31.8.13

ORCHIDS AND DIAMONDS, by Rosalind Laker

Laker's evocation of the world of haute couture at its haute-est, of France on the edge of World War I, is letter perfect. It's a frenetic and glamorous world inhabited by those in the fashion houses, by the many Russians who prefer Paris to Moscow, such as young and handsome Nicolai Karasvin, a sculptor who has worked with Auguste Rodin's studio. Young Jeannine Cladel arrives in Paris to make her mark in the fashion world, a world that her selfish and scheming elder sister has already conquered. After Nicolai returns to Russia and is reported killed in the war, Juliette - who has borne her lover's child - marries a mutual Italian friend and moves to Venice. She meets one of her heroes, Mariano Fortuny, the famous designer, and goes to work with him. Historical fiction with real historical characters is so satisfying; I'm not only being entertained but am leaning about a man - the famous Spanish textile genius Mariano Fortuny - I've always been curious about. This is a 4+. Take it to the beach!

30.8.13

SLOW POISON, by Sheila Bosworth

Published in 1992, pre-Oprah Booklist, this heart-rendingly funny book about four generations of the Cades of  Covington LA (suburban New Orleans) is one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's not a 5, it's a 15! If your book club is searching for a fine, laugh-out-loud, three hankie read, this is it. It's got everything, all in perfect prose that'll make you think the author is a poet in her spare time: it's got love, thwarted love, lust, lust thwarted and unthwarted, babies alive and not, alcoholism and drug-addiction, Roman Catholic weirdness, Viet Nam, Crosley radios, life and death. Each character (and that they are) is fully fleshed out, distinct, wildly idiosyncratic. You'll love the "loyal family retainers". I cannot for the life of me figure out how the author did not put one word out of place. What a great voice Bosworth has!

29.8.13

THE CASE OF THE MISSING SERVANT, by Tarquin Hall

Meet Vish Puri, who considers himself India's best Private Detective. You'll agree when this entrancing book is done, and you'll rush out and see if there's any more (my next trip). Author Hall has lived in India and knows the attitudes, prejudices, habits, shortcomings and delights of the sub-continent...but he doesn't rub them in your face, they just tiptoe out in front of you, charming and immersing you in this tale of murder and attempted murder, kidnapping, mayhem, cheating, conniving, lying and ultimately justice for all, one way or another. This is a fun-filled and authentic 5.

28.8.13

LONDON IN CHAINS, by Gillian Bradshaw

Who knew the English Civil War was plural? Neither, confesses this very talented author, did she. Set in London in 1647, young Lucy Wentnor - rejected by her father after she is raped by three soldiers - goes to London to stay with her uncle. Uncle's wife, a bitter and contentious harridan, never looses a chance to stir up trouble; her particular focus is on her husband's political leanings. Quickly, Lucy is swept into the world of political life that could put her in the Tower, as she becomes a printer's apprentice despite the loud objections of her Uncle's wife. And if all the intrigue between king and Cromwell's troops isn't enough, the plague arrives. If you have any interest in British history as seen through non-royal eyes, this is the perfect read. I'll give it an 4. You'll be happy to know there is a sequel.

THE GHOST, by Robert Harris

Harris, the author of the fabulous Imperium and Fatherland, does it again in this contemporary novel dealing with terrorism, politics, honor and honesty and the judgment of history. The ghost in question is a ghost-writer hired to replace a dead man to finish the autobiography of Britain's former PM Adam Lang. Handsome, captivating, Lang was excoriated when he left office for supporting America's wars on terror and toadying to American demands for renditions. As the ghost (I checked to page 100 and his name isn't mentioned even though the work is told in first person) immerses himself in the Lang life story, he begins to sense something isn't quite right. With Harris's sure style - witty, quick-moving, detailed, engrossing - you'll find it hard to put this one down. It's a 5.

27.8.13

THREE QUARTERS, by Denis Hamill

From the graphic opening prison scenes right through confrontations, fistfights, shootouts, lies, deceptions and betrayals, author Hamill keep his hero - disgraced ex-cop and prison inmate 6'2" hyper-fit Bobby Emmet - fighting for his reputation and his life. The conmen, wiseguys, sleazy lawyers, desperate victims and crooked cops of New York City are portrayed with vigor and a dark edge that fans of this genre will enjoy. Hamill, an NYC-based reporter, has got the seamiest sides, and the provocative actions, the perversions and psychoses of the city down pat. Now I wish he'd get a little more realistic with his dialogue and knock off the holier-than-thou why'd-you-do-it? passages. I give this easy read a 3+.

GONE BAMBOO by Anthony Bourdain

I thought Tony Bourdain was just an edgy, attitudinous ex-chef with wonky knees and a talent for eating icky local food without dying, but I now have to re-think. This book, published in 1997 (pre-Kitchen Confidential?), has a few minor flaws but if you're in for a feisty pair of killers (a gone-to-seed Mr and Mrs Smith) and their dilemma when one of their victims shows up near their St Martin beachfront hotel, this is a fun read. It ain't heavy literary fiction, but the plotting is good, the action almost non-stop, the characters (mostly) believable, and the denouement vintage Bourdain. And the author's photo on the flyleaf is edible; actually, it's hilarious because at one point in the book he writes of the uber-competent female "even at 36 she was stunning" and the same could be said of the author. It's a 4 and I'd love to read more like this.

25.8.13

MURDER IN THE MARAIS, by Cara Black

Published in 1999, this noir-ish mystery introduces gutsy Aimee Leduc, a part-American Paris (France, not Texas) PI. An elderly Jewish woman is murdered minutes before Aimee, at the request of a holocaust scholar at a local synagogue, brings a photo to her. On the old woman's forehead is carved a swastika. Aimee and her partner, the dwarf Rene, are both computer hacker geniuses, and can get into almost any database. Then the holocaust scholar is hit by a bus...Aimee is attracted to a neo-Nazi...memories of World War II and the Nazi occupation come pouring forth...someone takes pot shots at Aimee...a diplomat searches for his lost love...an election is in the offing...mystery inside mystery inside memory. If you have read little about this war and its horrors, this book will shake you up. And the denouement is a surprise. It's a 4, and I look forward to more Aimee Leduc tales.

THE DROWNING RIVER, by Christobel Kent

The river in question is the Arno, sweeping picturesquely through Florence, Italy. Introducing Sandro Cellini, a "defrocked" police detective who has turned to private detecting. He's approached by the widow of a recently-drowned man; the woman believes her husband didn't throw himself in the river. At the same time, Cellini investigates the disappearance of a British student from one of the many art schools that thrive in the city. The author's sure hand with the characters' emotions gives this tale a lot of depth, and her knowledge of the city (I may take the book next time I visit, get off the beaten path) is encyclopedic. This is a 5 for me...no, make it a 5+. My kind of stuff: suspenseful, probing, merciless, very sure-footed...I can hardly wait for more.

24.8.13

MURDER IN THE DARK, by Kerry Greenwood

Phryne Fisher (the Hon., as she insists) is a heroine/role model/sleuth for us all: at home with herself and her wealth, with her aberrations, her lovers (a tall Chinese gentleman who calls her his concubine)(plus an undercover agent)(and anyone else who might strike her very picky fancy),  her friends and faithful staff...but she's not too comfortable with an invitation to the Last Best Party of 1928. This bash-to-end-all-bashes is thrown by The Golden Twins - one excruciatingly beautiful male, one otherworldly female - in an old mansion not far from Melbourne, Australia. And then things - and people - start to disappear. Guns are fired. Ground glass is put in face cream. Who is doing what and why? This is a delicious weekend read; get your bonbons and settle in! The prolific Greenwood has written nearly a score of Phryne Fisher stories, plus others, all set in Australia. I can hardly wait to get my hands on the next one. Give the lady a 5!

DON'T LOOK NOW, by Richard Montanari

Contemporary serial killer novel by one of the acknowledged current masters of this genre, Cleveland police detective Jack Paris must bring a sadistic killer who targets professional women with a certain attribute. Paris, struggling with an emotional downturn caused by his recent divorce, slogs through the investigation, and encounters the most terrifying situation he's ever had to deal with. While the plot is fairly solid, and Paris is a very believable protagonist, there are so many loose ends to this I can't give it a good mark; when you've got eight books under your belt, somebody should be checking the manuscript for those "what happened to...?" situations. A 3.5. www.richardmontanari.com

