Thursday, May 31, 2012

An Unmarked Grave

by Charles Todd, William Morrow, June 2012

...a worthy contender for your reading pleasure.

Some Spoilers - When we rejoin Bess Crawford, WWI nurse and amateur private detective, it is right in the middle of a Spanish flu epidemic in an aid station near the frontlines in France.  A kindly orderly has brought Bess to view a body in the morgue; not a battlefield or flu causality this soldier who Bess recognizes as a comrade in arms of her father has been murdered.  Soon Bess falls gravely ill with the flu and the orderly is found hanged.  Bess survives the flu unlike so many others in that scourge.  As she recovers she refocuses on the murder of this man.  After regaining her strength she returns to nursing duties in France but continues to pull at the threads of this mystery.  It soon becomes apparent that she too is a target of the murderer.  A thwarted attack on Bess brings her father, the Colonel Sahib, to provide some protection; he sends an American who masquerades as an orderly to protect Bess.  Suspects are identified with the requisite red herrings thrown in before the search of the battlefields focuses on a man with grey eyes masquerading as a major in the British army.  Bess moves from France to England and back again with relative ease as she eludes and then follows the suspect. In the end as expected she gets the bad guy but not before some suspense and gunplay.

I liked this story better than any of the three earlier ones.  The majority of the action takes place in France and has a realism to it.  Additionally Bess seems to have developed some toughness to her.  No more is Simon appearing from nowhere to save her from danger.  In this story she is armed and dangerous and saves herself from attacks.  I liked the depictions of the Spanish Flu pandemic; this onslaught actually killed more people than the war and disproportionally killed young adults.  The pacing of this book was faster than the three earlier ones, events moved right along.  And while Bess is the love interest of several of the characters, this doesn’t slow down the story.   So while Bess still falls short of the high standards of the Maisie Dobbs series, this book is a worthy contender for your reading pleasure!
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Inquisitor

by Mark Allen Smith, Henry Holt and Co., April, 2012

...a perfect airplane read

The mysterious Geiger is in the Information Retrieval business.  He can tell if someone is lying and has numerous psychological techniques that force his targets to reveal the information that they are hiding.  In great demand by big business and the government Geiger has no shortage of work.  Most in his line of work use physical torture but not him.  He is an enigmatic character.  He arrived in NYC on a bus with little memory of his early life.  He is distant, antisocial and oddly sympathetic as a character.  He has only one friend, Harry his sidekick and business partner.  In his informational retrieval business his only rule is that he will not work with children. A client arrives with a last minute change; instead of the man Geiger is to question his young son is presented for questioning.  Unexpectedly Geiger takes the boy under his protection and attempts to keep him safe from the bad guys.  The story then becomes a cat and mouse thriller as Geiger and Harry try to outwit the bad guys and return the young boy to his mother.
For me this was a quick read.  The violence in the story was considerable and fairly graphic.  The writing style is lean and sparse, no unneeded words used in telling this story.  The plot was straightforward with few unexpected twists but it moved right along.  The main character would remind you of the strong silent types – think Joe Pike in the Robert Crais series – flawed but basically a decent man.  The author reveals some but not all of Geiger’s back-story.  I am sure that we’ll see more of Geiger and the much more human Harry.  I’ll read the next book before I give a yea or nay on this series.  The Inquisitor is a perfect airplane read - doesn't ask much of you and provides some light entertainment.  

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Language of Flowers - Review and Giveaway

by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, narrated by Tara Sands, Audible Audio, 10 hrs., 50 min, August 2011

This is a story that will stick with you for a long time.

