30.4.13

BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON, by Dorothy L. Sayers

6?/series. The fabulous follow-up to Gaudy Nights will leave you swooning with delight from the first pages to the last. Lord Peter Wimsey bites the marital dust, and with his usual exquisite style. This is how a honeymoon should go (no, not the murder in the honeymoon home and its inquest, nor the press, nor the police, nor the shotguns up the chimney), but the meshing of two very individual lives with care and tenderness and concern. The comic moments - and there are a lot of them - will have you howling, the tender ones reaching for the next Dove miniature. I love this author! She's a little bit of work but worth it. It’s a 5+ and an exquisite, intellectual read, loaded with humor and tenderness. Book groups could try this.

29.4.13

AN EVIL EYE, by Jason Goodwin

3/series. If you aren't reading this fascinating series of adventure of the fictional Ottoman sleuth Yashim, you are missing out: historian Goodwin plops you right in the middle of 19thC Istanbul: intrigue, betrayal, harems, assassins, good Bordeaux wines, violin playing and other music, and a complex, subtle royal mystery that starts with an infant being tossed from a burning house. While these books stand alone better than most, reading in order is encouraged.This series is, if you're fond of historical fiction with an intellectual flavor, perfection. A fabulous 5. www.jasongoodwin.info

COCAINE BLUES, by Kerry Greenwood

1/series. Since the London Season is proving so tedious, fashionable-on-the-surface Phrynne Fisher decides to take on Melbourne, Australia, where she agrees to go find a friend’s daughter. But the daughter has vanished, the irate husband is on a drinking spree (having tied the two little girls in the back yard), and Phrynne must discover the lost woman’s whereabouts. Soon there’s a poisoning (to say nothing of poisoned words and poisonous people), cocaine, and an exotic Russian dancer named Sasha who’s as adept horizontally as he is vertically. A romp, a sassy, gun-toting, Poirot-wearing heroine to adore, a 5. See all the books at www.phrynnefisher.com

VOODOO SEASON, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

The atmospheric New Orleans of the famous 19th century voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is brought to life, almost literally, in this fascinating novel as her 21st century descendant returns to the Big Uneasy and copes with murder, mayhem, memories and the undead. The edgy African-American protagonist finds love in a lot of the wrong places, as she confronts ghosts both personal and historical, past and present, real and unreal. Very atmospheric! This author can really create some fantastical foggy-night scenes, and her bad guys are really, really bad. It’s a 4. Don't read it when the fog is creeping in through the dark. 3 for sex.

28.4.13

BLACK FRIDAYS, by Michael Sears

Few debut novels have a more sure first-person voice than this one; author Sears has the Wall Street chops to make his character’s attitudes and motivations completely believable. Jason Stafford, ex-Wall Street wonder boy, ex-con (one thing led directly to the next), has paid his debt to society. Now he wants to get on with his life, maybe reconnect with his wife, absolutely with his autistic son, AKA Kid. Jason’s offered a simple job for a lotta bucks: checking trading history of a murdered broker. But first, the Kid; he breaks his parole to get his son in Louisiana. No spoilers, you’ll have to read this fast-paced and well-plotted book to find out what happens when the law appears, when more deaths happen, and…. It’s a marvelous 4+.

OVER HIS DEAD BODY, by Leslie Glass

Cassie Sales realizes one morning that she’s got the short end of the stick, but even she couldn’t dream of how short it actually is. While her wine-importer husband is negotiating in Italy, she has her face lifted. When rude, grumpy Mitch returns, he takes one look at his swollen, stitched-up wife and keels over: stroke. Cassie enters Mitch’s long-locked office and, for the first time, finds out about her husband’s very rich life. But that’s just the first of many problems. A 4. More than just the perfect beach read.

DEATH AND RESTORATION, by Iain Pears

5?/series. Further Roman adventures with art historian Jonathan Argyll and his Art Theft Squad fiancee Flavia di Stefano, this time with the proposed theft of a troubled monastery’s most prized treasure. As always, Pears creates a beguiling world of ancient art, modern evil, ambiguous morals, ethics both noble and crass…and a very satisfying mystery. All the delightful old characters are here, plus a few new ones, and a few very nice surprises as well. This is a great series, particularly if you like Italy, art, and skulduggery without gratuitous violence or sex. A 4+.

27.4.13

A DEATH IN VIENNA, by Frank Tallis

Quick: what’s Vienna noted for? Sigmund Freud, coffee houses and sachertorte, right? In this deeply-written tale you’ll get a lot of all of those plus intrigue, murder, deception, Sigmund Freud’s penchant for telling Jewish jokes, and a heart-rending look at the outwardly-pleasant, inwardly-nightmarish life of 19th century upper-class women. Be glad you live when you do! And be glad you can read such a well-founded, well-written novel; the author doesn't set a foot wrong. It’s a 5, and well worth your time if you ennjoy historical fiction. Could be a good book for a group, too.

SWEET UTOPIA, by Sharon Valencik *COOKBOOK*

 No, this is not a romance title, although it is, in a way, a love letter: to desserts.This is more than just a vegan sweets book, it has conversion charts for us regular people, so you can make some fabulously pretty desserts. Her recipes for a variety of easy-fix crusts are perfect for the inept baker (that’s me), and the range of difficulty is from simple to you-can-do-it complex.. Instructions are clear and user-friendly and photos are excellent. The author/chef has put into your hands endless ways to delight your family and awe your friends. It’s a 5.

PEMBERLY RANCH, by Jack Caldwell

This is a romance set in Texas just after the Civil War when carpetbaggers abounded and thieves had respectable jobs. Such is the case in tiny Rosings, Texas, where former Confederate officer Captain William Darcy must keep his ranch and keep his sister from the depredations of George Whitehead, Recorder of Deeds, murderer, and villain with designs on everything and everyone. But he hasn't counted on Darcy. And Darcy hasn't counted on the enchanting, newly-arrived Beth Bennett. And then the sparks fly, literally and figuratively. The plotting is good, the action is clear and believable, the romance satisfying (mostly), and the climactic scenes wrap it all up neatly. It's a 2; if the writing had been better (characterizations are a little one-dimensional, and even in a Texas-based romance, they ought to be deeper), I'd have given it a 3.

26.4.13

RUMPOLE AND THE PRIMROSE PATH, by John Mortimer

A half dozen entertaining mysteries solved as only the inimitable barrister Horace Rumpole can. I am not normally a short story fan, but these are like a box of fine chocolates: you can’t consume just one, you’ve got to have the whole thing. From a rest home where Rumpole is being treated like a pre-schooler to the haute-law confines of the Old Bailey, from She Who Must Be Obeyed to an eternally lovelorn colleague,  Rumpole sets the world right with a sly naïveté that’s unmatchable. Great plot turns, and an exquisite eye for the telling detail. Rumpole is a total delight. A 5.

GAUDY NIGHTS, by Dorothy L Sayers

An exquisite 1930’s murder mystery set at a women’s university at Oxford, and complete with all the obscure Britishisms and upper-class wit you could ever want. Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey tackle, almost literally, an anonymous letter-sending vandal whose effect leads its victims to collapse. But is the suicide really a suicide? A long, satisfying tale with a subtle and satisfying romance entwined in the other action. Ideal for those who want a more challenging style of writing, perfect for a week’s vacation. It’s a 5+, a marvelous ecovation of a long-gone (probably) world. Some book clubs would enjoy this. And its sequel, Busman's Holiday, is the perfect follow-up.

25.4.13

LASSITER, by Paul Levine

Once upon a time, Jake Lassiter was a Miami Dolphins fullback (or whatever, he played: football, okay?), then his knee was destroyed and he became a lawyer. He took his gutsy style of playing on field into the courtroom, and has become the industry poster-boy for how not to try a case. This volume in the series takes Lassiter into the past, when he was a beer-swilling, womanizing jock…and the consequences of what he did in those rumbustious days. Not quite up to Levine’s usual standards, but still a good read, particularly Jake's relationship with his teenaged nephew, and the climactic scenes. A 3.

24.4.13

A FAREWELL IN SPLENDOR, by Jerrold M Packard

Non-fiction should always be this marvelous a read. The end of the Victorian era as seen during the fabled Queens’ final days brings all the disparate threads of her life and love, her children and grandchildren, the political machinations of the day, and the glories and tragedies of her 60+ year reign. With crystal clarity and the occasional tongue in cheek, this author entertains and educates. Even if you have little interet in Victoria personally, this is a compelling book, very readable and completely fascinating, an easily-digested portrait of an age. A 5.

23.4.13

THE SILENT MAN, by Alex Berenson

Few authors put their heroes through so much work and danger as Berenson: superman and CIA loose cannon  John Wells ricochets from Langley to Moscow to Zurich and back while the love of his life recuperates from an assassination attempt. Often stymied by his self-seeking boss (to sa ynothing of Washington politics), Wells often has what he considers a fine reason to go his own way. At first, he's seeking revenge, but then the plot takes a turn and it's a stolen Russian A-bomb. Even the villains and the victims in this taut tale are interesting, and the plot rarely falters. Berenson's got a fabulous talent for completely believeable action and plot. And John Wells is the perfect protagonist. A 5.

22.4.13

GETTING OFF, by Lawrence Block writing as Jill Emerson

This won’t be for everyone as you might tell from the title, and the very naked knife-carrying woman on the cover (and the fact that the extremely talented Block’s writings so often stray this way). Few people write better sex scenes (there’s twenty or thirty in this little volume alone) than this guy. So strap yourself in, and hang on. A raunchy take on the progress of a mass murderer leaves that TV show in the dust.  Jennifer…Kitty… Carol…Kim…Audrey…her name changes but her plan doesn’t. Once they’ve made love, they’re dead. But why? Be prepared for a few-holds-barred story in Block’s inimitable deadpan style. It’s a 4, with 5+ sex.

