30.9.13

RAGTIME IN SIMLA, by Barbara Cleverly

2/series. Finding a series I like that's been running for over a decade is always a treat for me, as it means I can gobble them all up in one big banquet. And this one is absolutely delicious, chock full of authentic detail of an exotic setting, and with an intricate plot that turns up surprise after surprise. Set just after The Great War, in 1919, veteran of the bloody Flanders trenches Joe Sandilands, now a Scotland Yard Inspector, is induced to visit India.

28.9.13

RIVAL TO THE QUEEN, by Carolly Erickson

Well-known historical author Erickson is more known for non-fiction, but this book - told in first person, as a memoir - concentrates on the life of Lettice "Letty" Knollys,  acknowledged as the most beautiful woman at Elizabeth I's court (therefore banished most of the time by her imperious Queen, as Elizabeth was inordinately jealous of any woman who one-upped her).  Lettie is married off to the dull and brutish young Lord Essex, by whom she has a handsome, winning (but, as history teaches us, ultimately deluded) son.

26.9.13

HER MAJESTY'S FIRST MURDER, by Peg Herring

1/series. The accomplished historical novelist has done it again: young Simon Maldon is a delightful addition to the Elizabethan genre as he aids the princess in ferreting out a murderer. Simon, whose father is a well-known physician (banished from court for telling Henry Eight he must go on a diet), and who takes Simon on house calls. He is called to set a broken leg in the princess's household, and before he leaves Simon is invited to come the next day to converse in Greek with her highness. As the friendship grows between the young people, women are being murdered in London, dressed in nun's garb, then beheaded. Little has been done, as most are prostitutes (some things never change). When it becomes obvious the killer can strike at will, the king orders one of his Welsh Guards, assisted by Simon, to find the madman. This cross between cozy and killer hunt will keep you pinned to your chair. A 4.

25.9.13

GODS AND BEASTS, by Denise Mina

A book review of a newly-discovered crime fiction author is always a pleasure. Perhaps you haven't heard of Mina, who has ten books and a number of awards to her credit. This, the tenth, begins with a horrific shooting in a Glasgow, Scotland sub-post office. The victim, a well-respected retired school bus driver, had taken his four year-old grandson on an outing. Behind them is Martin Pavel, sending Christmas presents home to America. When the police begin their investigation into the murder, it becomes clear nobody is who they seem to be. Mina's fabulously deft and subtle handling of the plot, of the characters and their complex lives, will put her at the top of your must-read list, right along with Martha Grimes and Ian Rankin. The denouement will blind-side you. I'd like to have seen more depth to the wrap-up, but the comeuppance scene is stellar. A 4.5, with writing you could teach an MFA class on.
www.denisemina.com

24.9.13

MIDNIGHT AT MARBLE ARCH, by Anne Perry

26/series. If you haven't gotten hooked on the best-selling adventures, trials, tribulations and upsets of Charlotte and Thomas Pitt, you've got a golden opportunity to mend your ways. Start with #1, The Cater Street Hangman, and you'll have seasons of satisfaction, ending (for the moment) with this darkly colorful tale. Perry always selects an aspect of Victorian culture not generally talked about. In past novels, it's been child prostitution, pornography, and other ills. This time, her theme is rape, and both victims and perpetrators are members of the upper class, the movers and shakers of London. Pitt, now elevated to Head of Special Branch, moves in the world his wife was born to, knowing it's not his world but one he must master to succeed. His predecessor, Lord Victor Narraway, is drawn into the affair, as is the supremely elegant Lady Vespasia Cuming-Gould. Well, no spoilers here, so you'll have to either pick up this latest or start from the beginning and enjoy these highly-detailed tales of life, love, death and scandal in the Victorian world. It's a 4.
www.anneperry.co.uk

C, by Tom McCarthy

The cover blurbs on this dense book gushed with praise: "an avant-garde epic" said one, "terrifically stylish, acrobatic and insidious", said another. Well, says I, I couldn't finish the damn thing. I hate not finishing books, I feel (particularly in this case what with all the encomiums) I'm lacking something. But, here's the thing: I had no sympathy for any of the major characters, and all the long bits of exquisite prose (it was exquisite, no argument there) finally bored me stiff. Too much navel gazing for me. Set mainly in pre- and post-Great War England, and in Germany, the juxtaposition of the minutae of daily life and the coming great political upheavals, still didn't capture me. Serge, the protagonist (I suppose), is a coke-sniffing adult...he was a nasty little boy who pulled the wings off moths. I didn't like him as a kid, as a young aviator in World War I, or as a post-war adult. I didn't care much for his family, either, although some of the early scenes at the family home/school for the deaf/silkworm farm were spookily perfect. There are whole worlds in the book, and perhaps if I'd had more patience I could've entered them. But I couldn't, so with apologies to Mr. McCarthy who I am sure is a fine, fine writer of fine books that just aren't for me, the book gets a 3.