23.8.13

SUGAR SKULL, by Denise Hamilton

2/series. Continuing the series starring gutsy, intrepid LA Times reporter Eve Diamond (and her enviable though disastrous love life), this novel examines life in the Mexican immigrant community. As with all Hamilton's novels, they are populated with excellently-drawn characters with complex and believable lives. There's an old saying in the crime bizniz: there's always an earlier crime. Hamilton is adept at bringing past and present together. Sugar Skull takes its name from the Day of the Dead candies that many Mexicans adore. The next novel in the series is Last Lullaby, then comes Savage Garden and Prisoner of Memory (Russian immigrants; a really chilling, complex tale). I read them non-stop and was glad I did it. This is a heroine I don't get tired of. Give them a 5! And give me more, more, more! www.denisehamilton.com 

SISTER, by Rosamund Lupton

Beautifully written, in part an essay on sisterhood, but also a carefully-plotted mystery set in present-day London. Contemporary crime fiction rarely comes better than this complex novel of two sisters, Beatrice and Tess. Beatrice, the older and more conventional sister, flies home to London when her mother tells her Tess has gone missing. Beatrice's attempts to find her sister are stymied by her own lack of knowledge about her artistic, free-spirited sibling, whom she had thought she knew well. If I tell you any more, this would contain spoilers, so you'll have to read it. The harrowing tale will keep you up late, and the ending will shock, so lay in a supply of bonbons. It's a 4.5, and an accomplished first novel. Lupton will go on your A-list for forthcoming books. She can be reached at www.rosamundlupton.com.

22.8.13

GRAVEYARD DUST, by Barbara Hambly

Benjamin January, a free man of color in 1830's New Orleans, is once again beset by problems, this time concerning his sister Olympe, a voodooienne accused of poisoning a young man. Introduced in the novel A Free Man of Color, January's beautiful, ice-in-the-veins mother was born a field slave, freed and installed as a palacee (mistress) by a wealthy planter; the benefactor educated his son and January - now in his early 40's, widowed, and returned from Paris to his home town - is a trained surgeon but earns a very precarious living as a musician. All these novels set a grim and unsparing tone of the rough, filthy, cruel life that the non-wealthy lived in New Orleans; if you're tender-hearted and don't want to look at what it could have been like pre-Civil War for those who'd been enslaved (or were without money), skip them. But you're missing a great series of stories that bring to vivid, tragic, and compelling life the conditions that all but the most wealthy lived in. They're all 5's for me.

THE LION OF CAIRO, by Scott Oden

"A fast-paced, sweeping saga of war, intrigue and bloody revenge set in the squalid confines of ancient Cairo (circa 1300) and the opulence of the Caliph's palace." So sayeth a critic.
For a fanciful take on the Arab's view of the Crusades, this is the book for you. Assad is a child survivor of the Crusaders' siege and destruction of Askalon, a port city in present-day Lebanon, and his memories dominate his dreams and waking hours. Now an Assassin, Assad's current mission is to meet and evaluate the youthful Caliph of Egypt, an opium-addled youth dominated by his evil vizier. Can Rashid al-Hasan be saved from the poisoned cup? Will the harem-girl Parysatis find the courage to act? What about her slave Jasmine who falls afoul of the necromancer? Will the Crusader army turn back? And how can Assad, Emir of the Knife, withstand the magick of his possessed sword?
A fast-paced read from an author who never lets facts get in the way of a good story...and he says so right from the start. Too bad he's never met a pomegranate. I give this a 3.

A FLORENTINE DEATH, by Michele Giuttari

A best-seller in Italy, translated from the Italian. A police procedural from the former head of Florence, Italy's police force (and then advisor on the Mafia to the Italian government). Giuttari knows his procedures, and the basic story line is interesting. As written, however, it has a fair number of faults which make reading tedious at times. The protagonist, Squadra Mobile leader Michelle Ferrara, is targeted by a murderer who sends taunting messages; Ferrara discovers he is also sending messages through homosexual murder victims. No more spoilers; try this first novel for a flavor of Florence and an insider's look at how Italian police work. Hopefully, the information dumps the author employs will become a thing of the past in the next novels. A 3.

21.8.13

BLOOD AND FIRE, by Nick Brownlee

2/series. You thought Bait was good, read Blood and Fire, the next Jake and Jouma hair-raiser set in Mombasa and points around. Peopled with people you could barely term human (most of whom we'd cross the street to avoid), this fast-moving thriller pits ex-Flying Squad cop Jake and the indefatigable Inspector Daniel Jouma against the usual appalling Kenyan corruption and cronyism, plus a juggernaut development corporation. Brownlee's depictions of how most Kenyans live is unsettling but almost never crosses into the not-believable. How they die is the same. And why was Sister Gudrun kidnapped? Read it and find out. It's a solid 5. www.nickbrownlee.com for updates.

