Monday, November 29, 2010

Second Violin

Second Violin: An Inspector Troy Thriller
by John Lawton
Atlantic Monthly Press
November 2007

Second Violin is chronologically the first novel in the Inspector Troy mystery series. The series is set in London in the late 1930’s into World War II. Let me say right off there is very little mystery in this book. About three quarters of the way through the story we become aware that someone is murdering rabbis in London. The investigation is somewhat vague, there are a myriad of suspects and in the end no conclusion. Rather this story is a character study of a number of Brits and some Jewish immigrants who end up in London at the beginning of the war. The main characters are part of the Troy family, the patriarch Alex emigrated from Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century and has become a peer of the realm due to his success in the newspaper business. He has two sons, Rod a newspaper man and Frederick a Scotland Yard detective. Alex interacts with the great historical figures of the day – Churchill, Freud and others. His sons interact with Londoners of all classes- from the nobility to Jewish immigrants in the East End.

The story begins in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss. The description of the persecution of Austrian Jews is harrowing. The escape of one Jew (Josef Hummel) is gripping and I found myself hanging on every word hoping for the best. The scene then shifts back to England where German/Austrian immigrants are interred on the Isle of Man and the Battle of Britain commences. One Troy brother is rounded up with the Isle of Man detainees (he was born in Vienna and was not naturalized as a British citizen) and the other brother investigates the rabbi killings during the Blitz. Again descriptions of the bombing in London and the fear and danger experienced by the people are mesmerizing.

So in summary I would recommend this book but not as a mystery thriller. Those interested in World War II, London and a character study of people who lived through these events would be rewarded reading this book.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Emperor's Tomb

The Emperor's Tomb (Cotton Malone)

by Steve Berry
Nov, 2010
Ballantine Books


If you read this blog you know I am addicted to mystery/thrillers, so I was happy to pick up a new author in Steve Berry. The Emperor’s Tomb is Berry’s fifth novel to feature Cotton Malone as the protagonist. There is some back story to the characters that I could not quite figure out from reading this novel, but it really didn’t impede following the story. The setting is current day China and the action centers on the recovery of a lamp from the third century B.C. In addition to the mystery part of the story there is a strong dose of Chinese philosophy and politics mixed in. The action rockets back and forth between China and Europe as government (US, Russian and Chinese) spies fight it out for control of this lamp and the secrets it holds that will solve world energy problems. Planes crash, agents are killed with alarming regularity, chapters end with gunfire and then the action jarringly moves to another perspective. The writing is choppy with short chapters, one sentence paragraphs, and six word sentences. The characters are stilted and one dimensional.

Reading mystery/thrillers requires some suspension of belief to accept the tenets of a good yarn, but I felt that this story was just implausible in so many ways. Berry does provide notes on the research he has done to support the plot premise but I didn’t buy it. I read an advanced reader copy, so there is the possibility that some of the more outrageous story elements will fall out with editing but I think not nearly enough to keep this author on my radar screen.

I read an advanced reader copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Good Son

The Good Son: A Novel
by Michael Gruber
Henry Holt and Co.
May 2010

The Good Son is a different kind of international spy thriller – intelligent, thoughtful, with a complex plot and interesting well developed characters. There are actually three intertwined story lines that come together at the end of the book. Theo Bailey is a US Army Special Forces fighter who has been wounded in Afghanistan by friendly fire. He is the son of a Pashtu father and a Polish American mother. He was raised as a Pashtu and while still quite young participated in the jihad against the Russians. As a teenager he is taken to the US and becomes an American citizen. While recuperating from his wounds his mother is captured by terrorists in Afghanistan. He develops plans to free her from the terrorists. In a separate thread we are told his mother’s story. Sonia is a former circus performer who has married a wealthy Pakistani and is also a trained Jungian psychologist. Her two daughters are murdered by terrorists in the 1980s. She is kidnapped while leading a peace conference in Afghanistan. In the third thread we meet Cynthia Lam, an analyst at the National Security Agency charged with monitoring intercepts from South Asia. The events surrounding the attempts to release Sonia and the other hostages bring together the stories of Theo, Sonia and Cynthia.

I know I have not distilled this plot well in my description but the first half of the book where the characters are introduced is a really good read. The detail that the author provides relating to the Afghani and Pakistani culture enriches this story. Descriptions of the food, the family and clan life and the different sects of the Muslin religion were educational and enjoyable to read. The author makes a real effort to illustrate the differences between Western culture and the Muslin tradition. For the most part this works.

As I write this review I can see how wild this plot seems but let me tell you it worked for me right up until the last few chapters. The author was so skilled and the story presentation so strong that I was sure the ending would life up to my expectations. Sadly not true. So many implausible things happen in the last 50 pages I was stunned. Not only were the events contrived, major characters acted totally out of character.