22.9.13

THE WARLORD'S SON, by Dan Fesperman

The skilled hand of an experienced journalist shows in this contemporary novel set in war-ravaged Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The time is shortly after 9/11's horrific events; Osama bin Laden is still at large. Najeeb, a border tribal leader's estranged son, agrees to translate for an aging, one-last-time American journalist, Skelly. The American only wants to get into Afghanistan, file what he thinks will be his best work. In the shadows lurk two other Americans, an opportunistic commercial agent and an equally unsavory man connected, possibly, to the U. S. Embassy. In the always-changing world of the mountainous border, where nothing is as presented, Najeeb must do his duty...but which side will claim him? And how will he protect the American he has come to like? A 5; not for the terminally optimistic or trusting. The ending will blow you away.
www.danfesperman.com

THE SMOKE, by Tony Broadbent

London, post World War II, when Britain is on tighter rationing than during the Blitz. The Black Market thrives, crime doesn't take a holiday (although it's largely without the firepower of America across the Pond), and creeper (burglar) and jewel thief Jetthro barely escapes his latest spot of work in a hail of gunfire. He's aimed high, our conniving but charming Jetthro: a foreign Embassy and the fabulous jewels of the Ambassador's wife and daughter. But he also stole two little black books which set crime lords, rivals, despicable international thieves, Communist spies, assorted psychopaths and the authorities after him and his mentor, Ray "Buggy Billy" Karmen. Author Broadbent - this was his first book (2002), which for some reason I found on a new-book shelf - has recreated the era with great detail, believable characters (most of them not so nice, but each with a clear, and believable separate character) and a fascinating list of Cockney/thieves rhyming cant; if you love London - once called The Smoke, and it really was - you'll love this book. It's a 5+ for me, and I can hardly wait to review the next Broadbent book.

20.9.13

TEARS OF PEARL, by Tasha Alexander

I should have read this series - the adventures, murders and loves of the very independent Lady Emily Ashton - in order. They can stand alone nicely, but once you're bitten by the Lady Emily bug, you'll want to read them all...so why not start at the beginning? This one deals with an extended honeymoon (typical of their class, it could take six months), this portion in Istanbul, in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire (1892, to be exact). Author Alexander has the atmosphere spot on, although I personally would like a bit more travelogue info (my shortcoming; most will find it just about perfect), and way more about food (my other shortcoming). A young girl dies in the Sultan's harem; Lady E is whirled in to the mystery, meeting along the way a fascinating bunch of characters. Alexander is adept at showing the passionate side of our heroine without getting into the trenches; this could be required reading for Flirting 101. The ending may come as a big surprise as Alexander is an adept author and her psychological underpinnings are rock solid. Pay attention to details and you may figure out the villain earlier than I did. I gotta give this whole series a 5.

17.9.13

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST, by Mohsin Hamid

This small book is told as a monologue to a western stranger by a Pakistani man, once a Wall Street darling, but post 9/11 an educator/protester in his native Lahore. Seated at a restaurant at the edge of an old market, Changez tells this stranger his life story, and how western education and money and position beguiled him, and how the 9/11 tragedy gradually sent him home. And what he does once home. And then he walks the American man back to his hotel. The last page is...you figure it out. My friend Lea is polling readers: what do you think happened next? You tell me, and I'll let her know the count. It's a 5+ and it'd be great for a book discussion group.

15.9.13

COOKING FOR A CROWD, by Susan Wyler

Too often, I find only a handful of recipes in a cookbook that are actually usable. Author Wyler (who was editor of Food & Wine for a decade), however, seems to have me and my large gatherings in mind, and I think this small soft cover book will become part of my cookbook collection. How many of us have cursed a cookbook writer who callously...