20.8.13

FREEDOM, by Jonathan Franzen

Some books have such unsympathetic characters I just can't slog through them, even if their travails are so unusual and/or erotic and/or bloody-minded. And then there's the very well-written book, thicker than a Dagwood sandwich, whose characters are beyond unsympathetic but the writing is so damn good I just keep on slugging away until I find out What Really Happened.
Such a book is Freedom. Nobody could suggest the author isn't a stellar writer. He invents and animates an odd bunch of people. Uber-wife/mother Patty Berglund and uber-unselfish, liberal, trusting, good

19.8.13

THE COMPLAINTS, by Ian Rankin

Edinburgh-based Rankin is one of my favorite writers, and this is a good read. Sadly, the protagonist isn't Rankin's usual copper Inspector Rebus, but  Malcolm Fox is still interesting, a member of the Complaints group. In the US we call it Internal Affairs; I like the forthrighness of the Scottish title, don't you? Fox is sent to investigate a man he grows to like. Soon, they are on parallel tracks investigating the same thing. But can Jamie Breck be what he claims to be: an honest cop? What I like about Rankin's writing is the economy of overt emotion and adjectives; I'm a writer who thinks adjectives are the first line of writing, Rankin obviously doesn't. That's why he's published, I guess. It's a 4. www.ianrankin.net

18.8.13

A ROYAL PAIN, by Rhys Bowen

2/series. Lovers between-the-wars upper-crust British mysteries will adore intrepid, dead broke Lady Georgiana Rannoch who chars for the aristocracy and is invited to "Buck House" (us colonials call it Buckingham Palace) to consult with the Queen. Pushed into hostessing a Bavarian princess destined to take errant Prince of Wales eyes off an American divorcee, Georgie disguises her poverty by hiring her granddad and his culinary wizard-neighbor as staff. But the blonde, busty princess, a trash-talking devotee of American gangster films, wants only to party. And the Prince wants only to be alone with Wallis (and we all know where that went). Why, then, do people keep turning up murdered? This is a great summer read: entertaining, educational (I find nuggets of fascinating lore in all of these books) and very well written. I like Georgiana, very down-to-earth, and her hilarious attempts to stay independent. Have I mentioned handsome, devil-may-care Darcy O'Mara, an Irish "royal" with a yen for Georgie? It's a 4+. www.rhysbowen.com

17.8.13

THE BELLS, by Richard Harvell

What a fabulous first novel! Famous singer Moses Froben recounts his life in a letter to his son, beginning atop a bell tower in a Swiss alpine village, his survival of a murder attempt, and his rescue by two itinerant monks. Taken to St. Gall where the abbot wants nothing to do with the waif, Moses is drawn to the cathedral during choir practice. The choir master sees the boy has extraordinary hearing and pitch; suddenly almost-mute Moses is a choir member, then a soloist and then, in a harrowing scene, a castrato. This horrible practice castrated young boys with beautiful voices so that they remained musicos: singing angels, or sopranos with the vocal power of full-grown men. Moses, not fully understanding what happened, but knowing he would be an outcast, conceals his condition for years, even from the woman who loves him and whom he loves but cannot claim. What follows is mesmerizing, heart-rending, gratifying, unbelievable and completely enthralling. It's a 5+. www.richardharvell.com

16.8.13

THE EMPEROR'S BODY, by Peter Brooks

The front story of this well-written book is the exhumation of Napoleon I's body from the end-of-the-world island of St. Helena. The plan is to return the body to France for re-burial in the Invalides (where you can see it today...the tomb, not the body a la Lenin). The novel's other stories, so skilfully woven you will barely notice, involve a well-known, ageing author; an aristocratic young diplomat; and a young upper-class woman who is not your ordinary simpering wife-to-be. Two of the side stories are the vicious political games played in France during that time (echoes of the USA!), the last days of Marie Antoinette (including a chilling recollection of the guillotine in operation), and the suspense as Napoleon's body is exhumed: is there a body in the casket and is it the Emperor's? The author presently teaches at Princeton; his deft handling of all the issues is smooth as silk..and the final chapter comes as a bit of a surprise. A 4+; could be a good book group choice.

15.8.13

FADEAWAY GIRL, by Martha Grimes

Twelve-year old Emma Graham, unflappable and inventive, thinks too much is happening around the Hotel Paradise: murder, attempted murder (of Emma!), and a twenty-year old unsolved kidnapping. Martha Grimes' other series, which I totally adore, features Richard Jury; this tale shares the sly, dry humor that is Grimes' great strength (along with her rich cast of oddball supporting characters, her impeccable timing, and her unsurpassed plotting). Unlike the Jury series, though, this moves at a leisurely speed while racking up scene after scene of quirky people, unfinished thoughts, train rides, greedy drinkers and Emma's efficient mother. The drinks recipes are worth the trouble to get the book. It's a 4+...you'll probably think the whole series a 5.
NOTE: On my list of always-read authors, Martha Grimes is one of the stars. Her old pub titles (The Horse You Came In On, The Lamorna Wink, The Old Silent...and 20 others) are just a hint of the entertainment you'll get. If Ms. Grimes wrote a laundry list, it'd probably hold my attention.

JULIET, by Anne Fortier

I wonder if this is a trend: a novel set in two far-apart centuries in Italy. I've seen more than one recently. This one, a debut novel from an author I'll no doubt be reading for the rest of my life (she's very young, I'm very not), is set in Siena, Italy, home of the still-running Palio horse race, and one of the world's most lovely piazzas. Julie Jacobs, newly grieving the death of her godmother, goes to Siena to trace her roots. The scene shifts to the 16th century, when the tale of Romeo and Guilietta unfolds in all its dramatic and futile glory. Back and forth we go, from medieval vendettas to lost treasure to unfolding love stories (successful? read on!) to siblings and relatives from hell to enemies you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Ancient cities are built over the ruins of previous cities, Siena is no exception, and the climax is acted out in the Bottini, the tunnels underneath the city. Author Fortier has captured the cadences and mannerisms of both centuries with awesome ease, and each character has a distinctive voice and character. This is a solid 5, a fascinating, quality read. PS: The second two-centuries-in-Italy novel is The Medusa Amulet, also reviewed. www.annefortier.com

THE MEDUSA AMULET, by Robert Masello

Masello has authored six other books in this genre, plus several books on the occult. He eminently knows his subject. Lovers of cutting-edge intrigue, of the occult, of alternative history, lots of nasty bad guys and two engaging good guys (one a female Italian art historian with a conspiracy complex) will find this cross-century thriller a lot of fun. Benvenuto Cellini, 16th century Italy's bad boy genius goldsmith dabbles in the occult with terrifying results. The action switches to 21st century Chicago where talented art historian David Franco is sent on a quest by the mysterious Kathryn Van Owen: find a mirror with a medusa head on one side and bring it back to her. Unaware of VanOwen's real motives, and that all previous searchers have turned up dead, Franco arrives in Florence and at once meets obstreperous Olivia Levi, whose take on the occult includes the fascination Hitler and Nazi Germany had for such things. The chase heats up: bodies turn up everywhere, Franco is followed, Olivia's flat is burgled, and the back story twists and turns. Switching from one era to another can be tricky, but Masello easily accomplishes this feat. It's a long weekend read, but you'll stay up late to finish it, and will love the surprise ending. It's a 4. www.robertmasello.com

14.8.13

ITALIAN FEVER, by Valerie Martin

Who killed Lucy Stark's employer? Why did DV - an inexplicably successful writer of awful prose - leave his secluded Tuscan villa and wander in the moonless dark over the rough countryside? Did he really fall down a well? That's what Massimo - sexy, seductive, self-contained Massimo - says. So does weird, supercilious Allesandro, whose passionate love note to DV's girlfriend Lucy finds in DV's night table. Cool, organized, efficient Lucy is sent to Tuscany to wind up DV's affairs, instead falls dangerously ill in the remote farmhouse (no villa...but then DV rarely told the truth about anything) and then falls into an affair of her own. And who else is telling the truth, and who is lying? This enticing novel will mesmerize Italiafans and lovers of detailed romances. The author's descriptions of Lucy's reactions to art works is worth the read alone. I adored this book, it's my kind of stranger-in-a-strange-land escape. My rating is 100% my own (if I like it, it gets high marks), others may not agree. The writing style is clear and straightforward, the setting perfectly exotically Italian (this writer knows her Italians), the plot sufficiently torturous, the emotions fascinating and just complex enough: 5!