This is the story of Victoria Jones, who at age 18 has been emancipated from the foster care system.  It is a story that will stick with you for a long time.  Victoria has been placed unsuccessfully in numerous foster care homes by a social worker who only seems happy when she has passed the burden of Victoria to someone else.  When Victoria is freed of this system she is bitter, angry and unable to connect with most people.  She decides to live in a small park and plant a flower garden.  She was introduced to flowers and their meanings (the language) by Elizabeth a woman who had wanted to adopt Victoria when she was younger.  The story is told by alternating chapters from Victoria’s life 10 years ago and her life today.   She is hired by a florist and her natural ability with flowers allows her by sheer willpower to put together a life.  She has an uncanny ability to arrange and choose flowers that communicate the feelings of the giver.  She becomes successful at this and almost is able to overcome her aloneness and find happiness.  She connects with another florist, Grant and they develop a relationship.  You are told the back-story of her childhood in small pieces.  She is taken in by Elizabeth and very nearly adopted, we don’t know the reason it failed until late in the story.  I don’t want to give away much of this plot as it is lovingly doled out by the author over the entire book. 

The author’s use of flowers and their meanings, developed by Victorians in the late nineteenth century, adds an unusual dimension to the story.  Evidently there was an entire language of flowers.  When a Victorian maiden would receive a bouquet she would rush to interpret the sender’s meaning - Helioptrope (devoted affection), Black-Eyed Susan (justice), Hawthorn (hope), Liatris (I will try again), and Lisianthus (appreciation).

This is really a novel about relationships and how imperfect they can be.  Just when you hope that Victoria will triumph and sustain a loving relationship the insecurities of her childhood rise up and overwhelm her.  This is an emotional rollercoaster of a story that in the end does allow imperfect people who love to be rewarded for their persistence, but getting there will take its toll on the reader.  I listened to the audio version of this book and Tara Sands the narrator was superb! 

This book is just being released in paperback and the publisher has given me a copy for giveaway, if you are interested follow the directions to the right of this box.  Giveaway ends May 28.  This book would be a great bookclub read.
I listened to audio of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Another Time, Another Life

by Leif GW Persson  Pantheon,Tra Edition, March 2012

This is a very good mystery

This is a complex murder mystery set in Sweden over a 25 years period.   In 1975 leftist radicals capture the German embassy in Stockholm and inadvertently blow up the embassy.  Several of the radicals are killed and many are gravely injured.  While the radicals are all German the police suspect that they had help from Swedes.   A decade later a seemly unconnected murder of a civil servant is investigated by police officers Bo Jarnebring and Anna Holt.  The investigation is headed up by an incompetent supervisor, Evert Bäckström and despite the best investigative efforts of the police the murder is unsolved and lumped into a series of homosexual sex crimes.  Ten years later the murder case resurfaces and the investigation leads right into the prime minister’s cabinet.

This is a very good mystery.  It is translated from Swedish and has a clinical documentary style to it.  I’m unsure if the author intended this style or it came from the translation but it works well for this story.  The majority of the story deals with the murder investigation and the techniques used by the Swedish police.  This section is very interesting and as good a police procedural as you’ll read.  The character development of the major characters is well done and the author gives them enough of a back-story to make you care about them.  The section of the book that deals with the investigation of a potential government minister reads like an investigative journalist report.  You can really imagine this stuff happening!

I’d highly recommend this book and look forward to more from this author.
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The House at Tyneford

by Natasha Solomons, Plume, December 2011

Read this is if you like romance with a great historical setting

The opening chapters of this novel describe the carefree life in Vienna in the 1930s.  Our heroine, Elise Landua is the nineteen year old daughter of an artistic family.  Her mother is a famous opera singer and her father a novelist.  They are Jews.  Recognizing the threat that the Nazi regime represents, Elise’s father works to get them out of Vienna.  Her sister manages a passage to California; her parents await visas to do the same.  Elise at the urging of her parents takes a position as a parlor maid in a manor house in southern England.  So begins the tale.
Elise struggles with her changed circumstances but receives support from both the down stairs servants and the lord of the manor, Christopher Rivers.  In a turn of events that should not surprise even one reader Elise falls in love with Kit, the only son of Mr. Rivers.  War comes and hope for Elise’s parents fades as England struggles in the early years of the war.  Elise’s love affair with Kit is frowned on by the servants but in a response that seems unlikely at best is supported by Kit’s father.  There are some idyllic scenes of manor life that are in sharp contrast to the events of the Dunkirk evacuation and its aftermath.   As with almost all war novels, there is loss; this one is no exception.