So, I still recommend this book despite the end. It has a ripped from the headlines feel, strong characterizations, complex plotting and a unique look at the Muslin jihad.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Giveaway Winners

Giveaway winners for Scorpions are:

Marjoire (centa2)
Danelle (danelle)
Jhitomi  (jhbalvin)

I will contact you by email today for shipping information. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Blogger Holiday Swap

Here's one for all my book-blogging readers.  Some lovely and clever people have devised a Book Blogger Holiday Swap. It's like a Secret Santa - for booklovers, by booklovers. They are accepting international bloggers.
Registration closes (firmly) on November 14th, so sign up now  Not sure if it's for you? Check out the thorough FAQ page.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hollywood Hills

Hollywood Hills: A Novel
by Joseph Wambaugh
Little, Brown and Co
November 2010

Joseph Wambaugh has been writing about police and police work since the 70s. He published his first work while still an LAPD cop.   I can remember reading The Onion Field and the powerful impact it had on me.  After the turbulent times of the 1960’s, Wambaugh did more to build back the reputation of the police than any other writer.  His work was dark (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight) but enthralling as he laid out the emotional cost of police work.  I haven’t read Wambaugh’s books in a long time so I was surprised with Hollywood Hills.  It is a police procedural but in a much lighter vein than I expected.  It chronicles the stories of the police who work out of Hollywood division in Los Angeles.  It is a fast moving story with a plot centered on an art theft.  There are a myriad of characters – both cops and crooks.  The story is told by alternating the narrative between the police and the criminals.  It is funny and the dialogue is realistic (except for the two surfer cops who were unintelligible to me).   Wambaugh’s depiction of every day police work seems so real, cops get in fights with bad guys, and cops get their noses broken, no super heroes here, just everyday police work. No one character is the center of this novel, each character is lightly drawn and given a place in the story but the lack of character development for me, reduces my enthusiasm for the book.  Hollywood Hills is part of a series (Hollywood Moon, Hollywood Station, Hollywood Crows) but is easily read as a standalone book.  If you have read and liked the other books in this series I am sure you’ll enjoy this one, if you are looking for a Wambaugh story from a previous era I think you’ll be disappointed.
I read an advanced reader copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Impartial Witness

An Impartial Witness: A Bess Crawford Mystery
by Charles Todd
Sept 2010
William Morrow

This is the second Bess Crawford novel in the series that is written by the American mother/son team Charles Todd. As in the first, the action is set primarily in World War I London. Bess has a chance encounter that gives her information that is crucial in a murder investigation and through her nursing duties with an officer wounded at the front she becomes engaged in the case. I won’t recount plot details but the mystery is adequate with a number of twists and turns (perhaps a tad too many coincidences) until the identity of the murderer is discovered.

The author’s ability to create the scene of London in 1916 is good with a number of scenes that create this backdrop – automobiles while present are not reliable, war wounded are ubiquitous, and train travel is the norm. In the first Bess Crawford novel (Duty to the Dead) the main character is introduced as a strong, independent nurse who is self sufficient in her life. In this novel Bess is continually rescued by her father’s former aide-de-camp, Simon B., at every sign of danger. I was left scratching my head at this – is this man in the pay of her father? Is her in love with her? The relationship did not work for me and seemed to weaken the Bess Crawford character. I’d expect the author to clarify this in future stories.

So, in summary this is a satisfactory historical mystery with decent characterizations, good plotting and authentic sense of place but doesn’t really deliver on the promise of the far better Duty of the Dead.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from the Free Library of Philadelphia.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter: A Novel
by Tom Franklin
October, 2010
William Morrow

This is the first Tom Franklin book I’ve read and I choose this book because there was so much positive buzz about it on blogs and in reviews. I wasn’t disappointed. No spoilers here. The story is set in Mississippi and the author creates a unique sense of place in his writing. You are put in mind of the south of William Faulkner. No doubt about it you are in the Deep South. The two main characters are richly drawn. Larry Ott is an introvert, book worm, local auto mechanic and son of a poor white family. Larry has become the town pariah because twenty years earlier he took a local girl on a date from which she never returned. He is accused but not arrested as there is no evidence. Silas Jones is black, son of a single mother, athletically gifted and the local constable. In their teen years these two very different boys shared a friendship that was short but deeply felt by each of them. The two drift apart caused in some part by the girl’s disappearance

The story alternates between today and the events of twenty years earlier. It is told in the narrative voices of Larry and Silas. When in the present day another girl is reported missing, the stage is set for the events that follow. The mystery/thriller aspects of this story are good but this is really a character driven novel. Even some of the minor characters are so well described – Larry’s parents, Silas’s office mate Voncille- that a fully formed  picture comes to mind. The family backgrounds of each of the main characters contribute to the drama of the story in a distinctive way. The narrative examines choices people make, actions taken and not taken and the impact and pain caused. The loneliness that Larry feels was real and poignant to this reader. This is a satisfyingly complete novel – great characters, great sense of place, great story. I’ll remember this novel for a long time.