31.5.13

CAPTAIN ALATRISTE, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

1/series. In 17th century Spain, post-Armada, all was well if you were rich, but otherwise life was pretty dicey (some things don’t change; remind you of anything current?). The court of Phillip III glitters, but most of Spain goes hungry. Captain Diego Alatriste, ex-soldier and peerless swordsman, is reduced to renting out his expertise while he recuperates from a serious wound received in the endless Flemish wars. Enter a mysterious Englishman who Alatriste is hired to scare; subsequently ordered to kill by a priest of the Inquisition. The tale unfolds with elegant simplicity, told through the eyes of Alatriste’s young protégé, Iñigo. I really enjoy subtly simple writing, with gradually unfolding character insights and tight plotting. Even if you prefer "literary fiction", you may find these enjoyable tales well worth the time. This, the first of a new series by this renowned Spanish author, is a 5. Posted 7/29: Following tales include Purity of Blood (Inquisition); The Sun Over Breda (Spain's endless Flanders wars); The King's Gold (the treasure fleet from the New World); The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet (assassination); Pirates of the Levant (eastern Med Spanish/Turkish sea battles, the best recounting I've ever read, it will leave you completely exhausted). This is up there with the late and lamented Patrick O'Brien's stellar series.

30.5.13

THE SHIRT OFF HIS BACK, by Barbara Hambly

10/series. Benjamin January, a free man of color, facing financial ruin as bank after bank fail, is hired by New Orleans policeman Abishag Shaw to accompany him into the Rocky Mountains. January agrees, leaving his pregnant wife Rose at the mercy of a fever-ridden New Orleans summer, and travels for months with Shaw and the newly-sober fiddler Hannibal Sefton. The annual Mountain Men Rendezvous at Green River holds the secret to who killed Shaw’s younger brother. As always, many threads are woven to make this plot: plains Indians, both friendly and seeking white scalps; drunken Mountain Men with their larger-than-life stories and lives; strumpets of all ages; conniving fur traders; and a psychotic refugee from civilization. January is brought into it all, to the point that he is nearly scalped. Does he return home? Does Hannibal return to his old narcotic-soaked ways? Is the killer unmasked? Who is Heppelwhite? Is murder avenged? And...is it a boy or a girl? This look at a Mountain Man gathering, at Benjamin out in the wilds (very wild), at Indian and settler life and the inexorable march of white encroachment, is a very satisfying 5.

JOUST, by Mercedes Lackey

Young adult? Sure. Young Adults often are in their 60's. This story is great fun and a perfect bedtime read for your youngster (I'm talking about you reading to the kid, not her hunkered down on her own). Young Vetch, made a serf as a fortune of war, is starved and beaten by his vicious owner; it's a mtter of time before the young serf's life will be over. As he hauls water from a distant well to his master's garden, he is horrified to see a Jouster swoop down into the compound on his dragon and empty the water bucket over his head. The master, predictably, uses his whip on the hapless boy. And the disgusted Jouster, Ari, takes the boy away. In little time, Vetch is a dragon-boy, tasked with caring for the dragon Kashet. The luxury of it all! Regular meals, a bath, clean clothes...and the dragon. With its feet firmly in ancient Egypt, this delightful tale will open up for your own young reader not only a complex world, but raise questions about war, trust, fairness, honor, duty, victims, and a host of other real lfie questions. And it's a great read, a 4. I can hardly wait to get the sequel, Alta.

29.5.13

THE FENCING MASTER, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

This stand-alone book follows events in the lonely life of Don Jaime Astarloa, an aging Madrid fencing master in coming-apart-at-the-seams 1868 Madrid. A man whose talents are no longer appreciated, whose pupils would rather fire a gun than slide a tierce (I may have this term wrong; my only adventure with a rapier caused a sprained ankle). Don Jaime, a man to whom honor is all, is inveigled by Doña Adela de Otero, a beautiful, talented young woman into demonstrating his infallible master thrust. He then introduces her to his patron and friend, the Marquis de los Alumbres. What follows far exceeds anything Don Jamie could have expected. Once again, Perez-Reverte’s writing talents give us a 5+.

27.5.13

ISLAND OF GHOSTS, by Gillian Bradshaw

This excellent historical romance/adventure (really, the romance is not at all central, but a natural part of the story) set in Roman Britain stars Ariantes, a warlike Sarmatian prince who has voluntarily exiled himself (and his 500 men) to Britain as part of the occupying Roman force. Historically accurate (Emperor Marcus Aurelius did indeed negotiate such a pact), the clash of wildly different cultures is beautifully drawn in a deft, show-don't-tell manner. Sent to Hadrian's Wall in northern England, built by a receding Emperor because the Scots were too much trouble to subdue, Ariantes walks a fine line between staying true to himself, becoming neither "Romanized" nor refusing to yield to Rome's might, yet crafting a new life for himself and his men. This solid and satisfying book is a 5.

26.5.13

THE EDGE OF PLEASURE, by Philippa Stickley

Gilver Memmer, once the art world's golden boy, has fallen off the peaks he once strode unchallenged. Beguiled by the easy world of adulation, pleasure, sex, and fast living, he let his talent go fallow. Now, at forty two, alcoholic, nearly friendless, debauched, his legendary good looks raddled, he suffers repeated blows: he runs out of money...his treasure-filled London townhouse (mostly uninsured) burns during a "farewell" party...and he meets Alice, a pretty, unpretentious, would-be author. Oh, and there's a wronged woman from his past gunning for him. Stockley's writing is entertaining and precise, her hero (with a wide streak of villain) is complex and, you feel at the beginning, deserves whatever nasty comes his way. No spoilers here (why read a book review that tells you the whole plot? what's the point?). I'm not 100% convinced the title is spot-on, but the story, of rise and fall and redemption, of the glitterati versus the real, of lust and love and how to tell the difference...that is spot-on. The perfect summer read. It's a 4+. The sex? One mild scene of unwilling sex, which seems to be our hero's specialty.

25.5.13

ORNAMENTALISM, by David Cannadine

Non-fiction; subtitled How the British saw the Empire. A dense, exhaustive analysis of what it meant to be British, the subject of the British Empire, the most powerful political and economic entity in the history of the world.  Many fascinating details about the administration of the Empire; the section on honors was eye-opening. Not for the casual reader, but for a reader of historical fiction involving the Raj or the British Empire, this is well worth your time and will enrich your reading with background you'd not otherwise easily come upon. For history, this is amazingly readable. A3+.

THE FIRST WAVE, by James Benn

2/series. Billy Boyle (Dwight Eisenhower's mythical cousin, ex-Boston detective, and all round decent guy) returns for his next adventure, this time in Algeria as the Allied forces land, and take the country from Vichy French control. From the first day, in the First Wave of soldiers to storm ashore, Billy's up to his ears in mayhem, most of it centered around penicillin, a brand-new drug being tested in the North African theatre. But the crime families - French, Sicilian, local - are set up and waiting, and the first batch goes missing just after it's been used to save the life of Kaz, Billy's friend. Diana Seaton, Billy's love, a British agent and instigator of the Algerian revolt, is rounded up and shipped off, a brutal Vichy thug in charge. For the rest of the book, murder and contraband war in his heart with the urgent need - shared by few in command - to rescue Diana. The old saying "war is hell" comes  brutally true for everyone involved.The eternal survivor's questions - why me? why didn't I die? what did I do to deserve to live? - are asked and answered repeatedly in this story. Benn - a WW II historian -  has hit the right tone and captured the emotions of the front line. I'm waiting for book #3. It's a 4+.

20.5.13

STILL LIFE, by Louise Penny

Okay, this is a 5, and then some, and one of the reason I so enjoy doing these book reviews. Award-winning author Penny has introduced me to the fascinating people of tiny, bucolic Three Pines, Canada, just up  from the U.S. border, and to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Montreal Surete. I am in love! Not only is the plot intricate, but the characters are varied and beautifully drawn, their emotions revealed but not pinned to a board and sliced open, their relationships at times hilarious and at times heartbreaking, and always believable. Here's life as it really is, not as an author decides it should be. I put this first book down with such a sense of satisfaction, I picked up the second one at once. I'll write no more, but if you do not get this book - and its successor The Cruelest Month, you are missing one of the great reading treats of the year, maybe the decade, maybe even your life. Oh, if only I could write like this! Be aware that Penny's books have different titles in Canada. Go to her website for details www.louisepenny.com

KYDD, by Julian Stockwin

1/series. Oh, goody, Patrick O’Brien has a worthy successor. In this brutally accurate debut novel set in 1793, young wig-maker Thomas Paine Kydd is caught by a press gang (essentially kidnapped by the British Navy) and hauled aboard a British warship. It is the day of giant three-masted fighting vessels, of unexpected encounters with enemy warships, with the blood and chaos of broadsides, of hand-to-hand fighting. No internal combustion engines, no GPS, no band-aids, no radios, no waterproof clothing, no stainless steel mess halls.  The life is brutal, flogging expected, death waits at every turn. A far cry from the gentle, civilized life Kydd had led. The author’s long career in the navy, plus impeccable research, brings us a chillingly accurate portrayal of the rough, dangerous and casually brutal life of a sailor aboard a ship-of-the-line. I can hardly wait to read the next one! A 5.

THE KEEPER, by Meg O’Brien

Brooke Hayes has finally got her life back in order: sober, newly-made a cast member of a soon-to-open play in San Francisco, re-establishing contact with her nine year-old daughter Charly, who's in her father's sole custody in L.A.. The week before she’s due to fly to L.A., her daughter calls, frightened, hysterical. Brooke’s ex-husband, hyper-control freak, says the child is fine, but hangs up when Brooke demands to speak with her. Terrified, knowing something’s gone wrong, Brooke flies to L.A., but her lawyer ex has poisoned the well, and the police won’t believe her. One sympathetic cop sends her to ex-cop John Creed, AKA The Keeper, a man who specializes in finding vanished children. As the clock ticks, Brooke must find her daughter. But can she trust Creed? The denouement is heart-stopping. A 4.

19.5.13

A RULE AGAINST MURDER, by Louise Penny

Few writers could come up with a more vicious and dysfunctional family than the wealthy, aristocratic Morrows. Author Louise Penny should win an award just for these people, gathered at an elegant and remote resort for their annual family reunion and raising of a commemorative statue. Imagine concocting a murder weapon out of the statue? Imagine a woman naming her child after a legume and refusing to reveal its sex (child is now nine) just to spite her family. Imagine a mother unable to touch her children but allowing them to think…what? Aha, thought I’d spill the beans? This carefully crafted tale of love from sublime to twisted, jealousy hidden and revealed, revenge both in-the-moment petty and long-planned gigantic, the risks to the murderer of murdering. Penny’s characters are unique and quirky without being so odd you think she really had to work hard to dream them up. Inspector Armand Gamache, one of my new fave fantasy guys, is revealed in his strength and his vulnerability. What a guy! What a series! What a writer! They’re all 5s!

FAREWELL, DOROTHY PAPRKER, by Ellen Meister

The ghost of the fabulous, ascerbic Dorothy Parker arrives in Violet Epps humdrum life like a tsunami, sweeping Violet's carefully-crafted world away. Known to the public as a vinegar-tongued movie critic, Violet's trying to face her boyfriend, an impecunious artist, moving in with her. At the same time, she's gearing up for a no-holds-barred custody battle over her beloved niece. And she's trying to not notice how very attractive her karate instructor is. The famous, deceased wit of the Algonquin Round Table brings it all together (sometimes disastrously). A delightful take on the delicious Parker (who invented the term one-night stand, by the way). A 4+; take it to the hammock and enjoy!

18.5.13

WHEN BEAUTY TAMED THE BEAST, by Eloisa James

Even a non romance reader could love this story. Author James hits her stride in this beguiling Regency romance set on coastal Wales. Linnet Berry Thrynne is, as happened to many of her time and class, betrothed to a man with a nasty reputation. Piers Yelverton, Earl of Marchant, is the evil-tempered groom-to-be. But, as with all James’ novels, nobody is what they appear on the surface, and Linnet finds herself being drawn down into…you read it. You’ll love it. It’s a solid 5, with fully-drawn, absorbing, believable characters. Sex is a 2.5.

A FATAL GRACE, by Louise Penny

Deep, sparkling winter and its deep secrets are revealed, as a snowfall comes down one flake at a time. Not that there’s anything flaky about this story. A perfectly killable woman is killed. You’re thinking, boy did she need it. But how, and why, and who? Why was the murdered woman wearing sealskin boots? How was she killed right in the middle of a curling match? Will the struggling artist be recognized as a great talent? Will it ever stop snowing? Once again, sleepy Three Pines becomes a wide-awake murder venue, and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sureté - and his efficient team, including perpetually conflicted Inspector Beauvoir  - must tease out all the clues. And who is the spy in the Gamache camp? Another 5.

SWEET TOOTH, by Ian McEwan

Britian, 1972; the end of the Cold War, where the maneuvering has gone underground, and intellectuals are unknowingly subborned by shadowy government surrogates. Serena Frome (rhymes with plume), maths prodigy, finds Cambridge life too challenging. When an affair with a professor ends (brutally), she is invited to join the intelligence service, but as a lowly secretary in a basement. Then she's tapped for a "secret" job: develop and contact writers, and in particular promising young novelist Tom Haley. Money is involved: generous payments. And then Serena begins to fall for Tom. Serena's immediate superior, gauche Max Greatorex, complicates matters. As does the lovers increasingly deep involvement. When can Serena tell Tom what she really is? And then...everything comes together in the final pages, which you'll have to read yourself. McEwan, as always, barely sets a foot wrong (although the journey to the end at times could move a bit faster), but the ending is completely satisfying and surprising. A 4+

17.5.13

THE LAUGHTER OF DEAD KINGS, By Elizabeth Peters

Vicky Bliss, museum curator and involuntary art sleuth without peer, is at it again, this time in the shadow of her lover John Tregarth (aka Sir John Smythe, legendary and supposedly-retired art thief) whose fingerprints may be all over the heist of a famous pharaoh’s remains from the Valley of the Kings. Grand Master Peters, another without compare (how many books has she published, anyway?), has set up a delicious tale involving Vicky, her dumpling of a boss Schultz (with a surprise up this sleeve), a seductive American agent (CIA, FBI, ATF?), a sneaky cousin, stressed authorities, devious plots, and last-minute surprises. This is a solid 4, the perfect weekend read.

15.5.13

THE ROSSETTI LETTER, by Christi Phillips

A good first novel of a shy modern researcher, long overdue to finish her dissertation, and her do-or-die visit to Venice to do final work. Romance and intrigue pile up almost at once, but the modern action is highlighted by well-drawn visits to the life of the little-known courtesan the young American researches. A possibly sly academic helps to muddle the plot. This author will, without much doubt, go places. I'm waiting for the next work, hopefully still full of sexy Italians! A 4.

BURY YOUR DEAD, by Louise Penny

Of all Penny’s marvelous books, this is the most harrowing, as it weaves a multitude of mesmerizing tales into one heart-clutching narrative of death and loss. I love it when an author pulls no punches and nice people get hurt. That’s life; Penny knows it and it permeates her books. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is recuperating in winter-frozen Quebec City. Around him swirls the raucous Winter Carneval. Inside, he’s still gripped by the horror of his most recent, personally disastrous, case. A new body intrudes; he cannot bring himself to assist investigations. He reviews a recently-concluded case, decides he may have been wrong. He knows he was wrong in another, haunting, case. And still the new murder pulls him in. I cannot remember reading a more compelling narrative than this one. It’s a 5+.

14.5.13

THE WATCHMAN, by Robert Crais

11/series. The OED defines a pike as a long-bodied, predatory fish, known for speed and aggression. Joe Pike, quiet, self-contained and deadly, gets a call from someone he owes a favor to. The man calls in the favor: bodyguard wealthy young Larkin Barkley. Somebody’s tried to kill her five times in the past week. Pike, whose sense of right and wrong is knife-edge keen and marrow deep, takes on the task of whisking her to safety with his trademark single-minded efficiency. But Larken, LA’s pampered party girl, tries to bring her chichuahua and a dozen monogrammed suitcases. Instant antipathy. Pike wins: one suitcase, no dog. But who’s trying to kill her and why? Why are the Feds involved? Is anyone telling the truth? Crais, a fabulously talented writer, unspools this betrayal-within-a-betrayal until you’ll just give up trying to follow the trails and enjoy the ride. And it’s a wild one. Joe pike is a 5+ and so’s the book. www.robertcrais.com

13.5.13

CREOLE BELL, by James Lee Burke

19/series. The unique team of Dave Robichaux and Clete Purcel are at it again, this time on the track of Tee Jolie Melton, a young woman who appears to Dave in a morphine-addled dream. He later learns she was kidnapped; her sister, Blue, subsequently vanishes. As with all Burke’s novels, the violence and gore is copious, the one-liners bitingly funny, the plot subtle and the characters unique and fascinating. But the pontificating is starting to get to me. No author, regardless of chops, ought to pause at the beginning of a fight scene to muse for paragraphs, for Pete’s sake, upon the state of the world, no matter how dire and depressing it is. And Clete’s big theatre piece is too bizarre and improbable for words, to say nthing of the vilian's lair. A Hail Mary 4, and just barely.