14.9.13

A PRIVATE HOTEL FOR GENTLE LADIES, by Ellen Cooney

Charlotte Heath, who until she contracted polio had been active, particularly enjoying long fast gallops astride her horse (frowned upon in 1900 Massachusetts), has recovered use of her legs. She goes for a sleigh ride, delighting in the speed and the beautiful snowy day. Then she sees her husband, Hays, embracing another woman. Without thought, she flees to Boston, fetching up at The Berkshire, where the Heath family's former cook rules the kitchen. Numb with cold, Charlotte is put into a warm bed and the next day discovers she's in her husband's aunt's private room. What is Aunt Lily, a respected doctor and married woman, doing here? And why do so many handsome young men act as porters? The story meanders through Charlotte's struggles with her decision to leave Hays, the side alleys of thought and memory colorful and entertaining, the characters quirky and full of life. This is not a fast-paced book of betrayal and anger, it's a leisurely reflection of how life was probably lived a century ago: slow-paced, refined, gracious, with plenty of time to smell the roses...and get to know a porter. When you finally come to the end, it may surprise you. It's a 4.
www.ellencooney.com 

13.9.13

CHILL FACTOR, by Sandra Brown

Cleary, North Carolina, is set in the mountains: a small, quiet town...but five women have disappeared in the past two years, and a blue ribbon has been found where they were last seen. Lily Martin, returning to tie up lose ends after her divorce from Cleary's police chief, Dutch Burton, is stranded in their former mountainside cabin during a blizzard. With her is Ben Tierney, a man she met and was attracted to the year before; her car struck him as she was trying to get off the mountain as a major blizzard was beginning.

11.9.13

MAYBE THIS TIME, by Jennifer Crusie

What fun! What a great heroine! What a perfect hero! What a marvelous plot! Boy, does Jennifer Crusie know how to deliver a fabulous read. Andie has been divorced from North Archer - and his never-stop work ethic - for a decade. When she decides to marry Will the writer, she gives North back ten years of alimony checks. Is the old spark still there? Is her brain functioning? Then why does she

8.9.13

THE IDES OF APRIL, by Lindsey Davis

1/series. I've long enjoyed Davis's Marcus Didius Falco series, set in Imperial Rome. There's been 20 of the tales over the years, starting with The Silver Pig, all carrying us along with the wise-cracking "informer" as he maneuvers through life, pursuit of criminals of every stripe, and navigating the intrigues of the Roman political system. Now Davis takes us into a new life with Falco's adopted daughter, Flavia Albia. Once a street urchin in Londinium, now a young widow in Rome, she's living is dad's falling-apart old apartment at Fountain Court.

7.9.13

INVITATION TO PROVENCE, by Elizabeth Adler

Adler writes deliciously fun romances - without the totally explicit sex that other authors employ - in far-flung and exotic settings. I used to sneer at this genre; you know, anybody can write this junk. Well, my friends, lemme tell ya that anybody can NOT write them.

6.9.13

SANDRINE'S CASE, by Thomas H. Cook

This is such a pleasure to review. I don't know where the dividing line between mainstream and literary novels actually lies, but I'm pretty sure Sandrine's Case straddles it. Author Cook, with about thirty fiction books, a dozen or so non-fiction and anthologies, plus many awards (Edgars and such), shows his mastery of the writer's craft with this intricate, time-leaping novel.

2.9.13

BEAUTIFUL LIES, by Clare Clark

London, 1887, a time of social and political ferment, of the dawning of worker's rights and an end to the endless cruel brutality that marked the lives of the not wealthy. For beautiful, independent Maribell Campbell Lowe, whose husband is one of the few socialists in Parliament, surface life is placid, privileged. Possibly perfect. But under the facade there exists an unbelievable past. When her husband Edward's career is endangered and  ruthless, self-promoting newspaper publisher Alfred Webster (shades of Rupert Murdoch!) taken an unhealthy interest in Maribell, she fears her lies will be exposed and their lives destroyed. Beautifully researched, with main characters based on real historical figures, this novel has all the flavor and ferment of its time. A great read: 4+.

1.9.13

THE JASMINE TRADE, by Denise Hamilton

Meet Eve Diamond, an LA Times reporter driven to succeed, to advance, and to take no crap from anyone (except her editor) while doing it. A young Chinese woman is murdered as she goes to pick out her bridesmaids dresses; Eve is sent to cover the story and meets the girl's father, the powerful banker Reginald Lu. Something isn't ringing true, and Eve continues to investigate what really should be a one-day heart-wringer. Eve stumbles into the world of the "parachute kids", Asian youths sent to the U.S. for education, but whose families stay in Asia. These wealthy, lonely, unsupervised kids live lives of tremendous ease but no comfort; they get into trouble easily, and some find that getting out isn't as simple as they thought. You'll find it easy to rush along with the unstoppable Eve, and won't want the book to end...which it does, but not how you may think. This is a 5 and could be a good book group due to its subject matter. www.denisehamilton.com