SIGNUP PROBLEMS

I have had feedback from friends that signing up on my blog requires the prospective follower have a Google or Facebook or other social media account. As you don't want to add more stuff to your internet life, you haven't signed on my blog. That's a bummer. For those of you who are very happy with what you have, but none of it is the social media or Google-related sights required, I am trying to figure out how to get a signup that asks only that you give your current e-mail. Simple, hey? Not.
Google apparently wants us all linked into one happy world-wide family, all of whom spend 25 hours a day googling, facebooking, pinteresting, blogging and tweeting. That world view gives me the screaming willies, frankly.
I want you all to sign up and follow my blog without being forced to add yet another account to your already full roster. I would feel the same way were I in your shoes. I'm happy with what I have and I don't want yet another internet account clammoring for my attention, another password to keep track of, another way inside my computer to worry about.
I am working on a solution. It's going to take a bit of time; I do not blog 25 hours a day. I, like you, have a life. So...be patient, please. I'll get it done quick as I can. And then all you'll have to cope with is my posts! Thanks.
P. S.: if you can insert a comment to this post, I will let you know how I've accomplished the task (when I accomplish the task).

21.4.13

PRIDE AND PRESCIENCE, by Carrie Bebris

This first in a series starring Jane Austen’s newly-married Elizabeth Darcy and her aristocratic husband is so divinely satisfying that I may have to become an Austin fan. Author Bebris has got the tone and the dress and the milieu exactly right. Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, along with her sister Jane and her husband, become sucked into caring for a distraught new bride at Jane’s rented country house. Other houseguests include a professor obsessed with the occult, a nasty merchant with a penchant for rudeness, overeager gardeners, and a murderer. It’s a 5, a great start.

20.4.13

PHILOSOPHY MADE SIMPLE, by Robert Hellenga

If you read Hellenga's The Sixteen Pleasures and The Italian Lover, you are familiar with the Harrington family; now you can meet (and will absolutely adore) Rudy, the father, who is on a mission to understand his life. At age 60, still mourning his straying Helen who came home to die seven years earlier, he leaves Detroit and his entire life-so-far behind and buys an avocado farm in Texas. He then settles in to understand philosophy (really, with a capital P). Click below for more. . .

19.4.13

SNAKEWOMAN OF LITTLE EGYPT, by Robert Hellenga

This is one of my favorite American authors, and one you may not know. Delight yourself with any of his marvelous, unpredictable books. This one is compelling on so many levels: as a chronicle of search and discovery and loss, of occupations and avocations, as love stories, of the perils of ignoring or indulging desires. Author Hellenga’s trademark style of fine prose, unique characters (a snake handling backwoods preacher, an anthropology professor recovering from Lyme disease, a pygmy mistress, a gun-toting ex-con with a jones for higher education…), click below for more no-spoiler review...

BELIEVING THE LIE, by Elizabeth George

What happened when you believe a lie? Aren't we lied to, every day, by friends and relatives and governments and companies? Don't we all tell lies, large and small? Aren't lies what often make life bearable? Inspector Thomas Linley, still devastated by his wife's murder, intimately involved with a hard-drinking superior, is ordered to investigate a death ruled accidental by a coroner. A wealthy family with an estate on Lake Windermere has welcomed home a prodigal son with his new wife. Recently, a married cousin has been forced to come out of the closet; his selfish wife and young children have disintegrated. The prodigal's siblings react in wildly opposite ways. In London, Lynley's police partner Barbara Havers must pretend to welcome the long-missing wife of her neighbor, father of bubbly young Haddiya. Simon and Debra St. James, Lynley's close friends, are trying to come to terms with Debra's inability to have a child. Everyone tells lies, believes lies, even needs lies...new lies, old lies, deadly lies And where they lead to will keep you magnetized, mesmerized, and questioning...when does a lie stop being an easy way out and become lethal? Stupendous book; very suitable for a wide-ranging book group. It's a 5+

18.4.13

A MURDER IN MAYFAIR, by Robert Barnard

This stand-alone intrigue begins with a cryptic message to newly-nominated Junior Minister Colin Pinnock: who do you think you are? He dismisses the note, and the next one as well; but then his ailing father murmurs something: “We were so happy when you came.” Now Colin has to think about words: what do these mean? As hints and clues pile up, he begins to actively search into his past to find where he actually came from. The startling answers come piecemeal, but culminate in a life-threatening encounter he’d never have imagined. A fine read by an accomplished mystery writer: nicely drawn characters and a solid plot that unwinds to a startling concludion. It’s a 4.

17.4.13

KILLING CRITICS, by Carol O'Connell

A hack artist is boldly killed during an art soiree in a New York gallery. Is it to be considered a work of art? Mallory, with her unerring talent for finding hidden meanings, soon links this killing with the grisly death and dismemberment of two artists over a decade before. An alcoholic art critic becomes a megaphone-wielding fashion Nazi atop Bergdorf's, while another tries to flirt with the unflirtable Mallory. From a hidden rat-infested lair of a homeless woman to the poshest galleries, Mallory's search for links to the past will keep you pinned to your seat. O'Connell's gift for slyly inserting bizarre or humorous incidents into a grippingly tense story is absolutely masterful. A 5, and I can't wait for the next Mallory.

16.4.13

THE KINGDOM OF BONES, by Stephen Gallagher

Pinkerton detective Sebastian Becker bumps into an old adversary, the down and out former boxing champion Tom Sayers who was once framed for the horrific murders of  English street children but escaped. Sayers, at the time road manager for a theater company, had become obsessed with the lovely Louise Porter, and his obsession takes him from England to America as he follows her trail. As the story switches between present day (1860's) America and London's theatrical underbelly while the besotted Sayers searches for Louise, the tale takes on unexpected demonic dimensions. Fans of the occult will enjoy this, as will lovers of the historic mystery genre. A 5.

14.4.13

SEASHELLS, GATOR BONES, AND THE CHURCH OF EVERLASTING LIABILITY, by Susan Adger

What fun! Settle down and enjoy a trip back to the 1930’s with the one-of-a-kind residents of Toad Springs, Florida. Meet Flavey Stroudmore, whose three-legged gator Precious has a birthmark shaped like Jesus. And Sorrey May Only, sure neighbor Gladys killed her husband by starting a fight over Dirty Sally, their dog. Or Pastor Buck Blander, who’s telling nobody how he learned his preaching skills. With chapter titles such as I Shoulda Stuck With the Kewpie Doll, and Who Says You Can’t Cheat at Bingo?, you know you’re in for a great read. You should know that Susan Adger is a good friend of mine, but I believe this is a great, heartwarming book that you will absolutely love. It's a 5.

POMPEII, by Robert Harris

The author of Fatherland, Enigma and The Ghost takes us to August, 79 AD, and the soon-to-be-obliterated city of Pompeii. Young water engineer Marcus Attilius Primus, fresh from Rome, goes up against entrenched interests to fix the broken aqueduct on which the entire region relies. As he traces the problems to the source, he realizes what's about to happen. Knowing the ending doesn't keep this book from being enthralling. What's just as fascinating is that Vesuvius, today crouching over millions of inhabitants of Naples, is building up another head of steam and the only evacuation plan seems to be along the lines of "kiss your butt goodbye". Will today's Neapolitans be any luckier than those millennia ago? This is an 4+, and a compelling, very human, read.

13.4.13

STONE ANGEL, by Carol O'Connell

Detective Kathy Mallory leaves New York City for the place she was born, a small town in Louisiana where the cast of characters includes everyone but her mother, who was murdered a dozen years before. Mallory (never call her Kathy) is here to, literally, take names: who murdered her mother and why? Was Mallory witness? From a decaying house along the levee to a religiously-fueled lynch mob, O'Connell keeps you on a roller coaster racketing along at top speed. With her highly-developed eye for red herrings and important clues masquerading as absurd vignettes, O'Connell reels us along as Charles Butler arrives to assist and protect the woman he often wishes he didn't love. And loyal, alcoholic Riker, another man who'd take a bullet for Mallory, is not far behind. This book is a lesson in how to write a top-of-the-list murder mystery. It's a 5+.

WELL-SCHOOLED IN MURDER, by Elizabeth George

One of the long-running and phenominally successful Lynley novels, also seen on TV. Aristocratic Inspector Lynley and his fashion-failure working-class sidekick Barbara Havers are thrust into an investigation of the disappearance of a young boy from a school. When Deborah St. James, Lynley's old love and wife of his best friend, finds a child's naked body in a churchyard, forensic scientist Simon St. James is drawn into the search. The center is Bredigar Chambers, a "public" (we'd say private, posh and privileged) school, where old school traditions of honor clash with the students' tradition of secrecy and silence regardless of how terrible the situation. Will old school ties win out? Will secret longings be revealed? Will everyone's demons be vanquished and tensions resolved? As always, George delivers. First published in 1990, the story deals with issues all too critical today. All Lynley stories save one (What Came Before He Killed Her) can be read as stand-alones, but in series makes them so much better. A 5. www.elizabethgeorgeonline.com

TOMB OF THE GOLDEN BIRD, by Elizabeth Peters

Anyone out there interested in King Tutankhamon? Thought so. This novel (pub 2006 in paperback) follows the irrepressible Amelia Peabody, her thunderous husband Radcliffe Emerson and their irrepressible son Ramses as they stand by and watch Howard Carter make the find of the century. Of course, plotting abounds, and there's the obligatory murder, Ramses continual disappearances, and a host of really fascinating characters. Not least is Howard Carter, the grumpy obsessed archeologist who first viewed those "beautiful things". For an insider/outsider's look at the dig, meticulously researched by a gen-u-wine Egyptologist, this is the read. A 5.

12.4.13

WINTER HOUSE, by Carol O’Connell

9/series. The ancestral Winter brownstone in New York City was designed for grand poses and fabulous parties, so the body of a seedy burglar at the foot of the stairs just doesn’t fit in. NYPD Detective Kathy Mallory, as ever suspicious and relying on her knife-sharp intuition, notices the precise placement of an icepick, and recalls another icepick mass murder involving the Winter clan. With Riker, her alcohol-soaked, wardrobe-challenged sidekick and Charles Butler, her adoring assistant and secret business partner, Mallory (never call her Kathy) and her odd assortment of friends figure it all out. As usual, this psychologically-torturous novel is a great example of stellar writing and plotting: a 5.

11.4.13

CHALK GIRL, by Carol O’Connell

9/series. Mallory returns to the craziness of New York City, to a lost child with an odd medical condition, and other children who long ago were private school bullies. Now, someone’s playing out a bizarre revenge fantasy in Central Park. With the usual full cast of totally weird characters including socialites and cops, politicians and drug-addled felons, O’Connell almost pulls off the story. For me, the basic idea on which all is built is unsound: why would loving parents, faced with clear, continuing physical evidence that their child is being viciously tortured by classmates, stand by and do nothing? Their atonement is meaningless; in this rare case, the author has made characters who, as portrayed, are hard to believe could exist. The writing is, as always, a stellar and skilfull 5, but the basic idea is at best a 3. So...let's call it a 4.

10.4.13

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, by Sara Gruen

It's hard to top the reviews of this award-winning book, deservedly a best seller. It's a beguiling memoir told by a 93-year old ex-circus man, which will sweep you into the long-gone world of quirky performers, fabulous beasts, conniving owners, sad clowns, and the dangers and delights of a traveling circus. Animal doctor Jacob Jankowski's memories bring the past to vivid life, from personal to circus disaster, with a wealth of detail that will keep you riveted. Perfectly wonderful book, a 5+, a fun read but thought-provoking for a book group.

THE LISBON CROSSING, by Tom Gabbay

Lisbon, 1940. Paris is in Nazi hands. Anyone who could flee has gone, many to neutral Portugal. Jack Teller, German-born Hollywood stunt man, escorts Lili Sterne, German-born screen legend, on Sterne's personal mission to rescue an old chum. While the Gestapo lurks, Teller meets the Windsors: the Duke and Duchess, that is: pathetic Edward and conniving Wallis. The seduction scene with the decadent Duchess is worth the whole read! While some of the author's tics are really annoying, it's a 3+. A lot of fun, recreating a tense era that many readers will have lived through. And if you aren't that old, this will bring it alive for you.

CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK, by Elizabeth Peters

Here's where Elizabeth Peters got really, really famous: the legend of Amelia Peabody and Radcliffe Emerson begins in this delightful book about an intrepid Englishwoman who does her duty by her ailing scholarly father, reaps unexpected rewards, and goes on to indulge her dreams of travel and adventure. But not in her wildest fantasies did Amelia, no-nonsense English spinster, dream up testy, handsome, tantrum-throwing Emerson or his adorable, less volatile brother Walter. Fireworks almost from beginning to end, all told in Amelia's signature style. At times quite complicated, chock full of genuine Egyptian scenes and lore and characters. And there's more than a dozen books to follow! A 5. I just love Elizabeth Peters, and I hope you will, too.

A KISS OF FATE, by Mary Jo Putney

1737: England and Scotland were not comfortable places to be: Bonnie Prince Charlie was planning an invasion, the French threatened, the Hanoverian King George II was sincere but too Germanic, the heir to the throne a wastrel. Enter the Duncan, Laird of the Macraes, who sees lovely, recently-widowed Gwyneth Owens and falls instantly, catastrophically, in love. Gwynn, on the other hand, still mourns the loss of her aged husband, and wishes no alliance, legitimate or otherwise. But Duncan Macrae is not only a powerful landowner, but a Guardian, a worker of magic known as Lord of Thunder, able to influence weather. Too much, in fact: if Duncan isn't happy, thunder crashes and winds roar. Gwynne, also of Guardian stock but without talents, is not amused, but she is very attracted. The Guardian Council sees Duncan's attraction, asks Gwynne to marry him. Almost overnight, Gwynne is a wife and msitress of an enormous Scottish estate. And war, in the person of Charles Stewart, embroils both her people and her husband. Lovers of history with a romantic, magical twist will enjoy Gwynne's coming of age and the irresistible attraction between these two vibrant characters. It's a 5, particularly for romance junkies. It's a 2.5 on the sex scale, warm and steamy but not smokin hot.

THE SNAKE STONE, by Jason Goodwin

One of the pleasures of reading historical fiction is learning about lost worlds, long gone sights and ancient habits and dress. A glimpse into the past for many of us is irresistible. This novel delivers on all those levels. Jason Goodwin, an Ottoman scholar, brings back Istanbul-based Investigator Yashim in a puzzling, inctricate case. A sultan lays dying; merchants are murdered; a French adventurer vanishes. Yashim is mixed in with it all: in the unstable political climate, he is at risk as never before. While Yashim patiently cooks his exquisite meals, people of high and low station struggle to find victory. From the Sublime Porte and a solitary empress to the water channels that are the lifeblood of Istanbul, Yashim probes below the surface with exquisite care; he, after all, is the most likely to lose his life if he steps wrong. Subtle, mysterious, at times even confusing, only at the last few pages does all become clear. Satisfying. A 5.

9.4.13

PRONTO, by Elmore Leonard

Published in 1993, this is the tale of Harry Arno and his embezzled millions, which he takes to Italy in an attempt to outrun not only the mob but a U. S. Marshall he's made a fool of not once, but twice. The Marshall, Raylan Givens, figured out where Harry's hiding out and appears in Rapallo only moments ahead of Nicky the faux-gunman, Nicky's stone killer boss Zip, and at the same time Harry's girlfriend Joyce (who Harry may, or then again may not, marry). With Leonard's signature spare but spot-on dialogue and masterful detail, this afternoon read will satisfy. A 5.

THE DIVING POOL, by Yoko Ogawa

Three short stories from the award-winning Japanese writer feature odd people with odd habits and some really certifiable shortcomings. In the title piece, a girl whose parents operate an orphanage obsesses over Jun, a boy living at The Light House. The girl knows all the other children may be adopted, but she is doomed to stay in the hated place. The second piece, Pregnancy Diaries, reveals the emotions of a young woman coping with her sister's pregnancy. I suppose this is literary fiction, but I found the tortured inner scramblings of these people largely uninteresting, and I failed to drive myself to read the third story. A 3.

BLACKMAN'S COFFIN, by Mark de Castrique

1/series. There is always an earlier crime; that's a maxim of mystery writers. Set in Asheville, at the fabulous Biltmore House, Sam Blackman is recovering from war wounds. He is befriended by a woman who is soon murdered; her sister wants to know why, and who. Blackman helps and sets off a chain of incidents that culminate in a midnight grave robbery, a dig for a generations-old treasure, and an unexpected love. A 4.

8.4.13

HAWKE, by Ted Bell

1/series. Seven year-old Alex Hawke, hidden in the bow locker of his parents' yacht, sees them murdered by a trio of psychotic modern-day pirates. Days later the drifting boat is discovered and the near-catatonic child is rescued. Switch to his adult years when handomse (natch) Alex is a billionaire businessman (natch; you know how it is these days: start with millions and the rest is easy) with a special agreement with British and American secret services to undertake sensitive missions. And what could be more sensitive than a Russian Stealth-type super-sub armed with nuclear warheads? A first-class male fantasy novel with really evil bad guys. Plus a new-age sensitive guy secret at the core, way more human than Stuart Woods' pneumatic Stone Barrington. Makes a great diversion from your usual Mary Balogh or Jilly Cooper beach read. A 3; guys'll probably give it a 5+.

ASSASSIN, by Ted Bell

2/series. The irresistible Alex Hawke gets married; on the church steps, his new bride is assassinated by a long-distance sniper. Hawke, devastated by his wife's murder, lets his guard down as well as loses interest in all things suspenseful. A series of weird murders take American diplomats and their families out. Finally, Hawke wakes up, leaps in to sovle the murders. From the remote peaks of the Arabian desert to the posh environs of 10 Downing Street to hidden hotels in the Asian jungle and the mangrove islands of the Florida Keys, Hawke, assisted by Scotland Yard's inimitable Ambrose Congreve, his many colorful confederates and close friends, all track down a maniac murderer and his sexy henchwomen. Enough derring-do for any SEAL Team Six devotee. A 4.

THE BERLIN CONSPIRACY, by Tom Gabbay

Further adventures of the noir-ish Jack Teller as he battles through besieged West Berlin at the end of World War II, where Teller has been summoned for...what, exactly? Is the STAASI Colonel for real? Is there really a high level assassination plot? Who's the target? And why should Berlin-born Teller care? You'll peel away layers of history and deceit as you arrive at the denouement. A satisfying read, not as good as the first Teller novel, and I wish the author would give up the use of caps when things get exciting. It's a 3+.

ROAD DOGS, by Elmore Leonard

Once again, a superb work by the master of pared-down dialogue, perfectly-drawn characters you would never meet out in broad daylight, and sneak-up-on-you tension. Leonard doesn't waste a word in this bad-guy plot with likeable Jack Foley, just out of jail; his jail sidekick, former go-go dancer and four time murderer Cundo Rey, and delicious Dawn Navarro. No, you don't really need to know the plot, with Leonard they're always ideal, with distinctive characters, unusual plots, and a denouement that always seems a surprise when - if you'd looked hard - you just might have seen it coming. The master never steps a foot wrong. A 5.

THE DEVLIN DIARIES, by Christi Phillips

The second book by Phillips, this one again stars history scholar Claire Donovan who has realized a dream of teaching at Trinity College, Cambridge, through the efforts of fellow historian Andrew Kent. The story alternates with scenes in 1672, at the court of England's Charles II, where manipulation, cruelty and skulduggery reign and murder is commonplace. Back in the present, Claire has found a coded diary written by a female doctor at Charles's court. Claire shows it to a colleague, who swipes the document. Shortly after Claire confronts him publicly, he is murdered. Andrew Kent, the historian who had brought Claire to Trinity, helps her solve the clues to the diary's code, the present-day murderer, and – not incidentally – declares his love. More or less. This sounds like a spoiler but...Tune in for the next in this great series. A4.

7.4.13

THE NAUTICAL CHART, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Manuel Coy is paying for being in the wrong place at the wrong time - on the bridge of a cargo ship in the Indian Ocean when it hit an unrecorded rock  - with two years exile from the place he loves most: the sea. Shoreside with its clamor and complications is, for a quiet, inarticulate man, a disaster. He meets a woman - young, pretty, freckled - at an auction, later sees her threatened by another auction-goer, a large bully of a man. Coy steps between them, and in those moments his life changes. A sunken ship, a historical mystery, an Argentine dwarf once known for his methods of torture, a dog names Zas, a love story...Perez-Reverte delicately unfolds the details, doling them out like M&Ms until the final few stunning, calamtious pages. Read this. This is good; better, even, than M&Ms. A 5 and then some. Translated from Spanish.