10.5.13

THE SIXTEEN PLEASURES & THE ITALIAN LOVER, by Robert Helenga

Wow! What great books! I was browsing the stacks and came upon this author, and loved how the main character just leaped off the page into my head. I knew this woman! American Margot Harrington, a book restoration expert, goes to flood-devastated Florence to help recover the immense cache of almost-ruined art. The year is 1982. Margot has a brief fling with a selfish, nasty professor (who wear Harvard boxer shorts, yet), then enters a convent. Why? You must read this to find out. You will not be disappointed. It’s a 5+.
The sequel, The Italian Lover, visits Margot twenty-five years later. She’s a respected book conservator (I love the passages dealing with this esoteric subject), still in Florence, about to embark on a new love affair and a life-changing association with a movie being made from (kind of) her memoir. Aside from a marvelous story, the individual journeys of all the characters, journeys many of us have taken perhaps without even knowing it, are beautifully, tenderly, exquisitely drawn. Another 5+; perfect for a book group. For all the provocative titles, sex is not where it's at; I'll give them a 1.

9.5.13

BY KING’S DECREE, by Shari Anton

Young, beautiful Ardith of Lenvil, was betrothed to Gerard of Wilmont, back when she developed a childhood crush on the young knight. Gored by a wild boar (that’s all there were in 12th century England), her not-very-loveable father deemed her unable to bear children (prime female function in those days); the betrothal was terminated. Fast forward a decade, when Gerard (magnificently, imperiously male, undefeated in battle, lord of most of what he surveys) gets a glimpse of Ardith (luscious, albeit a bit wild and countryish) and falls in lust. Gerard orders her to court; she cleans up nicely, almost too nicely for Gerard's comfort. Then the king gets involved: if Ardith becomes…wait a minute. No spoiler. Read the book. It’s a 3; sex at a 2.5. A nice plot, probably realistically portraying the lives and constraints on women, and what inconsiderate brutes men were. Ah, well, some things never change.

8.5.13

LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS, by Diana Gabaldon

Gabaldon usually writes mega-historical novels that weight more than a truck tire, but this spin-off series is more like a sedan tire. The trilogy of novellas re-introduces one of her compelling secondary characters, Lord John Grey, who walks an elegantly tight line between social acceptance, and disgrace and incarceration. He’s gay, you see, and while there seems to be no shortage of gays in his 1770’s English world, they are all under threat, and for the most part keep their lights hidden under very discrete cover. But threats come from many places. Read this delightful little book some weekend, and get swept into the well-drawn era in which treason abounds, witches ride the night sky, and canons roar. It’s a 4.
Find the author at www.dianagabaldon.com
Tell a friend! Find more never-a-spoiler book reviews at www.nuts4books.com

6.5.13

STROLL THOSE STACKS!!!

Everything else in this blog is a book review, but for a change of pace I wanted to share a few thoughts. Obviously, based on the number of books reviewed here, I have no social life, never dust the furniture or clean the fridge, or wax the car (yeah, right), don't watch TV...books are where it's at for me. But scooping up the latest from the just-released shelves at the library (and at the rate I read, buying books is not possible) is kind of missing the point. So...next time you're at your public library, do what I do: take a stroll through the stacks and pick up an author you've never read or heard about before.
Here's a few of the authors I've "discovered" recently:
ROBERT HELENGA. I cannot praise this American author's idiosyncratic work enough. His characters just leap off the pages. He doesn't have a huge body of work but what I've read has been top quality, totally gripping, and all of it suitable for book clubs. Like Helenga, IVAN DOIG is another American writer you've probably never heard of, but his body of work is, in scope and feeling, gigantic.
JOHN HART, reviewed in this blog, writes "Southern novels". His first was no fun, but then he picked up speed and if you can stand tales with absolutely no humor, where almost everyone is PTSD (or ought to be) and secondary characters are wierder than anything Janet Evanovich ever dreamed up, all of it set in the Carolinas, then Hart may be an author you'll want to read. He's a good writer, but an exhausting one.
STEVEN SAYLOR is not, technically, a recent find. I've read this historian/author for years, and enjoyed every single book. Hell, I've grown old along with Gordianus! The series is set in the time of Catilina, Sulla and Caesar. Read in series, you've got the perfect syllabus for an ancient Roman history course. A similar author is JASON GOODWIN, also a historian but of the Ottoman Empire, who writes an enchanting series about Yashim the Eunuch, an investigator for the Sultan. They require more attention than some books, as Goodwin really knows his stuff and details abound.
DONNA LEON deals with modern Italy in her series set in Venice (where Leon lives) and starring Guido Brunetti, police detective, husband and father. All characters are fully fleshed-out, and the mystery is always timely and compelling. And then there's fabulous Venice as backdrop. There is also a cookbook but I haven't read it yet.
NIGELLA LAWSON, speaking of cookbooks, Eat This is perfect for the mildly-challenged cook who is either phobic with any recipe over 8 ingredients, or is time-handicapped. There's recipe for a sticky toffee pudding in here that'll become a mainstay...at least until you joinWeight Watchers.
DOROTHY L. SAYERS, and you probably have already heard of her but she was news to me, was the British writer who revolutionized mysteries. Most of her work was first published in the 30's but it still is gripping today. Nine Tailors will hold you spellbound; Gaudy Nights will keep you up an entire weekend.
ROBERT CRAIS, kick-ass mysteries mostly set in California, many starring Elvis Cole and his silent but deadly sidekick Joe Pike. These guys are good, the action is non-stop, the plots intricate.
KAREN ROSE, award-winning romance author, spins seductive yarns chock full of suspense that'll keep you on the edge of your seat. Explicit sex scenes not included, but there's enough romance to satisfy.most love bugs.
This is nowhere near my complete list but it ought to keep you busy for a while...ciao...Lee.

5.5.13

THE BLACK CAT, by Martha Grimes

22/series begun in 1981. Another great Richard Jury tale, this one involving murdered women who work for escort services in and around London. We don’t see enough of aristocratic sidekick Melrose Plant, bucolic Long Piddleton, and the gang at the Jack and Hammer, but Grimes’ witty dialogue never fails and the sexy Jury does his usual compassionate and complete job. The  conversations between Mungo the dog and various felines are a little far-fetched but still entertaining. A 4; talking animals do not turn me on.

WHERE SHADOWS DANCE, by C. S. Harris

WOW, what a series! Harris is not only a fine writer, but her to-the-ground knowledge of the period she writes about is flawless. The attitudes, the manners and mannerisms, all brought out with a marvelous subtelty that never intrudes on the story but serves to immerse you even deeper into the tale. Sebastian St. Cyr is once again brought into a murder-that-cannot-be-labelled when his good friend Dr. Gibson finds a cadaver (grave-robbed for anatomizing) that wasn't heart failure...at least in the medical sense. A stiletto wound at the base of the skull marks the deceased, a young Foreign Office rising star, as murdered. The brilliant and deadly Lord Jarvis, kingmaker and King's cousin, is once agin at odds with St. Cyr as our dishy noble sleuth struggles to uncover the truth. And what of Miss Hero Jarvis, arrogant and independent? The plot continually develops and thickens! What a ride! A 5!

4.5.13

CHARLIE’S APPRENTICE, by Brian Freemantle

10/series. Idiosyncratic Charlie Muffin’s once again annoyed the powers that be; he’s been shoved out to pasture. Again. Young John Gower is thrust upon Charlie; teach him how to survive, he’s ordered. And so begins Gower’s lessons in the subtle and brutal art of a spy’s survival. Does it work? Is Bejing the capital of China? Is Moscow the heart of treachery? In the former USSR’s capital, Natalia sure-foots through the former-KGB’s minefields. Muffin rat-runs through his own survival tutorial. Gower? Read on! Once again, Freemantle draws the reader in and locks the tale around ankles: too late, you’re trapped, you have to read until 2AM. A 5.

THE TEMPLE DANCER, by John Speed

India, 1657. The Portugese are losing their grip on their commercial empire based in Goa, on the western coast. A beautiful young temple dancer, Maya, is bought as a slave by the influential Dasana family to win favor with the vizier at the Bijapur court, a powerful state in the country's interior. The long, dangerous overland journey made from Goa to Bijapur includes Lucinda, naive heiress to the Dasana fortune and the smiling eunuch Slipper, who join Maya in the howdah atop an elephant. As guards, a grizzled Portugese warrior, DaGama, rides with the handsome Indian Pathan, representative of the Bijapur sultana. Ruthless young adventurer Geraldo, Lucinda's handsome but dead-broke cousin, makes eyes at both women, but his heart is only for himself. And then the caravan is attacked. The first of a trilogy by a writer who has immersed himself in the time and the place, the story will pull you right in...a 5.

A TRICK OF THE LIGHT, by Louise Penny

7/series. The incomparable Chief Inspector Gamache returns to Three Pines amidst Clara Morrow's artistic triumph as a dead body is found in her garden. But it's not just any body, and the complications and twists and surprises keep coming in the usual impeccable Penny style. In this one, the art world and its pretentions, cruelties, and avarice are revealed, layer upon layer. As always, this award-wining writer packs more than just mystery into her novel, there's love and hate, ugliness and grace, and a very subtle mystery. Penny gives the reader an entire rainbow of emotion, all with some of the best writing you'll ever inhale. It's a 5+.

2.5.13

TIMING IS EVERYTHING, by Jack Piccolo

A fabulous cooking resource for everyone who's ever turned on a stove or fired up a grill. I refer to this handy paperback at least twice a week for cooking times on everything. Braise, dry, roast, blanch, whatever...it's here, and it is accurate. My hundred plus uses confirm the author knows his stuff. This is the perfect gift for any cook, no matter how accomplished. Okay, back out Mario Battali and gang. Easy to find what you're looking for, clearly labelled, chock full of little cooking tips. This guy did a perfect job. You'll wonder how you ever did without it! A 5+. It'd make a great gift, too.

WORLD HERITAGE SITES, by UNESCO

Interested in how you stand visiting the 878 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? This book will give you a lot of information but I think you'll be tearing your hair out before you're done. The format is spare (but photos are great) and beyond user-unfriendly. The sites are listed in chronological sign-up order (which head-in-the-clouds beaurecrat thought that wacky order up? and what's wrong with a country-by-country order??) so you have to search the index by country and look up each site on its individual page. AAARGHHH! By the time I found all the sites in Italy, I was ready to kill. If all you want to do is browse, this is okay, but as far as a traveler's resource, this heavy tome is useless. So...give it a 1.

THE WILD ROAD, by Gabriel King

A marvelous quest book by a pair of accomplished writers (go to the Random House site for details); the book's scope is so wide, I'd guess two were required to pull it off so well. The first magical book of a trilogy about cats. I will never look at my feline, Princess CooCoo, without wondering if the story's premise could be true: cats are smart, determined, implacable, organized, astoundingly intellectual…and will save the world. The tale is fascinating. A cat is bought at a pet store, an old one-eyed cat entices him, an evil magician seeks both him and the King and Queen of cats. Exhausting, at time heart-rending. Completely captivating. It’s a 5, and a book even non-cat lovers will enjoy.

THE CHARLIE MUFFIN SERIES, by Brian Freemantle

CHARLIE M, HERE COMES CHARLIE M, THE INSCRUTABLE CHARLIE M, BLIND RUN, SEE CHARLIE RUN, and many others
Freemantle has created in the wackily-named Charlie Muffin a character of such depth and cunning, a man both honest to a fault and a devious, conniving, cold-blooded manipulator, that I’ve checked all dozen plus books in the series out of the library and am reading until three AM.  Charlie M, first of the lot, was published in 1977; but don’t let that put you off, the pacing and plot - except for the electronics - are timeless. A Russian spymaster working a web in England is uncovered by Charlie, shambling odd-boy-out at British Intelligence (hard to use that word after you read this tale). But, Charlie knows, the game’s not over…what’ll come next? A Russian general makes serious defection noises. Charlie’s boss - despicable, credulous and complacent - and his nastily bizarre American counterpart, arrange for the general to defect. Charlie, able to manipulate all but the final glory of the defection which is stage-managed by the two directors, must see the entire process to its end game. And what a surprise you’ll get at the end! It’s a 5. And so are all the others in this decades-long series, if only for their subtle plotting and the last five pages of surprises. Freemantle does a fine job of setting up the next in the series as well. All of them 5's.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN, THE GIRL OF HIS DREAMS, ABOUT FACE, by Donna Leon

18/series. Commissario Guido Brunetti of Venice is a delectable hero in a long (18 so far, plus a cookbook that may prove to be a must-have) series of murders, few of which begin as murders. A cop with a heart is a facile way to put it, but Brunetti is also the consummate police detective, with an eye for detail and a way with interrogations that'd have anyone blurting all their secrets. His sidekick Isspetore Vianelli, his fabulously inept boss Patta and Patta's fabulously efficient secretary Signorina Elletra, plus Brunetti's vibrant family, all will enchant you. And the subject matter - from child burglars to industrial polluters to card sharps - will keep you up-to-date with modern Italy. One of the great pleasures of discovering an established series author is the self-indulgence of a week or more - a month or even a season in Leon's case! - of solid reading. Wry humor, a richly-drawn cast of characters of all ages, meals to die for, and humans in all their inscrutable failings, all set out in witty, impeccable prose. Author Leon is right up there with Elizabeth George and Louise Perry. The entire series is a 5. Read them in order for a month-long extravaganza of total Venetian immersion. www.donnaleon.net

