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

Book Photo Challenge: March 11: Signed

I have been reviewing Robert Fate's books since his first.  However, in reviewing his third book, I commented that I felt the character lacked backstory; thus, new readers might not understand the relationships.  Bob--I can call him Bob--emailed me saying I was right and that in promoting book two, he hadn't spent as much time fine tuning book three. 

Then he sent me book four, with this inscription.  I laughed.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Hard Going by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence: Slider’s wheels were in dock.

Although D.I. Bill Slider isn’t particularly looking forward to a week off from work, he hadn’t planned on a murder saving him from time in shopping malls. A well-known local philanthropist is dead. The evidence indicates he knew his killer. Coming up with suspects isn’t a problem. Discovering a motive and evidence proves to be much harder.

From the very beginning, you are pulled in by the author’s voice and delightful, very dry, humor…”but Kate [Slider’s daughter] merely rolled her eyes. It was her response to everything. She must have eye-muscles like a boxer’s biceps, Slider thought.”

It’s refreshing to have a DI who is not an angst-ridden. He’s divorced with two older kids, but remarried with a wife, baby, another on the way and a live-in dad. This provides us just enough exposure to, and the normal problems of, his home life. We see Slider’s kinship to Atherton, his second, and to his team.

It is through Porson, Slider’s boss and something of a figure of fun that we see the author's true mastery of language. One has to be truly dexterous to create the amazing malaprops she does and her incredible imagery.

“Hard Going,” at the heart of it all, is a true police procedural, proving you don’t need a lot of violence or profanity to still have a mystery with an edge and an excellent plot twist. Slider and his team follow the clues and shift through the evidence. I, for one, will continue to follow this very good series.

HARD GOING (Pol Proc-DI Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – VG
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 16th in series
Severn House, 2014

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Gray Ghost Murders by Keith McCafferty

First Sentence: The hands shook as the watcher adjusted the focus ring of the binoculars.

Katie Sparrow’s search and rescue dog doesn’t find the reported lost hiker. Instead, they find a buried body which, when uncovered, was a murder victim. And then they find another. Fly-fishing guide, painter and PI Sean Stranahan is hired to find a lost tackle box. The box is also an entry to his being introduced to the members of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club; a group of men who bought a cabin along the river. It is they who really want to hire Stranahan to find two valuable fishing flies which have been stolen from their cabin. The trail turns very dark as Sean is asked to help the police with the murders while still searching for the flies.

From the beginning, the author’s love of fly fishing is very apparent. Even if fishing and hunting, are not your style, don’t let that stop you from reading this book for it is the characters that carry the story.

Stranahan may be described as extremely good looking, but that really doesn’t much play into the character. Yes, women are attracted to him, but he is anything but a womanizer, and how refreshing is that. Not only that, there is no profanity in the book; another nice change. And although he knows how to use a gun, he doesn’t own one. If anything, it is Sherriff Martha Ettinger who comes across as the tougher character, except where her love life is concerned. Then, she is classically vulnerable. Katie, the dog handler, facilitates moments of humor…”Godfrey, a schoolteacher with a scratch to itch and lay south of his belt buckle and a history of women cutting his fact out of photographs….” What’s nice is that are the characters are clearly drawn and distinct.

McCafferty provides excellent descriptions which help the reader understand the love of fly fishers and give one a desire for traveling to Montana…”Above him was one of those summer skies that people who live in the East can’t believe are real, the light over the Gravelly Range lavender bleeding to pink, the clouds rimmed with golden light from the setting sun and the river a study in pointillism, as wavelets bounced colors back and forth…”

The plot is interesting and compelling. There are layers and twists enough to keep you going. There is a classic short story, "The Most Dangerous Game," referenced which, if the reader is familiar with the story, gives a hint of the story’s path, but one isn’t certain quite how it’s going to play in. There are characters one suspects, but enough uncertainty to keep one guessing.

“The Gray Ghost Murders” is a very good read with layers and good suspense. It kept me involved from first page to last.

THE GRAY GHOST MURDERS (PI- Sean Stranahan-Montana-Contemp) – VG
McCafferty, Keith – 2nd in series
Viking, 2013

Friday, March 7, 2014

Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

First Sentence: The one thing I never miss about the opera career that had brought me fame and fortune is jolting from one engagement to another in lumbering mail coaches, watching the roadside vegetation unfold in brain-numbing boredom.

Tito Amato is determined to prove himself, to Maestro Torani, as worthy of being the director of the Teatro San Marco. But they are competing for their audience against another theater with a more modern style of programming. When a composer presents to Tito a glorious new opera, styled in the manner of Vivaldi, Tito wants it to be the season opener. The opera house’s patron agrees, but only if Tito can sign Angeletto, a spectacular castrato singer from Naples, to sing. However, is the singer truly a castrato, or a woman in disguise? What is the motive for the brutal attack on Maestro Torani? It all leaves Tito searching for answers.

What a fascinating look at the being-the-scenes wrangling, politics and rivalries of a theater. Myers than takes all those intricacies and incorporates them into the equally complex layers of society and religion.

Oh, how helpful would have been a Cast of Characters. It did become very confusing, at times, trying to remember who everyone was and how they fit into the story. Even so, the characters are fascinating. Tito is the narrator. For those who follow the series, it is interesting to see how his life has evolved. However, it’s of no matter for those who have not as Myers does provide an adequate backstory both for Tito and his wife, Liya. Their relationship adds an extra dimension which brings particular depth to the book and her use of Tarot and scrying set her apart.

The fact that Tito works with the head of investigation, Messer Grande, adds realism to the story. Messer Grande is an interesting character in this own right…”I was familiar with the look that settled on Messer Grande’s face. Documents were leaping from drawer to drawer in the cabinet that made up his spectacular memory.”

The use of Vivaldi as a character was wonderfully done. It is particularly interesting as he never actually appears in the story. It was very nicely done.

Myers has a wonderful voice…”Venice never slept. Well, perhaps you could argue that my city drowsed during the worst of the summer heat, when the wealthy made their annual villeggiatura to cooler mainland estates. But a deep, snoring, head-buried in pillows sleep? Never.” It is also very clear that she knows, and loves, music. Tito’s complaint about the soprano’s style is one with which I agree about many of today’s singers…”His original tutor must have schooled him in nothing but embellishment, so determined was Angeletto to add thrills and tremolos at every opportunity. Neapolitans! They wouldn’t recognize moderation if it smacked them across the fact and challenged them to a duel.”

“Whispers of Vivaldi” is not all about music. There is also a wonderful false path, an excellent plot twist and heart-pounding suspense. I highly recommend it for lovers of music and/or historical mysteries.

WHISPERS OF VIVALDI (Hist Mys-Tito Amato-Venice-1745) – VG+
Myers, Beverle Graves – 6th in series
Poisoned Pen Press, 2014

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd

First Sentence: He’d tried to put the war behind him.

A sniper killer at Ely Cathedral causes Inspector Ian Rutledge to travel to Cambridgeshire. A separate shooting in a different village does have a witness, but her testimony makes no real sense. The biggest barrier to Rutledge’s investigation is the apparent lack of motive in either case and lack of connection between the two victims. With the third shooting, and a target who survives, Rutledge starts looking to the past for both the motive, and for the killer.

The opening chapter is rather different and unusual, but completely engrossing. Todd’s descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric.

It’s very nice that an accounting of Hamish is offered that both explains him to new readers yet doesn’t interrupt the flow for recurring readers. Much focus is given to Rutledge, yet it’s not boring or repetitive. He is a fascinating character about whom we want to know more. His relapse into a flashback of the war is very effective and painful without being overly description. The understanding of the rector made the scene all that more powerful for its subtly. His dealing with his shell shock/PTSD is a tragic thread which connects the series and other characters of whom there are many who’ve suffered the effects of war.

Sometimes, it is the little things that matter. It’s nice that, with all the driving to-and-fro Rutledge does, we finally having him stopping for petrol occasionally.

Hunting Shadows” is a good read. While one appreciates the doggedness of Rutledge’s investigation and the way he puts the information together in order to identify the killer, I didn’t feel a particularly strong connection to any character other than Rutledge, and wishing I had.


HUNTING SHADOWS (Hist Mys-Insp. Ian Rutledge-England-1920) – Good
Todd, Charles – 16th in series
William Morrow, 2014

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

March 4 - Reading Place

A comfortable chair, a pillow for my back.  A large window for the day, a good lamp for night reading.  A table at hand, an ottoman for my feet, and a soft blanket in case it's chilly.  What more does one need for a perfect reading place.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

March 1: Last Book I Read

I liked this much more than I expected to.

Welcome to March - Rabbit, Rabbit

A Facebook group--Eat, Sleep, Read--has started a monthly Book Photo Challenge.  Since photography is one of my three favorite hobbies, along with reading and crocheting, I've decided to play along. 

Here is the list of photographs for March: