This is a debut novel, so far above the usual debut novel it's hard to believe this isn't the seasoned work of a brilliant author at the top of her game. If you are able to read yet another front-line World War One story, or are new to depictions of the impossible horror of trench warfare, then this is the novel you must read. The place is terrible, but in the hands of this marvelous author the characters and their experiences are transcendant. Click to read more...but (as always) no spoilers...

FOLLY, by Laurie R. King

A magnificent stand-alone tour de force by this prolific and varied author. Rae Newbourn, famous woodworker, bereft wife and mother, and recently released from a mental hospital, chooses to isolate herself on a deserted island in the middle of Washington state's San Juan Straits. Bequeathed to her to her by the estate of her viciously judgmental grandfather, Rae is determined to ignore her panic attacks and paranoia, and single-handedly rebuild the house that her great uncle had built in the 20's. As always, a mystery reveals itself, and Rae must question exactly how paranoid she really has been. It's a great 5, I think it's perfect for a book club.



1/series. I struggled with this review. I know first hand how it is to write a book, to spend years getting it right. I also know too-well how difficult it is to get published, how you can edit and re-write and polish and agonize and still get nothing but rejections. But what I don't know is how this book, despite its beautifully-presented setting, got published by the prestigious Poisoned Penn Press. Why am I gobsmacked? A lot of things. The dialogue is nearly indistinguishable between characters: everyone sounds the same. Motivations are unclear, dialogues float in and out of existence with little relation to plot, the heroine gets dragged all over the place by the French judge...enough. I get irritated all over again just thinking about it. On the nuts-and-bolts side, words are missing from sentences, quotes are missing from dialogue (sure, a good galley review should have caught these and, sure, many novels have typos, but this is way beyond acceptable), and the only thing that is thoroughly covered is the endless consumption of Champagne. It's a 2.


IT'S NOT LOVE, IT'S JUST PARIS, by Patricia Engel

Contemporary fiction doesn't get much better than this. From the setting to the characters, it's completely beguiling. Lita del Cielo, an American whose orphaned parents once fled Colombia to find their fortune in America (and pulled it off), is given a year in Paris to pursue her studies. When her time's up, she's expected to return home and work in her parents' Latin food empire. Click to read more...but no spoilers!


3/series. Finch has created an interesting amateur sleuth, Charles Lenox (of course he's handsome, well off, and the second son of nobility, and of course engaged to the exquisitely well-endowed - money, status, intelligence - Lady Jane) as a series character. The plot is well constructed, and London in 1866 is beautifully presented. Our hero Lenox is persuaded to run for a seat in Parliament, representing a northern town near Durham; circumstances force him to go there only days after a double murder shocks London. