to regain zoning rights to the tower—no castle, just a tower—in which he lives, but strange things start occurring. A large hole is dug for a new McMansion in a block of bungalows, a phone call from someone thought to be dead, and Dek’s best friend and loved ones suddenly disappearing.  Dek is on the trail of answers and trying to stay alive.
 I have two admissions from the very start; 1) I have loved this series but, 2) this is not my favorite book of the series.
 Among Frederickson’s strengths is his ability to create a vivid atmosphere from the very beginning.  He has a great eye for detail and conveys it in a way that you are part of the scene.  You feel the cold, you experience the turbulence of the boat ride and the driving rain; the tension becomes real and the atmosphere, threatening. 
He also has an excellent ear for dialogue, whether in the narrative or between characters. It’s clear; it has the right edge to it and just enough dry humor. 
 The main characters are impossible to resist; Dek, who is trying hard to rebuild his life and his wonderful brilliant, completely devoid of any fashion-sense friend Leo are interesting and people about whom you want to know more.  A few characters, however, feel as though they have become a bit of a joke that has gone on too long. 
The weakest element, I felt, was actually the plot.  It seemed we didn’t really know what was going on until nearly half-way through the story.  Sometimes, this can work.  In this case, it was only the appeal of Leo and an act of faith that draws you on.
 “The Dead Caller From Chicago” is still a good read.  If anything, I feel my frustration is in feeling that Mr. Frederickson is capable of doing so much more.  I’m waiting…..

THE DEAD CALLER FROM CHICAGO (Myst-Dek Elstrom-Chicago-Contemp) – Good
Frederickson, Jack – 4th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence:  At first he isn’t even scared.
Forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway is shocked to learn that a friend has died in a house fire. Things take on an eerie quality when she receives a letter from him, written only days before he died. He talks about an historic archeological discovery but also that he is afraid. With her daughter Katy and Druid friend Cathbad, Kate heads north to Lancashire. What she doesn’t plan on is that DCI Nelson, father to Katy, will also be there with his wife and family. 

If a completely compelling, albeit somewhat horrific, hook is what captures your attention; you can’t do better than this. Griffiths immediately draws you into the story and makes you want to keep reading by making each chapter more intriguing than the last.  This is not a book you’ll put down.
Griffiths is very good at creating complicated relationships wherein you have sympathy for each of the characters involved.  That takes real skill, and she has it.  She also introduces characters very well. If you’ve read previous books, you become reacquainted; if you’re new to the series, you never feel lost wondering who they are and how they fit together.  Sadly, not all authors are good at this.  There are the favorites, of course; Ruth and Cathbad in particular.  Children, as characters, can be awkward, yet Katy is neither precocious nor annoying, but very realistic.  One of the most appealing new characters is Sandy, Nelson’s friend and fellow DCI.
The atmosphere and tension created are excellent.  The history related to the story is fascinating.  I’ve always been a fan of Griffiths’ ear for dialogue and her occasional subtle humor.
“A Dying Fall” is a book which broad appeal as it works on so many levels.  It may just be my favorite or second favorite, book in this series so far.  What most pleases me is to know that there will be more books coming.

A DYING FALL (Trad. Myst-Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) – VG+
Griffiths, Elly – 5th in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Darkness Brings by C.S. Harris

First Sentence:  The man was so old his face sagged in crinkly, sallow folds and Jenny could see pink scalp through the thin white hair plastered by sweat to his head.
Friends of Sebastian St. Cyr need his help.  One has recently been found dead, leaving behind a wife and child.  The second is Russell Yates, husband to St. Cyr’s great love, Kat.  Yates is accused of having murdered Benjamin Eisler, a very wealthy dealer of gems, and of stealing an extremely rare and valuable blue diamond; the Hope diamond.  Can St. Cyr find the evidence to clear Yates before he is hung?  Where is the diamond?
Harris has many great strengths as a writer, one of them being vivid and detailed descriptions that transport the reader into the Regency period.  She provides a look at the lives of all economic strata, from the very wealthy to the very poor and orphaned, bringing both the period and the people to life.
The story is filled both with historical characters and events as well as bits of fascinating, and not always pleasant, details of life during this time.  She even includes the growing fascination with the occult, but in a factual, academic manner. 
The characters are appealing and interesting.  Sebastian is even the dashing, brave protagonist with young Tom, his “tiger” (footman) at his side.  I am glad that Sebastian is finally starting to mature in his relationship.   Hero is independent, educated and appropriate in history’s role of wealthy women who worked to bring about social change.  Paul Gibson, the former regimental surgeon, is a character I find particularly intriguing, studying anatomy and forensics in an age when that was still very new and the former—procuring human bodies--illegal.
This is a series that is, in many ways, truly written as a series.  Although, in the end, the main mystery is solved, we are left some left unsolved and many threads to carry forward into subsequent books.  This is not at all a negative, but lends to the appeal and fun of reading the series.
“What Darkness Brings” has all the elements that make a really good story; great characters and dialogue—if a bit modern at times—a very strong sense of time and place, plenty of intrigue, excitement, red herrings, romance and conflict.  Ms. Harris is also a very visual writer, particularly in the action scenes.  I’d consider this to be one of the stronger books in the series.  It was definitely a very good enjoyable read.

