Sunday, February 26, 2012

Anatomy of Murder

Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson, Pamela Dorman Books, February 2012

...this engrossing mystery is the best kind of historical fiction

Some spoilers 
Set in London 1781, this engrossing mystery is the best kind of historical fiction. Britain is at war with France and trying to suppress the revolt in America. Harriet Westerman, an upper class woman with an interest in investigating mysteries is awaiting the return of her gravely injured husband a Royal Navy captain. A body is pulled from the Thames and Westerman and her colleague Crowther are asked to find the murderer by one of the King’s agents. There is suspicion that French spies are stealing naval secrets and there are treasonous Brits involved. The murder investigation centers on performers and staff at the His Majesty’s theater where a renowned international opera company is performing for the season. Many of the performers have secrets that are revealed as the plot progresses.

A parallel story unfolds with Jocasta Bligh, a working class Londoner who earns her living “plucking truth” from the Tarot cards. Jocasta is alerted to the traitors when the wife of one of them comes to her for a card reading and is killed shortly afterwards. Jocasta befriends a young boy, Sam and together they search out the man who murdered this woman. While Westerman’s investigation is carried out in the drawing rooms and society gatherings of the day, Bligh works in the seamy underside of the London docks. Toward the end of the story Jocasta’s investigations finally connect with Westerman’s and then the action really takes off.

This story has a marvelously detailed setting. The portions that take place in the opera house school the reader on 18th century theater, opera in particular and the strange phenomenon of “castrati”, young boys castrated to enhance their singing voice. Additionally the streets of London seem alive with the characters and activities of the time period. The author has included real characters (the Earl of Sandwich, Lord North) that are interspersed with the fictional characters in the story. The plot is complicated but not for a diligent reader. The language used is a wonderful tool that contributes to the historical setting. There are numerous references to the first book in this series that I did find annoying mainly because I had not read it. So as I said in the opening sentence this is the best kind of historical fiction!

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fall From Grace

Fall From Grace by Richard North Patterson, Scribner, March 2012

This is a psychological drama and not a very good one

This novel is set on Martha’s Vineyard and depicts the return of an estranged son, Adam Blaine, for his father’s funeral. His father has died under mysterious circumstances. Did he fall or was he pushed from a cliff? His father Ben Blaine is a nationally known writer but a first class jerk. Ben’s will reveals that he has disinherited his wife and other son and left the majority of his fortune to an actress living on the Vineyard. Much of the story is told in a series of flashbacks as we learn more about the circumstances of Adam’s estrangement from his father. In the present day Adam using skills from his career as a CIA operative (sound like a soap yet) investigates his father’s death and finds much evidence pointing toward his brother as the killer. Not too much action occurs until the final chapters of the novel when things pick up and many mysterious relationships are revealed.

This is a psychological drama and not a very good one. The characters are fairly wooden and the plot is very contrived and the action far from riveting. The setting on The Vineyard is well described.

Richard North Patterson, in his early writing career penned some excellent court room dramas (Eyes of The Child among the best) and then left the legal genre for political thrillers that were mediocre at best. In his last novel, In The Name of Honor, he returned to the courtroom with modest success. He should stay there.

I read a copy of the book provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Lost Goddess

The Lost Goddess by Tom Knox, Viking Adult, February 2012

...needed better editing

This thriller has two plot lines that come together in the end. In the first, an archeologist, Julia Kerrigan working in a French cave discovers ancient skulls that have had crude brain surgery performed prior to death. She shares the discovery with the group leader and soon enough he is dead at the hand of a mysterious Asian woman. Her mentor is also killed soon after in a particularly violent manner. Kerrigan makes the connection with a similar discovery in Cambodia and for inexplicable reasons (other than to advance the plot) follows the mystery to Cambodia with a scary stop in one of the Russian republics. In Southeast Asia a photojournalist, Jake Thurby takes an assignment to uncover the mysteries of the Plain of Jars in Cambodia. He accompanies a beautiful Cambodian lawyer trying to uncover truths about the origins of the genocide of the Pol Pot era in Cambodia. Thurby and the lawyer find living evidence of Cambodians who had brain surgery performed in an attempt to produce an evil race of warriors without conscience. Let me stop right now with the plot summary because it will only sound more farfetched. Suffice to say that the two storylines come together, the principals make some poor choices, both government officials and bad guys end up in pursuit and a unique ending is provided.

First off let me say that fantasy thriller is not a genre I read much of so I am probably not the best person to review this. It is a well written story with some unique parts. The storyline deals with two famous archeological finds – the Plain of Jars in Cambodia and the Hands of Gargas in France – that are far from well trod ground in thriller land. The characters are forever deciding to linger somewhere just a moment too long and have about six close escapes from the pursuers; to me it got to be quite annoying. The end of the story was a way too long with dumps of sociology and religious radicalism that went on for pages. I think this book could have been quite good with better editing - the plot line was unique, the writing quite competent, but the character development was lacking and the denouement way too long. Don’t think I’ll read another by this author.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Elegy For Eddie

Elegy For Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear, Harper, March 2012

If you read Maisie you’ll enjoy this one, if you don’t and like historical fiction try this series

In this ninth novel of the series we find Maisie solving the mystery of the death of a boy from her childhood community. Maisie is petitioned by friends of her father who are costermongers (great word!) working the Covet Garden area in London to look into the circumstances around the death of Eddie Pettit, a "slow" boy beloved by all. The investigation takes her from the lowest to the highest classes in British society and expands beyond the scope of the death of a simple working class boy to matters that deal with national security.

The Maisie Dobbs books are really not mysteries in the true who dunnit sense. They are more about the life and times of Londoners in the decades between the World Wars. For those who haven’t read any of this series Maisie is a rags to riches character. She was born in Lambeth the daughter of a costermonger, sent into service as a house maid, mentored by the lord and lady of the house and allowed an education. She was a nurse in WWI and like so many women lost her fiancĂ©e in the war. She studies with a famous psychological detective and upon his death inherits his fortune. She struggles with her place in society, never totally comfortable with those she grew up with nor totally at ease with the upper classes with whom she now socializes.  She has an active love life but can never seem to settle for the somewhat restricted life of a married woman in the 1930s.

I think I like these books so well for their historical setting. The time period between the wars saw major changes in British society. The always rigid class system was breaking down, women were joining the workforce, and the transition from horses to automobiles was taking place. The backdrop for all of this is the fear of a new war with Germany, a particularly horrid possibility for those who had suffered and lost so much in WWI. In addition to meeting all kinds of every day London characters the stories are rich in historical references. In this novel set in 1931 an out of power and somewhat down and out Winston Churchill makes an appearance. Also present is Hugh Dowling, a prescient Briton who understood the Nazi threat and did more than anyone to prepare Britain’s air force for the coming air war. Lastly I enjoy the depth of character development in the recurring characters in this series. I guess I am just a sucker for a good historical Upstairs/Downstairs soap opera, gotta finish this post and watch Dowton Abbey! If you read Maisie you’ll enjoy this one, if you don’t and like historical fiction try one out but start at the beginning with Maisie Dobbs- Book 1.

I read a copy of the book provided by the Amazon Vine program for early reviewers.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Philly War Zone

Philly War Zone - Growing Up in a Racial Battleground  by Kevin Purcell,  Xlibris Corp, January 2012

...this narrative conveys the emotions and fears of the young who experienced this situation

Kevin Purcell has recounted his years as a young boy growing up in a racially changing neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The author is the second of five boys living in a row house on a small street in the city. From the time he was very young, play in the neighborhood centered on sports at the local playground (Myers) where the community gathered to watch sports. Pickup games included local high school and college kids, black and white known city-wide for their skill. As the neighborhood changes from white families to large numbers of black families tensions skyrocket. Fighting among young boys and teens from both races becomes commonplace. For the author 10 to 13 years old at the time, fear becomes a daily emotion. Over a fairly short period of time – 2-4 years – events in the neighborhood accelerate from fighting to murder. Both a black teen and a white teen are killed. The author actually traveled with the white boy on the night he was killed.

The author does an excellent job relating these events. His narrative conveys the emotions and fears of the young who experienced this situation. I am sure his story will be well received by folks who grew up in that time in that area. He briefly tries to explain why this situation became so explosive.

This neighborhood changed from white to black in an incredibly short time. Driven by realtors who frightened anxious white home owners about diminishing property values many blocks in this area saw every house change hands in 2-3 years. Add to the mix large numbers of adolescent and teenage boys white and black vying for use of a limited number of city play spaces. Finally think about the lack of community leaders who might have stepped in to help diffuse tensions. Chief among them in my opinion was the Catholic Church. Most of the largely Irish Catholic families in this neighborhood attended Most Blessed Sacrament (MBS) School. The church held huge influence within this community but with few exceptions provided no leadership or guidance during this crisis. In fact the church wasn’t good about teaching Catholics how to get along with anybody not just non-Catholics (publics!) but even other Catholics – they had separate parishes for Polish, Italian and Lithuanian Catholics.

I enjoyed this book particularly all of the descriptions of the neighborhood. I also grew up four blocks from where the author lived, but we moved from this neighborhood in 1965, a few years before these events. What a heartbreak the author has described here, especially if we can’t take some life lessons from the experience.

I read a copy of this book that I bought