13.8.13

HER ROYAL SPYNESS, by Rhys Bowen

1/series. London, 1930-ish. Prolific prize-winning author Bowen has created an easy-to-like heroine in Lady Georgiana Rannoch, an impoverished royal who chars for a living; at 34th, she's so far down the Line of Succession she doesn't rate any bodyguards...or a living allowance. Granted, it's posh charring - she readies London houses for their owners' returns - but still she skulks around in her maid's uniform. This first novel introduces the entire gang: Georgie's half-brother Binkie, perhaps not as muddle-headed as he seems; the snooty sister-in-law, Hilda aka Fig; old school chum and nighlife-addict Belinda; Irish hottie Darcy O'Mara; Georgie's commoner grandpa, a retired bobbie; and a murderer or two. A nasty Frenchman  - a gambler who claims he had won the Rannoch ancestral estate in a card game - turns up drowned in Rannoch House's bathroom. Binky has fled to Scotland, then returns only to be arrested. Georgie knows Binky couldn't have done it...who did? And why? A great start to a posh English series you'll completely enjoy. A solid, fun-filled 4!

12.8.13

THE SECRET SOLDIER, by Alex Berenson

Iron man, ex-CIA undercover agent John Wells, the indominable one, is back...and about time. Once again immersing himself in the Muslim world of intrigue and jihad, this excellent tale takes a turn with a look at the internal working of the Saudi royal family. The story wraps up the preceding Wells novel by finishing off a traitor, holed up in Jamaica's wide-open drug culture. Then events in the mid-east force King Abdullah to ask Wells for help. A meeting in Nice is followed by a series of outwardly unconnected terrorist attacks in the mid-east. But Wells find the link - through an abandoned terrorist camp in the Bekka Valley - and traces it to an unexpected kidnap plot. But is ransom the goal? Berenson, a former New York Times correspondent, knows his settings and their culture and politics. He's produced a gripping, only-slightly-unbelievable, suspense novel that you'll thoroughly enjoy. It's a 4.

FIRST LADY, by Michael Malone

This murder mystery sucked me in and kept me in its grip until the very last page. Malone has created the perfect cop: Homicide Detective Justin Savile V, recovering alcoholic, bereft father, separated husband, loyal friend and polite Southern Gentleman. When Irish rock star Mavis Mahar comes to town, Justin's life goes haywire. The troubled Mavis is irresistible; Justin's best friend Police Chief Cuddy Mangum is beset by a press ravening for his resignation; the City Council is bitterly divided over an on-going murder trial of one of the town's aristocrats; brutally murdered women (one with a taunting toe tag) show up; and what's with the two little Nicaraguan ladies? This is one of the few mysteries where I've actually got the killer right...but even if you do as well, you'll still be gripped by the wild, no-holds-barred ending...and Justin's own ending as well.
This has been called a Southern Novel, and I suppose it is...even if you don't like Southern Novels, read this one. There's nothing about it not to like. It's the perfect summer read. I give it a 5 and I bet you will, too.

11.8.13

THE AMATEUR SPY, by Dan Fesperman

Freeman and Mila Lockhart, just-retired, have seen man's brutality up close for decades, as they set up and operate refugee camps and feeding stations in the world's grimmest hot spots. Now, they think, it's time to kick back and relax, find out what normalcy is all about. Enter Black, White and Grey, three tough-as-nails agents who force Freeman into spying on an old aid colleague, Palestinian Omar al-Baroody, now a prosperous Amman entrpreneur trying to set up a hospital in a Jordanian refugee camp. Spying isn't Freeman's game, nor is it Mila's, and soon they have provoked their handlers into chillingly casual retaliation. Is Omar what he appears to be? Why the sudden trip to Athens? Who do the three agents really represent? What's their game? What's anyone's game? And why did Aliyah Rahim, a troubled Palestinian-American woman from Washington DC, come to the camps to talk with Hamas agents? The last few pages tie it all together in a terrorist bomb cliff-hanger. This is a 4+, a good read, a good flavor of Amman and the Arab world of convoluted, ancient hatreds and power struggles. A person could get hooked on Fesperman.