WHAT DARKNESS BRINGS (Hist Mys-Sebastian St. Cyr-England- 1812) – VG
Harris, C.S.
Obsidian, 2013

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Restless in the Grave by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  They kept it simple.  They could cut off his right hand, or he could use it to learn how to fire the weapon they gave him.
PI Kate Shugak is surprised to receive a call from State Trooper Liam Campbell.  An even bigger surprise is being offered a job to investigate a murder; however, one of the possible suspects is Campbell’s wife.  Traveling to Niniltana and working undercover doesn’t seem so bad, except someone is taking strong exception to her presence and making that clear in very physical ways.  In spite of a handsome actor who is there, is soon becomes clear that the case of murder is only a small part of much bigger, uglier crimes.
As wonderful as are the characters of Kate and Mutt, it was a delight to have Liam Campbell and the cantankerous Moses, seer and master of tai-chi, back in the mix.  There is no question but that Stabenow creates wonderful characters; good and bad. 
Stabenow’s voice and humor bring humanity and balance to serious mysteries…”Kate marched them [the NNA board members] through old business like Alexander went through Asia…”.  At the same time, this book did not, in any way, lack for suspense. 
Dana Stabenow is an Alaskan who knows her state and its people.  Her descriptions are powerful and create a very strong sense of place.  Yet she also recognizes that life in Alaska is not for everyone…”Jim asked her [a perpetrator being extradited to another state] why she had confessed to charges that were five years old and three thousand miles away.  “I’m tired of Alaskan winters.” She said.”.  She also presents a very good look at the challenges, both in types of crimes and lack of manpower, policing Alaska. 
One element which may bother some readers is that she addresses the issue of gun ownership and gun control.  Some people might take exception to Kate’s views on guns, war, and those who fight.  She does bring up as aspect of which I was unaware, yet is very disturbing. 
“Restless in the Grave” is a very good book.  It is well plotted.  It follows both Kate and Chopper Jim’s cases, even though they are in different locations.  One of Jim’s cases very much mirrors a major case currently in the news.  It is suspenseful, yet with elements of humor, has great dialogue and excellent characters.  For being a 19th book, Ms. Stabenow has definitely not lost her touch.

RESTLESS IN THE GRAVE (Lic Invest-Kate Shugak/Liam Campbell-Alaska-Contemp) – VG
Stabenow, Dana – 19th in series
Minotaur Books, 2012

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon

First Sentence:  I got a letter one day, a long letter that wasn’t signed.

Camille Warner is in publishing, pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and sorting through condolences from her mother’s death.  One letter, much thicker than the rest, stands out not only for its size, but its lack of either salutation or signature and seems to be part of a story.  As more segments arrive, Camille is curious, thinking perhaps it’s an author looking to be published, then intrigued as the characters begin to be identified.  As the story evolves, Camille realizes just how personal the story is.
In the beginning, it’s not easy to identify which narrator is speaking when.  Usually, I find this highly annoying.  I don’t, however, believe the story really would not have worked any other way.  I also realized that, after only a few pages, I was so immersed in the story, I didn’t mind.  In the beginning, there were a few portents—always a major flaw in my view—but even those, I forgive.
The author’s/character’s voice, with the help of her translator, immediately drew me in.  Her writing is punctuated with small truths that are both illuminating and disturbing…”As the curtain fluttered closed I thought of how once the last survivor of a family is dead, there is no one left to receive letters of condolence.” and “It is not other people who inflict the worse disappointments, but the shock between reality and the extravagance of our imagination.” 
I shan’t tell you any more about the characters beyond my summary above.  Learning who they are, reading their stories as they unfold and learning how the relationships intertwine is all integral to the plot itself.  It should not be spoiled.
The story is set in two time periods; the 1975 present and the years before WWII.  I appreciated learning of the milestones in history leading up to the war and seeing the European—in this case French—perspective of events.  In some ways, the notions as to how women conceive and remedies for infertility were more disturbing as they were more immediate to the story.
This is a story within a story, within a story, within a story.  I was drawn in immediately and kept turning the pages to the very end.  Whatever you do, DO NOT cheat and read the ending, particularly the poem, until you reach it in its proper time. 
“The Confidant” is a very compelling book I do highly recommend reading.

THE CONFIDANT (Novel-Camille-France-Contemp/1940s) - Ex
Grémillon, Hélène – Alison Anderson, Translator - Standalone
Penguin Books, 2012

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rapscallion by James McGee

First Sentence: Sark stopped, sank to his knees and listened, but the only sounds he could hear were the pounding of his own heartbeat and the rasping wheeze at the back of his throat as he fought desperately to draw air into his burning lungs.

The British Navy sent two officers out to investigate reports of a smuggling operation and the increase in the number of enemy prisoners who have escaped detention from their prison ships. The first investigator was found having drowned and the second hasn’t been heard from.  The Home Secretary now requests the Bow Street, and Bow Street has assigned Matthew Hawkwood to go undercover aboard one of the ships. Conditions aboard ship are more vile that could be imagined and Hawkwood is soon fighting for his very life.

With each new McGee book, I am fascinated to see on what historical subject he will base his plot. The first book, “Ratcatcher,” had to do with political plots and the security of the Royal Family. The second “Resurrectionist,” was much darker and dealt with grave robbers. This third book focuses on the treatment of foreign prisoners of war and smuggling.

His period descriptions and historical detail make his books evocative and educational. This is high action and suspense at its best. Think Saturday matinee pirate movies. It is definitely plot, rather than character driven, but that doesn’t make the characters any less interesting. It does mean you don’t know whom to trust.

McGee’s writing is incredibly visual, which is both good and a bit hard to deal with at times, and it is always incredibly exciting. There is a bit of “ride to the rescue” at one point, but McGee makes even that work.

This is the consummate edge-of-the-seat, great weekend read and, I think, McGee’s best book so far.

RAPSCALLION (Hist/Pol. Proc-Matthew Hawkwood-Georgian) – VG+
McGee, James – 3rd in series
Pegasus, 2013

Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Pitt stood at the top of the stairs and looked across the glittering ballroom of the Spanish Embassy in the heart of London.
Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are attending a glittering society ball.  Charlotte notices a young woman who seems to be afraid of a young man who refuses to leave her alone.  The young woman runs away and through a glass window to her death.  A wealthy banker, also at the ball, returns home to find his wife brutally assaulted and dead.  Although Thomas Pitt, now head of Special Branch, can’t openly investigate, he asks for the help of his former boss, Victor Narraway.
From the very beginning, Ms. Perry’s descriptions place you within the scene and make you feel part of the story.  You also become completely involved with the characters, as she also describes emotions very well.
The characters are wonderful.  They become people you care about and want to follow.  I’ll admit I did try to figure out Great Aunt Vaspasia’s age.  As Charlotte is now 40, I would guess Vaspasia to be in her late 70s/early 80s. She’s a wonderful character, no matter her age.  One thing I did particularly like about this book is that it is an ensemble cast; relying still on Charlotte and Thomas, but also more on Victor Narraway, as well as Aunt Vaspasia and solicitor Peter Symington.  Another thing I truly appreciate is that the characters grow and develop with each book, including seeing more of the Pitt’s daily life and their children. 
Perry has also taken historical figures and either used, or referred to them, in their appropriate roles--Rudyard Kipling, Randolph Churchill, Dr. Jameson and Cecil Rhodes—as well as incorporating important events of the time, such as the search for gold and Boer War.  This adds life and veracity to the story.
With each book Ms. Perry focuses on a social issue critical to the period as well as in today’s headlines.  While some may find her focus on this issue to be heavy-handed, I felt it well-done and as critical a focus for the story as it is necessary to address today. The subject is well handled with the level of outrage and import it deserves.  Beyond that, it is a very good mystery.  You think you know who’s guilty, but are you right?  Or is there a surprise waiting for you?  Sorry, you’ll have to read the book to find out.
“Midnight at Marble Arch” held to the high standard of Ms. Perry’s writing and confirms her place among the very best mystery writers.  Highly recommended.

MIDNIGHT AT MARBLE ARCH (Hist Mys-Pitt series–England–1896/Victorian) – VG+
Perry, Anne – 28th in series
Ballantine Books, 2013

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Death and the Maiden by Frank Tallis

First Sentence:  The lord marshal and the lord chamberlain, Prince Rudolf Liechtenstein, were observing Emperor Franz Joseph from the staircase.
1903 Vienna is a city of great learning, enlightenment, technological advancements, beauty, art and culture.  It is also a city whose subtext of politics, anti-Semitism and peril grows with each day.  Diva Ida Rosenkranz of the Vienna Opera is dead.  Although her doctor proclaims it suicide due to an overdose of laudanum, DI Rheinhardt differs and proclaims it a murder.  The investigation is complicated by politics. Gustav Mahler is the Director of the Vienna Opera but someone has been sending critical letters to the paper, trying to get him removed.  Can Rheinhardt discover the identity of the letter writer?  Liebermann becomes so taken with the life and works of composer David Freimark, he convinces Rheinhardt to have Freimark exhumed.  What will they find?
This is a time of an enlightened Vienna where women could study medicine and attend lectures on equality.  It is the time of Freud and Mahler; where psychiatry and music play a key role.  There is a fascinating listing of technological achievements, and information on pathology, showing advancement in detection methods, as is the profiling by the detective while still at the crime scene and the use of crime scene photos. However, this was also a time when things were changing…”Perhaps bad things could still happen in this beautiful, cultured city.” and anti-Semitism is on the rise.
Being new to the series, I had a hard time figuring out who were the protagonists.  It took a long time to realize the relationship between Rheinhardt and Liebermann.  They weren’t really well introduced to the readers, nor was much backstory provided and their personalities seemed quite flat.  However, as the story progressed, I became quite taken with them, both individually and as friends.  Three quarters into the book, I was completely enchanted by them and wanting to know, and read, more of them.
There is a very good intermingling of actual historical characters-- Emperor Franz Joseph, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, and others--into the plot enhances the story’s veracity and strengthens the sense of time and place.  There are wonderful scenes of Liebermann and Freud “…Freud found sex in the most unlikely places.” and his night at the opera with Arianne Amsel; a woman he is courting, as well as scenes of Rheinhardt meeting Emperor Franz Joseph and the witch.     
The author’s descriptions are incredibly lush, both placing us within the scene and, at times, striking our emotions.  While music is a central theme of the story, He also uses music to create images.  There are passages that make you stop and consider…”the age of one hundred. Who was ever ready to die? There would always be one more book to read, one more person to see, one more hour or fleeting yet indispensable minute to spend.”  One of my favorite passages, however, is after Rheinhardt reads a bedtime story to his daughter …”What are fairy tales?… Fairy tales were educational. Set in distant lands and among peoples comfortably removed from everyday life, fairy tales introduced children to the idea of badness existing in the world. They helped prepare children for the harsh reality of human iniquity.” 
The plot started out just a bit of a slog, with a feeling of being uncertain as to where it was going or why it was interesting.  That feeling disappeared as the story progressed, to the point where it is hard to stop reading.  As the story proceeds, the plot becomes more complex, even introducing a second and third mystery.  The trail of the original murder becomes more complicated and the stakes higher.  The end was completely realistic and very well done.  There is even an excellent portent—something I usually abhor—about the future which left me eagerly anticipating the next book.
“Death and the Maiden” was a very good read.  Not only do I want to read future books in the series, but I want to go back and start from the beginning. 

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN (Hist/Pol Proc-DI Oskar Rheinhardt/Dr. Max
Liebermann-Vienna-1903/Gaslight) – VG
Tallis, Frank – 6th in series
Random House, 2012