This is a World War II novel with an original plot.  I am always fascinated with the almost random circumstances that allowed some Jews to escape the Nazi terror.  I had not read previously that some wealthy Jewish families arranged for their sons and daughters to emigrate on work visas as house servants.  The author does a good job of contrasting the carefree high society life of Vienna with the bleakness and rigidity of the English class system.  The downstairs servants are well drawn and the English desire to maintain normalcy in the face of severe deprivation is depicted.  The plot then moves to a more traditional story line (think Rebecca, Mrs. Miniver, etc.) and if you miss this shift the author actually has the characters attend a movie showing where the feature is Rebecca. 

The writing contains a lot more descriptive paragraphs than I’d find necessary to tell this story.  I skimmed over quite a few.  I had to keep reminding myself that this novel is tagged as historical romance, not a genre I usually read.  I found the ending quite unbelievable but if you recognize that this story was first and foremost a romance, no other ending would do. Read this is if you like romance with a great historical setting.

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

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948

by Madeleine Albright, Harper Publishing, April 2012

...a marvelous personal account of monumental events

I do have a weakness for reading histories of the first half of the twentieth century.  Just when I think there can’t be anything new to learn about this time period I read a personal account of events that brings a whole new perspective.  Madeleine Albright, former US secretary of state, has written just such a history in recounting events in Czechoslovakia from 1937-1948.  Interspersed with these major events is the story of Albright’s own family.  Her father, Josef Korbel was a diplomat for the Czech government and worked in Prague before WWII, in London during the war and back in Czechoslovakia after the war.  His family, Albright and her mother and later a sister and brother accompanied him during this time.   
Albright who has access to her father’s diplomatic papers gives very good descriptions of the major players in this drama.  The larger than life founder of the republic; TG Masaryk is described as is Edvard Benes the Czech president in exile during WWII.  Czechoslovakia was really the only true eastern European democracy after WWI.  The republic was betrayed at Munich by the British and French when they ceded parts of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.   Albright tells this story from the Czech viewpoint and it reads like a thriller.  She also describes scenes and characters from the Czech resistance movement during the war who assassinated the Reich proctor, Reinhard Heydrich.  Again the detail in this story is riveting.  When the war ends the Czechoslovakia is again abandoned by the western allies and the Soviet Union adds Czechoslovakia to its group of satellite states in eastern Europe.  In the immediate post war years Albright’s father is a key player in the democratic government and is forced to leave the country after the Soviets murder Jan Marysk the pro western foreign minister.  Albright examines all of the evidence about Masaryk’s death and concludes as have most historians that he was murdered by the Soviets.
While the national events are interesting, Albright’s family story is fascinating.  As you might know, Albright found out in the 1990s that her heritage was Jewish and not Roman Catholic as she had thought.  Her parents became Catholics in Britain during the war and never discussed that decision with their children.  The family was not religious so I continue to be puzzled by this decision made in the relative safety of England in 1940.  Albright seems as mystified by the decision as I was.  Most of her extended family (grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles) was lost in the Holocaust.  She discussed this in the book, and as with any story that puts faces on this horror it is quite moving.  Her family experienced the Blitz in London and the post war events in Prague and in Belgrade where her father was ambassador.  She details the leadership failings that allowed communism to rise in Czechoslovakia.  The book ends the story in 1948 when the Korbels immigrate to the United States. 
 I was interested to read this book because I will attend an author event where Albright will speak about the story.  Only in American could someone, a woman no less, come as an immigrant and end up as the secretary of state.  Can’t wait to hear her story first hand!
I read a copy of this book that I bought

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Lifeboat

by Charlotte Rogan

I think you'll either love this book or hate it, not sure which!