1.5.13

COMRADE CHARLIE, by Brian Freemantle

9/series. When Freemantle draws a fatuous, conniving, self-deluded character, it’s one for the record books. Here he gives us two, beautifully drawn, weaseling around trying to bring down our boy Charlie. In  Moscow, teetering on the brink of perestroika, comes a spymaster who takes it all very personally. In London, two old-school-tie snobs plot to bring their flat-footed colleague down. But they never should have involved mama. Switching from one hub of power to another, Freemantle has created yet another mesmerizing tale of sly betrayal, clever manipulation, and megalomaniacal hatred. Charlie Muffin is the Man! If you read spy stories, this author has the genre nailed down in incomparable LeCarre style (I bet the prolific Freemantle grinds his teeth at the comparisson). Oh, I almost forgot: there’s a love story you won’t believe. It’s an absolutely delicious 5.

DEAD FOR A DUCAT, by Simon Shaw

3/series. More Philip Fletcher, this time the actor is way down on his luck, lurking in an alcoholic haze in his flat while the theatre world pretends he’s dead. Then he’s offered such a juicy part that he wonders what the catch is. Turns out to be something Fletcher knows only too well: murder. As the attempts on his life mount, Fletcher turns the tables…with mixed results. Another solid, entertaining 4 from Simon Shaw, whose intimate knowledge of the theatre shines through.

BLOODY INSTRUCTIONS, by Simon Shaw

2/series. Once again, the blithely homicidal actor Philip Fletcher (introduced in Murder Out of Tune) finds his fortunes on the rise as he’s picked for a significant part in Macbeth. But the lead, a foul-mouthed inner-city American boy genius, loathes Fletcher as much as Fletcher loathes him. Who is the prime suspect when the American lead is found with a dagger between his shoulder blades? Fletcher, quick thinking and inventive, tries to tap-dance his way through the morass until he comes face to face with the killer…and what a surprise it is. Author Shaw is an actor and the theatrical details are delightful. It’s another 4. Read these in order!

KILLER CINDERELLA, by Simon Shaw

Shaw’s an entertaining writer, but this book about a spineless henpecked husband and his cheating wife left me totally uninterested. The morose lodger and the weaselly lover didn’t add to the mix, either. For me, a totally skippable 2.

THE TEHRAN CONVICTION, by Tom Gabbay

3/series. Once again, Jack Teller is at the center of history-making events, this time in Iran during the fall of the Shah and the rise of an Islamist state. Despite the tedious number of flag-waving scenes, author Gabbay turns in an interesting tale of intrigue, double- and treble-dealing and wheels within wheels on a grand scale, and an array of characters who mostly get what’s coming to them, both good and bad. For an interesting up-close look at the pivotal events and bloody chaos of that time, this is a good read. It’s a 3+.

FROM THE MEMOIRS OF A NON-ENEMY COMBATTANT, by Alex Gilvarry

Contemporary fiction at its best. As soon as he graduates from design school, Boyet "Boy" Hernandez leaves his home in the Philippines and comes to New York City to be a women's fashion designer. The slog is hard, but he's committed. And he's good. He meets his neighbor, Ahmed, and despite initial misgivings, allows the slick talking liar of no discernible citizenship to bankroll (B)oy, his soon-to-be-fabulously-famous line. As Boy's chance at fame increases, so does his involvement with the globr-trotting Ahmed. Stacks of fertilizer in the guy's apartment don't raise suspicions to the fashion-obsessed Boy. And then, just as Barneys and Neiman Marcus start paying attention, there's a midnight knock on the door. And the nightmare begins. Comic, sad, scary, horrific, and just plain Kafkaesque, Boy's Guantanamo ordeal will make you laugh and cry. It's a 5+, perfect for a book group.

JOHN SATURNALL’S FEAST, by Lawrence Norfolk

England, 1625: the rise of fundamentalist Protestants (with all the nasty attributes all fundamentalists seem to have) as the dissolute Catholic court reels from one extravagance to another. But in the village of Buckland, excesses of another sort: accusations of witchcraft against John Sandall’s mother. Fleeing to the forest, they subsist on foraged foods, and his mother reads to her son from her precious book. Stories of feasts, memories of taste, the lore of the kitchen and of ingredients. In the winter, his mother dies, and young John is on his own. A luscious, sumptuous, delicious, heartbreaking, marvelous novel by the author of The Pope’s Rhinoceros. A 5+. Book groups should eat this up, ha ha, and foodies ought to love it, too.