WHAT CAME BEFORE HE SHOT HER, by Elizabeth George

When author George killed off the lovely, bubbly, absolutely perfect Helen Lynley a few novels ago, her fans' outcry was deafening and I've been told she lost about 30% of her readership in protest (not for long, I'm sure). This dark and defeated book, in the usual George style of endless detail relentlessly building up to a climax, is beautifully written and left me wanting to take a long nap. Such is the awful progression of Joel Campbell, young mixed-race boy in the slums of London whose grandmother abandons him and his siblings on his aunt's front porch when granny blows off back to Jamaica. The aunt, totally unprepared and unequipped to deal with the boy, his out-of-control teenaged sister Ness, and Toby, the feeble-minded younger brother, nonetheless gives them a home and tries her best. It's all downhill for everyone of them, from the opening sentence to the terrible, tragic ending. For me, an unappealing and depressing tale, but most George fans will devour it happily. My guess is this is one of those books that had to be written, just to clear the air. I recognize that it's well-written, but don't skip your uppers while you're reading it: a 4

THE LITTLE BALLOONIST, by Linda Donn

Based on the life of the world's first female balloonist, Sophie Blanchard, this quirky little novel takes you to France during the turbulent years of Napoleon Bonapart's rise and fall. Essentially a collection of loosely-related vignettes that actually manage to tell a tale of love and loss and imperial quirks and follies, I found the writing style far better than the construction of the story. But, then, I expect more linkage than this book supplied. It's an easy read, and full of whimsy and anecdotal scenes as well as a number of old etchings. Enjoyable but, for me, irritating in its scatter-shot construction. A 3 for me; for you, maybe a charming 4 or 5.

THE BARBARY PIRATES, by William Deitrich

2/series. From Paris to North Africa by land and sea, 1802. Another in the Ethan Gage series, where the intrepid American adventurer and rifleman clashes with his sexy nemesis Lady Aurora Somerset and her evil Egyptian Rite cohorts. Bloodthirsty Lady Aurora seeks the legendary Mirror of Archimedes, which will revolutionize warfare when found. In a race for the prize, Ethan finds his lost love Astiza and a two year old surprise, and he must chose who he will save. Swashbuckling fun with just enough real history to keep you interested, it's a non-stop series of confrontations, face-offs, feints and battles. And for those who love mathematical puzzles (not me), there may be enough to keep your brain on the boil. It's a 4. www.williamdietrich.com

MURDER IN THE GARDEN, & FALSE PICTURE, by Veronica Heley

5, 6/series. I am not a fan of characters who pray almost constantly, as is the case with Ellie Quicke and others in this series set in a London suburb. And I have not too much sympathy for a woman who allowed her nasty-tempered husband (now deceased…yay!) to browbeat her endlessly. Ditto with her beyond-selfish daughter. Turning the other cheek for decades gets sooo boring. That said, these are well-plotted stories, the 5th and 6th in a series so Heley must be doing something right for some readers, and if you’re fond of English cozies with an overt "church" twist, these could be a decent read. But if you like Agatha Raisin, these probably aren’t for you. For me, they’re a 2 and a tad boring thanks to the endless religious and turn-the-other-cheek undertones and overtones.

WITCHES ON THE ROAD TONIGHT, by Sheri Holman

With deceptive simplicity, author Holman links two completely disparate worlds: impoverished 1940's Appalachia and today's New York City, as she traces the fears and fortunes of the Alley family. Cora Alley, a mountain witch woman who slips from her skin and literally rides men raw in the night; her young son Eddie, who glimpses a wider world of not only fears when he meets two WPA artists, Tucker and Sonia; the casual brutality that passes for survival in the mountains. And in present-day Manhattan, Wallis, Eddie's newsmaker daughter, lonely and fear-filled as she cuddles with an almost-total stranger after opportunistic sex. A mesmerizing read for those who like slowly-unfurling tales and beautifully crafted words. A 5.

THE TEMPTATION OF THE NIGHT JASMINE, by Lauren Willig

5/series. Once again the multi-talented author pulls off a jam-packed Napoleonic-era spy/romance with great attention to period detail, a winning heroine (shy but plucky, a tiger when challenged), a dashing if troubled hero (obtuse in the emotion department, but noble and true…kind of), and all the supporting characters from the previous tales in this fun series. Author Willig’s busy life has, unfortunately, led to some sloppy writing, but it’s still a good read. A 4, but barely; what’s wrong with some stern editing? Where's a girl's friend when they're needed? Failing that, where was the publisher's editors? Surely Willig's Pink Carnation series is enough of a success to warrant attention?  www.laurenwillig.com

THE DECEPTION OF THE EMERALD RING, by Lauren Willig

3/series. More fireworks, this time of more than one kind. In 1803 London, while attempting to thwart her sister’s precipitous midnight elopement, sincere Lettie Alsworthy (she of the unruly hair) manages to be kidnapped by the suitor’s henchmen and finds herself in a compromised position. Her sister's noble-hearted swain does the right thing by the wrong sibling. Even at the wedding reception it is obvious this marriage is in trouble. Enter again the Black Tulip, French spy nonpareil, intent on wreaking havoc in Ireland on behalf of Bonaparte. Exit the disgruntled groom without so much as an oops to his new bride. Endless complications both in 1803, and the 21st century as smitten doctoral candidate Eloise Kelly (she  also of the unruly hair) and aristocratic dish Colin Selwick clash yet again. Marvelous series, told with sly humor and PhD-worthy attention to detail. A 5. www.laurenwillig.com

THE SEDUCTION OF THE CRIMSON ROSE, by Lauren Willig

4/series. By now, you’ve either got a Jones for Vaughan, or you can’t imagine why any sane  woman would want to spend an instant with the supercilious semi-scoundrel. Enter gorgeous, imperious Mary Alsworthy, worshipped by many but proposed to by none: a scheming girl in her third Season whose last, ill-conceived, attempt at a respectable liaison ended with her terminally dull little sister getting the guy. And then there’s the sinister French agent, the Black Tulip, with mayhem on his (her?) mind. And then there’s the up-and-down 21st century romance between Eloise and Colin. Well-researched, well-written, with mostly likeable characters that are individuals in their own right. Take them all on a cruise! Abandon your family for a nice mini-vacation! Total fun! A 5. Oh, yes: 1 on the sex scale but plenty of falling-in-love stuff. www.laurenwillig.com

DEATH COMES TO PEMBERLEY, by P. D. James

The incomparable P. D. James joins the Pride and Prejudice-sequel mob and creates a lovely little world in which Darcy and Elizabeth must cope with Elizabeth's vulgar sister Lydia and her husband Wickham, the bad boy of the extended family. Wickham is found bending over the bloody body of his best friend, and is assumed to be the culprit. The family joins forces to find out the truth (even though the truth is they wish Wickham would emigrate to America). Everyone writes of the post-Austen Darcy as if he's had a personality implant. Gone is the arrogant, smug, judgmental hottie and in its place is cloying sweetness and light. I love P. D. James, but much prefer her other stories; despite the near-perfect setting and atmosphere, the characters are too sweet. While this is a perfect sequel to Pride and Prejudice, it's nowhere near James' best work and Darcy is a flat-out yawn. A 3.

6.4.13

HELLO KITTY MUST DIE, by Angela S. Choi (Lee's Fiction Fave)

Read this fabulous book! For a first novel, it is absolutely superb. The start is a little odd, but it doesn't get much less odd as the story goes hilariously along: Fiona Yu, single, lawyer, with a traditional family hell-bent on getting her married ("What did you think of Don?" "I hated him." "He'll pick you up Saturday." "I never want to see him again!" "Wear lipstick."). Fiona encounters Sean Killroy, an old high school friend (male, mesmerizing) who has morphed into a surgeon who restores hymens (yes, really); they go pub-crawling, as Sean finds eager victims. Meanwhile, Fiona is pressured and hoodwinked into more ethnically accept, but doomed dates. The end will rock you, it's worthy of Lehane. I can hardly wait for her next one. This is a solid 10 and could be a book group read. Warning: wierd goings-on and sexual hinkiness. 3 sex.

THE MAN WHO CAST TWO SHADOWS, by Carol O'Connell

2/series. A dark and stormy tale centering around the murder of a woman mistakenly identified as Kathy Mallory, go-it-alone NYPD homicide detective. Beautiful, amoral Mallory, who operates almost entirely on intuition, and her civilian business partner Charles Butler, honest-to-a-fault homely genius and logic lover, toss clues back and forth, while alcoholic Riker, Kathy's friend at police headquarters and round-the-clock protector of this woman who wants no protection, tries to run interference. Is a ten year old boy a poltergeist? Can anyone get into the posh condo and do a murder? Did the Senator's mother die of natural causes? Is the neighbor really blind? In a Mallory book, there are nothing but shades of gray. And, of course, lots of rich, scarlet blood. A tale of love and obsession and deep, dark anger, O'Connell delivers a top-notch story in a fascinating, take-no-prisoners style. A 4+.

IN THE TENTH HOUSE, by Laura Deitz

Thrillingly, chillingly authentic. For a first novel, this is tremendous. London, 1896: Victorian repression, “mad doctors” who minister treatments - often cruel, vicious or bizarre - to the insane (or merely odd or, in the case of women, uncooperative), the enchantment of spiritualism. Mad doctor Ambrose Gennett is drawn into spiritualism through his spinster half-sister Ernestine who, he fears, has fallen afoul of a manipulative psychic, Lily Embly. Ernestine is determined to remaind part of the psychic world, taking part in seances. Lily, alone but for a dying mother who taught her access to the psychic world in all its manifestations, is determined to make her own way in the world. Dr. Gennett, highly respected, is determined to prove Lily a fake. In a world where appearance is all, a poor appearance can make a sane person seem mad with disastrous consequences, and the doctor's efforts bring about a shocking conclusion. I can't remember a better, more suprising, first novel. A 5; excellent for a book discussion group.

THREE STATIONS, by Martin Cruz Smith

6?/series. The latest gritty Arkady Renko novel - the series started with Gorky Park - by this accomplished author shows a writer at the absolute top of his game. This is today's billionaires' Moscow, where armor-plated Hummers roar and gangs of starving orphans maraud, Tajik drug dealers shoot any threat, and only billionaires can attend the extravagant Nijinski Fair. A runaway prostitute's newborn baby is kidnapped. Renko's sometimes-ward, Zhenya, befriends the girl. Why should Renko care? Moscow is chock full of people like this. But he does. While his supervisor (the perfect weasel) arranges for him to be fired, Renko's on the trail of a serial killer. Smith's spare prose is enthralling, his plotting superb, his attention to the unexpected detail almost supernatural, and his creation, the never-give-up Renko, is my kind of guy. A 5+. www.martincruzsmith.com

FIND ME, by Carol O’Connell

8/series. Another Mallory novel (tell me they ain’t over!), this one about a one hundred-car caravan of bereft parents whose six year-old daughters have, over several decades, vanished. Inextricably tied in with Mallory’s childhood, the search for the serial killer leads through countless small scenes and details (a viciously incompetent FBI agent; Mallory’s dive into the past; Riker and Charles Butler in pursuit; an old flame; a tantalizing series of letters; the ever-hopeful parents) to a climactic scene in the Painted Desert. And then the best part… I think this is one of the best: weird, quirky, filled with details that will make you giggle, gag, or cry. A 5.

A WEEKEND AT BLENHEIM, by J. P. Morrissey

If you adore rubbing shoulders with Britain's crème de la crème, this atmospheric historical thriller is for you. In 1905, American architect John Vanbrugh is asked to Blenheim, English largest stately pile, to plan renovations for the dazzling, seductive Consuelo, the Duchess of Marlboro. The American-born Duchess (maiden name Vanderbilt) and her boorish, not-too-bright husband Charles, plus an assortment of self-absorbed guests, turn Vanbrugh and his wife's stay into one of upset, intrigue, confrontation, sexual innuendo and murder. Struggling to understand the massive stately home's guests and their aristocratic and brittle milieu, democratic-to-the-core Vanbrugh must uncover the reasons for the murder, find a stolen clue, and keep himself and his pregnant wife safe. The denouement is hair-raising and unexpected. A 4.

PRINCESS NAUGHTY AND THE VOODOO CADILLAC, by Fred Willard

With a title like this, you'd think the book would be a cross between Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. In a way, it is, but watered down. Bill Schiller, after a lifetime in the clandestine world of the CIA, is running a rogue operation out of Panama but needs a lot of money to get it up and running. Johnny McLendon is an overprivilged, ADD rich boy who can't drive a car. His butler/chauffeur, Gordon, is a minor psychopath with pretensions to worse. Ray Justus, porn shop owner and gangster, is in love with his sidekick's girlfriend, Ginger, who is secretly in love with Ray. The sidekick is so strung out he doesn't know which day of the week it is. The double-crosses pile up, the wacky moments pile up, and - amazingly - it all works out in the end. Mostly. But the one paragraph chapters drive me nuts. A 3.

SHARK RIVER, by Randy Wayne White

8?/series. Doc Ford enthusiasts are legion, and this book illustrates why: he's a water-borne version of Spenser P.I. (Sorry, Randy, if this description isn't to your liking). With an ocean-deep knowledge of southwest Florida’s waters, New York Times best-selling author White has created a mesmerizing world both above and under the surface. Ford, a man with a mysteriously undocumented past, is suckered into becoming the target for a narcomob after he rescues the errant daughter of a highly-placed government official. With his out-there friend Tomlinson providing testosterone-driven angst (the Viagra scene is a literal howl), Ford counterplots with skill and the occasional musing on life and how to live it, and stay alive. This one will keep you on the edge of your seat, and make you go for more. A 4. www.randywaynewhite.com

NAPOLEON'S PYRAMID, by William Dietrich

1/series. Adventurer/charmer Ethan Gage, American sharpshooter and Ben Franklin protege, winds up being coerced into journeying to Egypt with Bonaparte's invasion army. Basically, it's march or get shot. Possessing a mysterious amulet, he meets up with the beautiful, mysterious, and all together too damn smart Astiza, plus bloodthirsty Arabs, conniving Frenchmen, brainy savants, and noble Egyptians. If you ever wondered about Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile (and I am sure you have spent sleepless nights mulling it over), this is the book that'll give you a bird's eye view. From Paris to Dendara, Ethan Gage manages to bluff, fake, skip, feint and obfuscate his merry way. A likeable hero, a delicious love interest, really nasty evil villians, and a complex, interesting plot. A 5.

5.4.13

SOFT FOCUS, by Jayne Ann Krentz

Another soft romance by the doyenne of glitzy settings. I adore these stories that open with an enraged female bearing down on a handsome male in a public place. Does she connect? Does he lose his cool? Does he insult the lady in kind? Or does he take it like a man? Jack Fairfax, corporate savior, does a little of all of it to Elizabeth Cabot, with whom he'd had a very unsatisfactory one night stand. But, financially, they're joined at the hip and when disaster strikes Jack's corporation, Elizabeth must go along to save her own company. Okay, you know enough, right? Off they go to a Colorado mining town turned hip noir film venue. Do sparks fly? Are lives in danger? Is everyone wearing too many diamonds? Hey...is snow falling? A great weekend read when heavy stuff is just too...well, heavy. A 4. www.krentz-quick.com

PLAY DEAD, by David Rosenfeld

Woof! You’ll love Andy Carpenter, dog lover, trial lawyer (don’t hold that against him), self-confessed coward, and sometimes sleuth. Rescuing a golden retriever slated for euthanasia for biting, Andy discovers the dog should have died at sea five years before. When the sister of the then-dog owner appears, Andy is swept into an investigation of a woman’s murder. In no time, the mystery mounts as drive-by pot shots and high-level phone taps appear in Andy’s life. Witty dialogue, excellent plotting, beguiling characters. What more could you want? It’s a 4 and, even if you're a cat and not a dog person, you'll want more.

THE HOT KID, by Elmore Leonard

Published in 2005, Leonard bring to roaring life wild-and-woolly middle America in the 30's, when gangsters ruled Kansas City, Tulsa was a oil boom town, and Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson were on the loose, and Prohibition made criminals out of almost everyone. Money ruled and the law was what money said it was, and U. S. Marshall Carl Webster is notching up gangster kills at an impressive rate. Polite, turned out impeccably with a trademark straw hat, Webster is cool, a recurring theme in Leonard's work. Jack Belmont, sociopathic son of an oil millionaire, wants to be a notorious bad guy. Webster wants to be a notorious lawman. Lulie wants to be Webster's girl but also to be known as Baby Face Nelson's moll. And Tony Antonelli wants to be a famous writer of hard-boiled detective fiction. From the Webster family pecan groves to gushers to speakeasies, this fast novel has it all. A 5.

DRAWING CONCLUSIONS, by Donna Leon

20/series. Isspetore Guido Brunetti is caught in another mystifying case as he investigates the murder of a reclusive widow in her apartment in Venice. With his usual deftness, Brunetti peels away years of deceit to find the solution. I confess that this is my least favorite of all Leon’s books; authors change, they strike out in new, sometimes more subtle, directions, and perhaps that’s what this is. I liked previous books much better. But Leon is still one of the best in the game, and if you're just discovering her, read the books in order if you can. The Venetian world of Guido Brunetti is a marvel. You'll feel like you've visited the cirty when you close the book. A 4. www.donnaleon.net

ROYAL FLUSH, by Rhys Bowen

7?/series. Lady Georgiana Rannoch, dead-broke scion of Britain’s royal house, is forced to retire to her family’s Highlands estate…it’s either that or starve. En route, a security chappie asks her to protect the royal family, only a rifle shot away in Balmoral. For a change, her loathed sister-in-law Fig greets her warmly. Why? Because a clutch of horrible Americans, including the Prince of Wales’ rather tacky inamorata Mrs. Simpson, have descended upon her.  Throw in a famous aviatrix, the handsome but forever-disappearing Darcy O’Mara, a murder or two, a kidnapping, and you’ve got a good solid 4. This series is great, two or three of them would be perfect for a long, total-immersion weekend. 

WITCH HUNT, by Ian Rankin

A beautiful young assassin – nicknamed Witch – has haunted Dominic Elder’s life for years, ever since his daughter was killed in a bomb attack. Witch takes on a job in Scotland, but she always does double jobs: where is the next one, who is her target? Elder is called out of retirement to find the answer...but can he regain his edge and deal with this ruthless, razor-sharp criminal? As with all this award-winning author’s books, the plot and characters are complex, the ending dramatic. A 4.

A MIST OF PROPHECIES, by Steven Saylor

12?/series. Author and accademician Saylor is renowned for his life-long love of ancient Rome, and this book in the Roma Sub Rosa series is no exception. Gordianus the Finder, now in his old age, investigates the murder of a mad seeress Cassandra, with whom he has become entangled. Gordianus interviews the leading women of Rome (of whom barely a word was written about their lives while entire forests have perished to print Caesar’s, Cato’s and Pompey’s words). During the tense days when Caesar and Pompey battled for supremacy, he finds the murderer, and much more. A 5. www.stevensaylor.com

THE PARIS CORRESPONDENT, by Alan S Cowell

Long the New York Times Paris Bureau Chief, author Cowell has written a mesmerizing tale of wild living at the edge of war’s horror, of scrupulous and unscrupulous morals, and the overlapping lives of two friends. Editor Ed Clancy and adventurous correspondent Joe Shelby, brought low by the endless internet news cycle, are trapped in a Paris news bureau, forced to interpret news third-hand. Shelby’s long-time nemesis (both vertically and horizontally) appears, is put in charge of their office, and the denouement is absolutely perfect. My journalist friend Ferne says this is a true slice of life. This is a gotta-read! It’s a 5+

ROUX THE DAY, and DINE AND DIE ON THE DANUBE EXPRESS, by Peter King

Culinary skullduggery in the Big Easy where the Gourmet Detective tries to track down an old family cookbook, but mostly manages to eat very very well. The menus and food lore are superb.The Danube Express, a fictional train, is delightful, with many eastern Europe cooking terms and dishes deliciously explained, and a series of crimes and almost-crimes to be investigated. Roux the Day is a culinary crawl through New Orleans with, of course, a foodie-tinged murder and intrigue. All of King's mysteries are great fun, the perfect afternoon read. If you have any interest in the arcana of cooking, this amazingly knowledgeable author has written the perfect series. For devoted cooks, these’ll be a 5+, for non-foodies probably a 3.

STATE OF WONDER, by Ann Patchett

Once again, Patchett’s luminous writing grabbed me and pulled me into the scientific world of researcher Dr. Marina Singh, who is sent into the Amazon jungle to find why and how her colleague Dr. Anders Eckman, died. Chief of the Amazon project is elderly, legendary, ruthless Dr. Swenson, who has her own agenda which does not include visitors. Gradually, Marina discovers the truth of who and what Dr. Swenson really is, what her goals really are, and the fate of Anders. As with all Ann Patchett’s books, I wanted it to go on forever. It’s a 5+.

OR THE BULL KILLS YOU, by Jason Webster

With a title like this, how could you go wrong? A debut novel set in Valencia, Spain, during its annual pyrotechnic fiesta, the Fallas. Homicide detective Max Camara, disliked by his superiors for his intuitive solving of crimes and his occasional lapse from accepted interrogation techniques, must judge a bullfight, a “sport” he detests. Afterward, he must solve two grisly murders, both rooted in the world of the toreador and the bulls. Author Webster knows his bullfighting lore, and I  learned more than I wanted to know. The story flows well and the pacing is excellent; Max Camara is an edgy, complex guy you'll want to get to know.I look forward to reading more Max Camara tales. It’s a 3+.

HOT AND SWEATY REX, by Eric Garcia

4/series, this time velociraptor P.I. Vincent Rubio, his guise in place but his teeth and claws never far away, is sucked into competing Miami dinosaur mobs. Now a self-confessed herbaholic, Vincent can’t keep the basil off his mind, but manages to survive shoot-outs, rigged horse races, a gator named Snappy, and an unexpected traitor. Garcia has, from the first novel, woven a seamless dino world, and the rich details are just perfect. Read these in order, enjoy them, they are fabulous. And the plot is always well-defined and satisfyingly concluded. It’s a 5.

TOUCHSTONE, by Laurie R King

This stand-alone novel, set in England in 1926, displays author King’s usual masterful touch in evoking a sense of time and place and emotion. As always, her characters are finely drawn, and the action compelling. An American agent, Harris Stuyvestant, arrives in London on the trail of an anarchist bomb-maker. He encounters Aldous Carstairs, a chillingly unpleasant manipulator, who takes him to Bennett Grey, a  war veteran whose head wounds have brought him the ability to recognize lies. Grey’s sister is involved with an aristocratic family, and further with the bomb-maker.  Or is he the anarchist? And what is Stuyvestant’s role to be? In a race to unravel deceit and suspicion, hair-trigger timing sets the American against a master plotter. A solid 4.

IN THE KINGDOM OF MEN, by Kim Barnes

It's 1967 and Gin Mitchell, a carefree girl from red-dirt Oklahoma, marries handsome, charismatic Mason McPhee who goes to work in the oil fields to provide for his pregnant bride and his soon-to-be family. Honest-to-a-fault Mason gets a job with Aramco, the American/Saudi oil company pumping America's energy out of the hostile sands of Saudi Arabia. Gin goes with him, and she finds herself immured in an over-furnished house in a compound she can't leave unless chaperoned, attended by her house servant Yash, a more or less indentured servant from India's Punjab. Gin, in the face of repeated warnings and graphic examples, can't stay inside the luxurious compound. She wants out, she wants to do what she wants, and no warning seem to suffice. Mason, meanwhile, is dealing with a corrupt situation that puts lives at risk. When Mason's outrage and Gin's smoldering unhappiness meet, lives start to come apart. I had some trouble with Gin's idiotic intransigence, which is never fully explained, and the ending was, for me, inexplicably weak and frustrating. Stories that end badly are often treated as extra-special, but too much of the ending just didn't quite hang together. But most of the book will catch your attention, and evoke a time past when America and oil ruled the world...except for the baking sands of Saudi Arabia. It's a 4.

DOORS OPEN, by Ian Rankin

As the jacket blurbs say, Rankin is a master. Set in Edinburgh, Mike Mackenzie, newly rich from the sale of his software business and now an art patron, is bored. His friend Alan Cruickshank is a boring banker with a constricted life. Professor Robert Gissing is a soon-to-retire art professor with an urge to “liberate” art works kept in storage by the National Gallery. And gangster Chib Calloway doesn't give a rat's ass about art but wants money before Hell's Angels enforcer Hate works him over. The stage is set for an audacious heist that will be pulled off without a hitch. Except for the art forger, the art forger's greedy girlfriend, a curious cop, a concerned art auctioneer, the media, and a kidnapped art historian. This is a typical Rankin: full of tension, fascinating characters, and a denouement you will absolutely not see coming. A 5.

THE NAMESAKE, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Published in 2002, this gently-written book chronicles the Ganguli family, whose Calcutta origins are honored by the mother, Ashima and father, Ashoke, but find no attraction to their American-born children, Gogol and his sister Sonia. Gogol, after the Russian writer, is named to honor an incident that saved Ashoke's life. The father never tells Gogol how his name came about; he resents the odd name, and ultimately changes it. Over the decades the parents retain their many Bengali connections while the two children find their own American lifestyles, their own lovers and careers and spouses. A beautiful, evocative story that I found pleasing, touching, enlightening, and very entertaining. It's a 5, perfect for a book group.

NO MARK UPON HER, by Deborah Crombie

I should have been reading Crombie before now; she's better than just good. Set in England, in lovely Henley-on-Thames, the fabled rower's mecca (the end-page maps are sublime), the story deals with the misuse of power, with revenge and justice and murder. Met detective Rebecca Meredith is an accomplished rower, and is mulling over the possibility of training for the Olympics. After an evening row on the river, her body is found the next morning by a war vet with PTSD, apparently an accident. But too much remains unexplained, and Scotland Yard Superintendent Douglad Kincaid, asked to investigate, is pointed by his superior to the victim's husband as the preferred killer. Kincaid suspects a cover-up; his wife uncovers disturbing evidence; a petrol bomb is thrown at the vet's boat house. Between family tensions and job tensions, and a race to keep the killer from striking again, you'll stay absorbed to the last page. A 5.

SNAKE AGENT, by Liz Williams

First in the series. Yes! Read this demonized/occult/futuristic/slyly funny mystery if you want great writing, fabulous settings and fascinating characters! Detective Inspector Chen, Singapore Three's go-to man for investigating crimes involving the supernatural, has his plate full with demons and denizens of Hell when the ghost of a young girl is kidnapped before she can reach Heaven. Chen, along with a vice officer from Hell, the uber-virile demon Seneschal Zhu Irzh, must solve the mystery of many ghost kidnappings. Why are young girls sought? Where is the blood coming from? Why is the Ministry of Epidemics involved? Is Chen's demon wife Inari in real danger? And what about the teakettle-badger? Snake Agent is what happens when an author plots and plots and plots, and then edits the daylights out of her work. It could be used to teach novel writing. It's a 5+.

THE DRESSMAKER, by Kate Alcott

Based on a little-known incident of incredible selfishness and criminal cruelty during the Titanic disaster, this unsettling book keeps you locked in to the experiences of talented young dressmaker Tess Collins, who signs on at the last minute as personal maid to the mercurial Lady Lucile Duff Gordon, an aristocratic couturiere whose designs are becoming passe.  The narative of the actual sinking is mesmerizing; you'll be right there with the survivors as they watch the ship slip beneath the water. Once safe in New York, Tess, trapped in Lucile's orbit, locates two utterly different yet charming men of wildly different stations, both Titanic survivors. When unpleasant questions are raised about the Duff Gordons' behavior after the ship sinks, Tess must learn the truth and decide where her own heart will go. It's a 5.

LADY OF THE BUTTERFLIES, by Fiona Mountain

“They say I am mad and perhaps it's true.” So starts this absorbing book about a woman who could not bring herself to be merely a docile, subservient cipher. If you've ever dreamed of living in an earlier time, read this novel of Eleanor Goodricke, and be happy you're in this age. Born to a land-owning Puritan family in 17th century post-Cromwell England, Eleanor must walk a fine line between reality and perception. In reality, she is a naturalist, in an age when even male naturalists were barely respected, and anything unknown feared and labeled witchcraft. The perception of her servants and tenants is that she could well be a witch. Certainly, she is not a normal woman: she chases butterflies, and butterflies are thought to be the manifestation of human souls. This tale of love, sexual obsession, betrayal and courage, though at times exhausting, is a fascinating chronicle of one woman's overwhelming need to be true to herself. A 4. With its deep exploration of what it means to be a woman in an unsympathetic age, it's a good choice for a book group.

VULTURE PEAK, By John Burdett

6(?)/ series. Once again Burdett, author of the Bangkok 9 series, digs deep into weirdness and comes up with a winner. Buddhist Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a detective on Bangkok's police force, is ordered to investigate a triple murder where organs and faces were removed. At once embroiled in the international organ trade, the cynical but devout Buddhist jets to Dubai, then Hong Kong, then into China, gathering seemingly dead-end information. With his corrupt boss now running for Bangkok city mayor, Jitpleecheep must question everything he's ordered to do, and find his own unique way through the moral swamp. Burdett's mastery of his milieu make this unsettling, edgy novel with its casual acceptance of brutality and the grimness of life a fascinating read for those who don't mind the graphic (but not gratuitous) scenes. A 4.

THE LAST NUDE, by Ellis Avery

This subtly (and no so subtly, as well) erotic novel is based on the true life of famous/notorious Polish painter Tamara de Lempicka, and set in anything-goes 20's and 30's (“between the wars”) Paris. Rafaela Fano, a young American runaway, bumps into Lempicka and becomes her model and lover. Lempicka's painting of her, nude, becomes the celebrated painting of the artistic season, and two millionaires vie for its possession. Young, naïve in spite of her sexual freedom, in love, and vulnerable, Rafaela must deal with far older and destructive passions that mere lust. Much of the writing is sublime; the last portion of the plot I found frustrating and cloudy. But still, a 5.

THE INCENSE GAME, by Laura Joh Rowland

16/series. Feudal Japan once again springs to vibrant life in this intricate, tension-ridden tale of Edo (Tokyo) after the catastrophic 1703 earthquake. Chamberlain Sano Ichiro finds three murdered women in the rubble, two the daughters of a powerful daimyo. With the petulant Emperor demanding a return to his insulated pre-earthquake life, the bereft daimyo threatening to start a civil war if the murderer isn’t found at once, a close retainer falling down on the job, his own belived son being sucked into court life, and Sano’s old nemesis sprung back to evil life, the Chamberlain is stretched to his limits. Another 5 for this award-winning series.

4.4.13

RUNNING DARK, by Jamie Freveletti

Wow, what a roller coaster! A bomb disrupts an ultra running race. A stunned runner is injected as she lies in the dirt. A cruise ship is threatened by Somali pirates. A Senator postures (so what else is new??) at a hearing about a security contractor. A pharmaceutical company’s plane explodes. And that’s just the beginning. For a second book, this is impressive. I’ll give it a reluctant 4 because of a few frustrating plot fizzles…but get to know this author, she should be around for a long time.

SNUFF, by Terry Pratchett

30(or more, but who’s counting?)/series. Hyper-prolific Pratchett has given us another fantastic-in-all-its-meanings romp through Discworld, this time starring the recently-ennobled Sam Vimes, Ankh-Morpork cop extraordinaire, as he goes to the country with his aristocratic wife. A city copper at heart, Vimes thinks it’s all boring cows and trees, but finds that things aren’t quite right in the hinterlands. After being set up as a murder suspect, Vimes puts his intuition to work and, with the help of his young son and a wet-behind-the-ears county constable, uncovers a host of crimes as bad as anything Ankh-Morpork, his beloved, corrupt, chaotic, crime-ridden city, could offer. On ocassion, Pratchett's sidebars get a little overblown, but if you've read this far in the series, you don't care. And they're all worth reading. A 4.

BLUES LESSONS, by Robert Hellenga

Once again, Robert Hellenga delivers, this time a solid story of life: of love and risk and loss and the perils and sadness of not listening, of how soon it's too late to talk. This is a story told by Martin Dujksterhuis, raised in a small farming town in southern Michigan where his family owns a large orchard, and where most homes for miles around contain his relatives. Martin loves Cory, a black girl who is his best friend and, only once, his lover. About the same time, he finds blues, the blacks' haunting music unknown to the larger world, and it becomes an ineradicable part of him. It is the 50's, and turbulent America is beginning to openly wrestle with its ancient intractable problem: the relations between black and white. And then Cory and her family vanish, overnight, and Martin is cast into a seemingly perpetual twilight where all plans for his future vanish as well. And then he finds Cory... Grab your tissues and a box of chocolates and curl up for a weekend of marvelous and very satisfying reading. Hellenga always raises as many questions as he answers, but they're questions we all have at one time or another, and it's nice to have this author along for the Q and A. A 5+.

THE REMBRANDT AFFAIR, by Daniel Silva

13/series. Gabriel Allon and his wife Chiara are in seclusion in Cornwall when an old friend asks Gabriel to help him find a priceless Rembrandt, recently stolen from a restorer’s studio. Reluctantly agreeing, Allon sets in motion a multi-generational trek into the Nazi past of Europe, and the horrifying cooperation the Nazis easily found, not only in individual citizens, but in industries such as Swiss banking and the Vatican. Allon’s team eventually zeroes in on a most unexpected, and possibly invulnerable, kingpin. For edge-of-your-seat reading, this is a good (if at times a completely depressing view of how easily human can abandon their humanity) choice. A 5.

GILDED AGE, by Claire McMillan

Who’d have thought so much went on in reportedly dull, midwestern Cleveland? The partial narrator, a young society woman, has returned to her home city with her handsome southern husband. Next to return is her old friend Ellie, the most beautiful woman in their crowd. Ellie, divorced, has returned to find a husband. Underemployed, extravagant, relying far too much on her beauty, she sets her cap for an unsuitable man, as her old friend watches the slowly-appearing but inevitable train wreck. Intricate, intense, this glimpse of old money and their antics, prejudices, customs, petty revenges and manipulations is completely fascinating. A 4+.

THE RIGHT ATTITUDE TO RAIN, by Alexander McCall Smith

3/series. The hyper-prolific Smith has created a delicious heroine in this gentle series, filled with introspection and moral ambiguity. Even Isobel Dalhousie, the Edinburgh-based main character, has moments of moral failing. Considering she edits a philosophical magazine, this is quite upsetting at times. In this easy-to-love novel, as her Texas cousin Mimi and her spouse Joe visit, Isobel is awash in emotions, from overwhelming to calculating love, from insatiable curiosity to insatiable greed. A lovely read; even the murder is gently done. A 4.

THE TWELVE CLUES OF CHRISTMAS, by Rhys Bowen

6/series. Lady Georgianna Rannoch, 35th in line to the British throne, is as usual dead broke. It’s Christmas time and her mean-spirited sister-in-law all but drives Georgie out of the drafty family manse in Scotland (with a little help from Wallis Simpson). Answering an ad for a social secretary, Georgie is soon enmeshed in a holiday-for-hire week at a stately home in Tiddleton-under-Lovey. In no time, the bodies start to appear, all of which could be accidents. But of course they aren’t. Another not-so-stately romp, an excellent mystery, and just enough romance with the incredible hottie Darcy O’Mara to keep the reader satisfied. A fun series. A 4.

THE DISTANT ECHO, by Val McDermid

Shades of Ian Rankin! This murder mystery, set in St. Andrews, Scotland, will keep you mesmerized as four young men, friends and college housemates, become murder suspects after stumbling upon a dying young woman who’d been raped, stabbed, and dumped in a snowy cemetery. The killer is never found, despite the police’s best efforts. A quarter century later, a review of cold cases brings the whole story alive in ways nobody could have foreseen. No spoliers here, you'll have to read it and be surprised at the end. If you enjoy Rankin, you’ll love Val McDermid. It’s a 5.

THE PORTRAIT OF DOREENE GRAY, by Esri Allbritten

Billed as a chihuahua novel, this mystery is one of those cozies that semi-stars an animal, in this case a pointy-fanged teacup beset with attitude who is the pet of Doreene Pinter, also beset with attitude. Years ago, Doreene's twin sister Maureen painted her portrait. Today, only the portrait ages, and Doreene - now nearly 60 - looks literally half her age. Enter the staff of the someday-famous Tripping magazine (which concentrates on paranormal vacations), intent on a story about Doreene's home town, Port Townsend, Washington. Between Doreene's Brazilian lover, Tripping's manipulative editor Angus MacGregor, lead writer Michael Abernathy, and photographer and hottie Suki Oota, the weird goings-on chez Doreene will be thoroughly investigated. Touted as a laugh a line, the story doesn't quite make it. But it is amusing, and you may enjoy the various antics of woman, man and beast. A 3.

PERLA, by Carolina De Robertis


If you read only one novel this summer, read this one. Set in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, Perla is the daughter of a severe Navy officer and his brittle wife. The time is after the terrible years of the junta, when thirty thousand “disappeared” citizens simply vanished, and whose fates are largely unknown. Perla knows her beloved papa was a military officer, but the subject is never explored in the family.Until an odd visitor appears in her living room, she is unwilling to confront not only the past, but her family's actions and her own origins. Few books make me cry, but this one did it, and with a luminous power and grace and breathtaking, wring-you-dry emotion that will leave you, as it did me, exhausted but completely satisfied. A 5+. Perfect for a book club.

THE BARTENDER'S TALE, by Ivan Doig

Amazing what you can find when you seek out new authors. Not that Doig is new, he's got a lot of books to his credit. This one, a  narration by the now-60's protagonist, is set in the 1950-60's, and tells of 6 year-old Rusty Alley, a boy whisked from the indifferent clutches of relatives in Phoenix to the wide-open spaces of Wyoming and a bar-owning father he barely knows. All goes well until his 12th summer when women start showing up: first the irrepressible pre-teen Zoe, who may be the love of Rusty's life. Click for more...

BURN UNIT, by Barbara Ravage


Non-fiction at its reportorial best, Ravage has meticulously researched life in a Burn Unit, this one at Boston's Mass. General, and gives us a chilling description of what happens when a person is seriously burned. Most of us probably think we know something about burns, but what we mostly know about is a hot coal from a fire. Or a candle tips or a hot pot gets away: not serious. This book details, in great detail, what really happens when fire gets out of control. Makes you want to find a forest fire worker and buy them a drink. Burn history, staff involvement, case studies and clear prose make this book a must if you have any curiosity about the subject. It's a tough one even if you don't know much about burns, but this book brings you front and center...it gets difficult at times. It's a 5 and well worth your time.

FIRE AND ICE, by Paul Garrison

A classic thriller with, of course, an earth-rending deadline. Michael and Sarah Stone, doctors without borders in their own aquatic-bound world, sail into a tiny South Pacific atoll. Michael goes ashore to tend to a dying man. Sarah and their nine-year old daughter sail to a nearby freighter with a medical emergency. The subsequent chase, harrowing for all concerned, can end in a fireball. But Michael Stone refuses to give up. Ranging all over the South and East China seas, anyone with a feel for sailing will be mesmerized. Anyone who enjoys a thriller with an unusual international feel is going to be up all night. This debut book is a solid 4.

THE ORPHANMASTER, Jean Zimmerman

An amazing first novel! Set in rough and ready 17th century Nieuw Amsterdam just before the English takeover, this multi-layered mystery centers around rising young fur trader Blandine van Couvering, the Dutch official known as Orphanmaster, and the hundreds of parentless children in his charge. With beautifully drawn (but never over-explained) characters from British spies to wealthy Dutch patroons to Indian guides, half-breeds and aristocrats, the novel is populated with fascinating characters. The story is complex, fast-moving, and beautifully researched. A combination of mystery, historical tract, romance, and horror story (with tiny touches of mysticism), you’ll mark Jean Zimmerman as a future favorite author. A 5.

THE ROAD TO RUIN, by Donald Westlake

11/series. A Dortmunder novel, once again Westlake contrives an intricate, funny, entertaining caper starring the hapless Dortmunder and his larcenous pals. When disgraced financier Monroe Hall is targeted by the gang by a disgruntled ex-employee, Dortmunder’s plotting skills swing into high gear and he finds himself undercover as a butler, and another member of his gang posing as social secretary. Talk about OJT! But others plot, too, including a dead-eyed Russian hit man, a trio of union do-gooders, and several revenge-seeking investors. As always, a fun, undemanding read with a nice twist at the end. Westlake makes it look sooo easy. A 4.

ENDANGERED, by Eliot Schrefer

Nominated for the National Book Award, this is ostensibly a young adult (YA) book, but can only be called a YA book with fangs. Set in the Congo, it tells the story of a half-American, half-Congolese girl who rescues a young Bonobo orphan being sold on the street. Young Sophie’s mother runs a Bonobo rescue center on the edge of Kinshasa which is a first target when civil war breaks out. Sophie, alone with Otto her bonobo, must survive amidst the horrors of an unraveling country. At times hair-raising, this is probably not the ideal kid’s bedtime read, but it is certainly highly descriptive of the chaos civil war brings, and the heartbreak. Author Schrefer (who I am pleased and proud to say is a friend of mine) actually went to the Congo to meet the sociable, gentle apes, which are closely related to humans; (we share over 99% of our genes with Bonobos). A winner for any age group; it’s a 5. To find out more about the bonobo, go to this site: http://www.friendsofbonobos.org/news/

THE FOUR COURTS MURDER, by Andrew Nugent

Witty and high-class, this beautifully-paced contemporary mystery is set in Dublin’s law courts where a judge is murdered in his chambers. Politics enters along with the police, as does high-handed discrimination, the search for a mysterious blond male, an unexpected romance and yet another killing. Red herrings are dragged through, postures struck, and an unlikely scenario reveals itself. No spoilers here; you’ll have to read this little gem to get the plot. Totally enjoyable, a complete pleasure to read and savor. I hope author Nugent sends more of these highly-polished little gems our way. A 5.

THE TWELVE ROOMS OF THE NILE, by Enid Shomer

Egypt, 1850. Intrepid Florence Nightingale meets Gustave Flaubert on a dusty road by the side of the Nile. Their intense and unexpected friendship, imagined by author Shomer, builds as they and their respective parties travel to Abu Simbel, Luxor and then – only Flaubert with his friend and Nightingale with her reluctant maid - across the desert to the Red Sea. Flaubert, a profligate sensualist whose sexual antics could only be called gritty, and the innocent Nightingale, a passionate seeker of a purpose for her highly-restricted life, forge a bond which fascinates and obsesses both of them. Although there is no evidence these two legendary figures ever actually met (they were in Egypt at the same time), Shomer does a fine job of making it look completely believable. Beautifully written, very suitable for a book group. A 5.

THE TRINITY SIX, by Charles Cummings

It had long been thought there were more than the notorious five British spies recruited at Cambridge by Russia’s KGB: was there a sixth? One that was never uncovered? University professor Sam Gaddis, an expert on Russian history, stumbles onto provocative but partial proof when a close journalist friend dies unexpectedly. Sam, eager to augment his income to support his distant daughter (and keep the roof over his head), leaps at the chance to write the best-seller the subject would become. At once, he’s drawn into a shadowy world of assassins, spies, and an enigmatic, masterfully manipulative 92-year old former spook with a story to tell. And then, as Sam follows clues from Moscow to Vienna, the body count rises…A 4.

GOOD BONES, by Aaron Elkins

11/series. Once again author Elkins takes us on a great ride, this time on a bike and kayak tour of in northern Italy’s fabled Boromean Islands run by forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver’s good friend Phil. Gideon’s wife Julie has agreed to take a vacation from her Park Ranger job and co-escort the trip, which puts Gideon (unwilling to camp out in a tent) solo in a charming hotel is Stresa, on Lake Maggiore. They arrive just after Achille, the sullen, pimpled scion of the local padrone, is violently kidnapped. Part of the fun of these novels is the effortless way you’re given information you never ever suspected you’d enjoy getting: Elkins has a skilled hand at that, and at slowly ratcheting up the tension. Even his unpleasant characters have a good-humored aspect. Another 5 for this charming, knowledgeable, very well-plotted series.

THE GUARDSHIP, by James L. Nelson

1/series. Deservedly praised by Patrick O’Brian, author Nelson creates the world of early colonial-era Chesapeake Bay in this sailing/pirate yarn starring Thomas Marlowe, a wealthy tobacco planter with a mysterious past. Marlowe’s head-to-head with the favorite son of the ruling Wilkenson clan thrusts him into a quickly-growing confrontation with the clan’s imperious head, Jacob, and Jacob’s remaining son George. As Marlowe’s attraction for beautiful Elizabeth Tinling (another mysterious past!), the dreaded pirates plot mayhem, murder, and all the things they do best. Lovely start to a series about America's Colonial past. The sailing ship action can't be beat for authenticity, not at all surprising when you learn the author has spent a lot of time on tall ships. And the depiction of the life of a pirate crew is spot-on. No wonder they were so feared. A 5.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS, by Jess Walter

What a great read! Begun in a tiny, mythical harbor-front town in Italy’s Cinque Terre, where a beautiful American actress is sent to die, this delightful multi-layered novel should become a classic. The characters run the gamut from the frustrated young innkeeper of a moribund hotel to the famous Richard Burton (actor, among a lot of other things) to a ancient, totally self-serving gnome of a Hollywood film-maker. The half-century relationships twine and intertwine in a completely satisfying tale. A 5. Could do nicely for a book group. Or a movie.

GARMENT OF SHADOWS, by Laurie R. King

12?/series. A Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, this one set in Fez, the conservative Islamic heart of Morocco, when the French were just beginning to consolidate their grip on the chaotic, lawless kingdom. Russell awakes to find herself in a strange room. She remembers nothing, but knows she must flee. In short order, she’s out of the room, over the rooftops, and plunged headlong into a plot to overthrow French authority. But who is behind it all, and what are their motives? Author King does a bang-up job of depicting the atmosphere (although Fez, particularly the medina, probably has changed less than many places), the times, the major players including Moroccan warlord and nationalist Abd al-Krim and his opposite, France’s amazingly human (for a colonial occupier) Maréchal Lyautey. Another 5 for King’s series. Although any of these novels will stand alone nicely, I think they're best read in series, beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

THE GOD OF SPRING, by Arabella Edge

Paris, 1818. Post-Napoleon, everything’s sliding back into the old ways, including total incompetence by noble appointees. The Medusa, part of a small flotilla of boats sent from France to re-assert control over the western Africa colony of Senegal, founders on a reef due to the blithe incompetence of a nobly-connected pilot. While the nobles set off for the coast in the only decent boat, most of the crew is set adrift on a jury-rigged raft. For harrowing days on the Atlantic searches in vain for rescue. Scandalized by the French court’s indifference to this monstrous injustice, artist Theodore Gericault decides to create a massive oil painting of the peak moment of the ordeal. The author has created scenes in Gericault’s life from sublime to grisly, making this book a must-read for historical novel enthusiasts. The painting, famous in its genre (you've seen it before, probably), is all the more powerful for the recounting in the novel of the actual ordeal by some of the traumatized survivors. If only the ending had been a bit stronger. It’s a 4.

EMPIRE OF IVORY, by Naomi Novik

4/series. Dragon Temeraire and his captain Will Lawrence return to England to find dragons dying from a mysterious virus. Bonaparte's dragons grow daily more aggressive as they lay the groundwork for an invasion by France's victorious armies. But Temeraire, exposed to the virus, does not succumb. Why? A race to darkest Africa for a possible cure pits Lawrence and his dragon against ferals both dragon-kind and humans. In a tense and moving finale, both dragon and man sacrifice themselves for the good of the dragons. Novik just keeps gettiing better and better. One of the great pleasures of these books is that the emotional challenges are so very well drawn. And she has really done her historical homework, right down to the personalities of the age. Another 5.

BLACK POWDER WAR, by Naomi Novik

3/series. Escaping Imperial China by a handy subterfuge, Celestial dragon Temeraire and his captain Will Lawrence, and the Temeraire crew are ordered to Istanbul to pick up several valuable dragon eggs. A dangerous journey takes them over the Gobi desert, following the ancient Silk Road. In the mountains they encounter a band of small, feral dragons led by the volatile, posturing Arkady who decides to follow Temeraire on his journey. Once in Istanbul, Arkady and his quarrelsome gang pillage and squabble, and little is what it seems, including the disappearance of a ransom in gold coins. Meanwhile, Bonaparte continues his rampage across eastern Europe. A beautiful melding of history, fantasy, war and emotion. A 5.

THE THRONE OF JADE, by Naomi Novik

 2/series. Celestial dragon Temeraire and his captain Will Lawrence, already having seen action over the chanel to thwart Bonaparte's invasion plans, are cornered by the Admiralty in the form of an irsacible officer who wants the unique dragon returned to his place of origin. Temeraire is a Celestial, a rare Chinese dragon, whose egg was captured by Lawrence in a sea battle. China sends a royal envoy, demanding he be returned to his rightful place: the Chinese court. Lawrence acquiesces and the dangerous journey begins. Another 5 from this very talented author. A super series.

HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON, by Naomi Novik

1/series. Napoleonic Europe. After a spirited engagement between his ship and a French vessel, British Navy officer Will Lawrence boards the merchantman to find its most precious cargo is a dragon's egg. Ready to hatch, the emerging dragon does the unexpected and adopts Lawrence as its captain, forcing the reluctant officer to abandon his Navy career and enter the despised Aerial Corps. Lawrence's first act is to name the dragon: Temeraire, after Nelson's famous warship; a most unusual name for a dragon. But, this is a most unusual dragon, as Lawrence soon finds out. A delightful compound of alternative history and dragon fantasy, this seamless tale is the start of a series you will not want to miss. You will be transported into a very real universe, and lvoe every mintue of it. I can hardly wait for the next one! A 5.