10.8.13

THE MISTRESS OF ABHA, by William Newton

The Romans called the Tihama, a coastal area in present-day Saudi Arabia, Arabia Felix (happy Arabia or good Arabia...as opposed to desert Arabia). This story takes place in the Tihama, much in the mountaintop city of Abha, where an English officer named Willoughby is attached to Lawrence of Arabia's force and subsequently "goes native" to become part of the region's history. Decades later in 1930, his son Ivor Willoughby, newly graduated from Oxford with a degree in Arabic languages, goes in search of his father. But he can't find him, nor can he find anyone who will even admit the man - called Ulloby by the

9.8.13

A DEAD MAN IN TANGIER, by Michael Pearce

Pearce's voluminous output is all entertaining: he is also the author of the Mamur Zapt mystery series, set in British Cairo. This series - the Dead Man series - is set all over the Mediterranean in 1912 and, as with all Pearce's works, is full of authentic flavor, intriguing and amusing conversations, and plenty of action. A man, Bossu, is found dead in odd circumstances, during a pig hunt just outside Tangier. Seymour of Scotland Yard is sent from London to investigate. He is at once adopted by two engaging thugs whose lives Seymour unwittingly saved. The conversations between Idris and Mustapha are worth the read alone. Bossu left a witless wife and a witty mistress, and a lot of questions about how he'd accumulated his wealth. Seymour sorts it out, with a lot of smiles along the way. It's an 4+. This is the perfect summer afternoon entertainment.

8.8.13

A STRANGER IN MAYFAIR, by Charles Finch

4/series. Further adventures of now-married Charles Lenox and the beauteous Lady Jane Grey, this time as soon as they return to Chelsea from their honeymoon. A neighbor and casual friend of Charles' has a footman murdered in the alley behind his home, and no sooner does the neighbor enlist his help than he turns him off. Meanwhile, a usually-congenial Scotland Yard investigator is surly and threatening. Amidst the stresses of combining (literally, in this case) two households, Charles' new seat in the House of Commons, the birth of close friends' baby, and the confession of a friend of the murdered man, Charles has his hands full. This is a 4+, mostly because I just love historical mysteries with a gentle atmosphere. This is a very civilized series; Author Finch has created two sympathetic lead characters you'll enjoy following.

THE SANDALWOOD TREE, by Elle Newmark

British-controlled India 1947: Americans Martin Mitchell, his wife Evie and their five year old son, Billy, go to a tiny town near Simla, a summer “hill station” for the ruling British. Viceroy Lord Mountbatten has advanced the partition of India (creating Muslim Pakistan). Martin, on a scholarship, will report on the Partition, the passions, the displaced, the danger. Meanwhile, Evie finds letters behind a brick in the kitchen wall, and begins an odyssey to discover the fate of two Englishwomen of the 1860’s during a bloody rebellion. Among these threads is also the deterioration of their marriage, and Martin's war memories. The author has painstakingly created a believable Indian world, the color and scents, the poverty and spirituality, the history of a land that was old when America was still unknown, and even Brtiain was unknown. The story unfolds easily and despite a few slow moments you’ll find this a very enjoyable summer read. I‘ll give this a 3+.

7.8.13

RED STAR RISING, Brian Freemantle

A lifetime of writing has brought Freemantle an entire shelf of his own in most libraries. I’ll never understand why his name isn’t mentioned in the same breath as John LeCarre, as his writing is just as subtle. BUT! Don’t even think to start with this one, published in 2010. This story is set in corrupt, sinister, Putin-era Moscow, and pits Charlie against an array of foes, both in and outside the British Embassy. The Charlie Muffin (really, that’s this spy’s name) series began in the 70’s and comprises 13 other books. The name may be a bit silly, but there's nothing silly about the story, and the ending will leave you gasping. I just picked up Charlie M and Here Comes Charlie M, the first two, and hope that the writing is as good (might not be; that was 30 years ago and almost every writer except those who decide to do it the farm-it-out route improved with age). This a 4+, but you ought to read them in order.

6.8.13

EXIT THE ACTRESS, by Priya Parmar

London 1600's. The life of legendary actress Nell Gwynne, once an orange seller in London’s theatres, then - after a long, heart-wrenching chase - mistress to England’s Charles II (he had a lot of them, but Nell was one of the longest running). If you like historical romances, this first novel fills the bill, and in an unusual fashion: it’s written as exerpts from Nell’s diary, from playbills, and from archly-written gossip sheets of the day. Very "flavorful" and readable: you’ll step with into the mid-1600’s and enjoy every moment. This is a first novel, and I'm waiting eagerly for future stories from Parmar. Give this a 4.

5.8.13

A DEAD MAN'S SECRET, by Simon Beaufort

8/series. Continuing the murder mysteries set during the Crusades, starring the beautifully-drawn Sir Geoffrey Mappestone. This writing duo (one a historian, the other an establish author) brings a flavor of total authenticity to the characterizations of grasping and devious King Henry, various merchants and knights (boy, were they a crass and bloodthirsty lot) and wives from faithful to up-for-grabs, clergymen from a scuttling whiner to a power-wielding bishop. Sir Geoffrey is coerced into carrying letters to Wales, and King Henry gives him a number of odd instructions Why? How did a nobleman die seven years ago? Why did a bishop die in Sir Geoffrey’s outhouse? And don’t you just love a wife who’ll wield a sword as well as her spouse can?  It’s a 4 (4 seems to be my new 5) But read these in series...they're well worth the time.

4.8.13

THE DESERT OF SOULS, by Howard Andrew Jones

Hooray for 8th century thousand-and-one-night type fantasy! This first novel from an excellent writer gets my vote if only for the great cover art: an arabic warrior leaping across space, scimitar flashing. And the story line, beautifully told in the first person, takes us from Baghdad to Mosul to long-buried cities with sleeping djinns. An evil priest abandons nice-nice and decides to create havoc and ruin with the undead. Our hero, Captain Asim, recounts his adventures with the scholar Dabir, the impetuous princess Sabirah, and a host of icky undeads. This is GREAT! Read it! You'll love it even if you don't like fantasy. A 4+....I'm not giving 5s out any more unless I am breathless.

3.8.13

LION IN THE VALLEY, by Elizabeth Peters

If you have not read any of this author's many books, you are missing a treat. Peters, an archeologist and Egyptologist, brings such marvelous authenticity to her stories of indomitable Amelia Peabody Emerson and her larger-than-life archeologist spouse Radcliffe Emerson, two oddball Egyptologists in the late 1800's, the heyday of antiquities excavating. The cast of supporting characters is vast and varied, the sensibilities of everyday Egyptian life bring to story to vivid life, and the plots always have dead bodies, mysterious happenings, exorcisims (one of Radcliffe's specialties; the Egyptians nicknamed him Father of Curses), kidnappings, thefts on a grand scale...these books have everything. The entire series covers over thirty years of the Emersons' adventures, from births to deaths, disappointments and triumphs, all based on Amelia's diaries. The entire series will take you a summer or more to get through, and you'll enjoy every minute. They're all 5's for me.

2.8.13

THE CLUB DUMAS, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

This highly-detailed contemporary mystery by the extremely popular Spanish author is for the lover of intellectually-challenging tales. Expertly weaving the story of the life and lusts of Alexandre Dumas (including photos), the occult, bookselling and book finders (not the musty old past time you might think), several murders, the appearance of a man who resembles one of D’Artagnan’s foes (Dumas, remember, one of the story’s lynchpins), a femme fatale or two, a mysterious young woman with emerald green eyes…read this, but be prepared to do a little brain work, as the author doesn't spare the erudition, complication or the reader's intellectual capacity. The writing is impeccable, a pleasure to anyone who appreciates the craft.  It’s a 4+...not a 5 because I usually don’t enjoy stuff this cerebral. Okay, the dummy will give it a 5, everyone else will.

1.8.13

TREASON AT LISSON GROVE, by Anne Perry

Another of Perry’s excellent Victoria mysteries starring William and Charlotte Pitt, this one deals with the political ferment of the end of the 19th century: anarchists, protesters, politicians angling for advantage, and members of the Special Branch (where Pitt, formerly a London detective, now is employed), murderers, liars, manipulators. Pitt chases a murder suspect to France; at the same time, his superior is accused of embezzling and, in an effort to forestall his ruin, Charlotte Pitt goes to Dublin with the man. Perry is so accomplished at pacing, you’re most of the way through the book before the plot knits together. Satisfying, evocative, excellent characters. The entire series is well worth reading if you enjoy Victorian mysteries. It’s a 4.