Set in 1914, two years after the Titanic sinking this story deals with the survivors of a mysterious explosion on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner.  Grace Winter is 22 years old and newly married; when we meet her in the lifeboat she realizes she is now a widow.  Her husband has secured her a place in the lifeboat as the ocean liner sinks in the north Atlantic.  The lifeboat is severely overcrowded and if any are to survive some must perish.  The survivors spend weeks awaiting rescue and have innumerable challenges of weather, lack of food and water, and hostilities among the occupants of the lifeboat. The story of the survivors is told by Grace as she writes a journal to recount what happened in that lifeboat.  Early in the story we learn that Grace and others are on trial for murder for their actions in the lifeboat.  While a fascinating plot line this story left me cold.
Grace had schemed to become engaged to her high society husband by ensnaring him while he was engaged to another woman.  Several other unflattering episodes (impressing her mother-in-law) made her a less than sympathetic heroine for me.  While Grace narrates the actions that the survivors take in the lifeboat you are really not sure if  she is slanting events to her advantage so that she may keep the riches of her husband’s estate or was she truly overcome by the ordeal and in a zombie like state participating in the murder.  I could never decide which of these was true, but in the end I decided that it didn’t matter.  Grace had so little passion to her that I didn’t care whether she was guilty or not.   I hate books with unreliable narrators as they are so ambiguous in their treatments of issues and events; I know that “good literature” should make you think but at this stage in my life I am looking for a more entertaining read than this was.  I am also looking for more likeable heroes than provided here.   The ending of the book, where Grace ends up married to her lawyer (what was he thinking marrying this cold fish?) I think supports my vote for Grace as a schemer.  So this tale in the end leaves the reader to wonder if to be a survivor you must adopt a code of behavior that is first of all self serving.   Should a few be sacrificed to save the many?
The author does an excellent job of describing conditions in the lifeboat and vividly outlines the struggles of the survivors.  She also includes the gender politics of the early twentieth century in the action of the story.  I think this would be an excellent book club book.  I can imagine that some readers would be diametrically opposed to my interpretation of Grace’s actions; you would have some lively debate.  So I think you’ll either be lukewarm towards this book or perhaps love it!   
I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Gods of Gotham

by Lindsay Faye, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
 March 2012

If you like historical fiction or even if you just like a good mystery read this one!

Set in New York City in 1845 this novel is alive with detail that engages the reader from the first page.  The protagonist, Timothy Wilde is left homeless, broke, unemployed and disfigured when a major fire burns most of lower Manhattan.  Unable to find other work he accepts an appointment to the newly formed NYC police department and is given a copper star.  NYC in 1845 is teeming with immigrants driven from Ireland by famine and deposited on the streets of New York.  The city is constantly on edge anticipating riots as the native New Yorkers loath and fear the Irish.  Wilde is dropped into the middle of this cauldron.  He relocated to the poverty stricken Sixth Ward and begins his job as a policeman.   In his first days he comes across a 10 year old girl running from a child prostitution ring.  She tells him of a mysterious stranger who comes to the brothel and cuts up children.  Soon a child’s corpse is discovered giving credence to her story.  So the mystery begins.
There were so many good things about this book!  It has marvelous historical detail written in very engaging prose.  You really get a feel for life on the streets of NYC in the 1840s.  The words that the author writes make the images of these streets come alive.  The evolution of the main character Tim Wilde from a fairly timid bartender to the city’s first police detective is very good.  His love affair with the minister’s daughter develops another facet of his character.  He is an appealing character that you’ll find yourself rooting for throughout the book.  The supporting characters – Wilde’s brother Valentine a rogue and a Democratic Party henchman, his love interest Mercy Underhill and her father Reverend Underhill, and Bird Daly the little girl who starts it all – are well developed and really add to the story.  The history of the founding of the NYC police department (politicized from the get go!) is weaved into the story, with some real life characters to support it.  The mystery itself is good and the denouement is excellent, but in the end this so much more than a mystery.   The author has an earlier book about Sherlock Holmes and London (Dust and Shadow)  that I am off to find and read.  If you like historical fiction or even if you just like a good mystery read this one!

I read a copy of this novel borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia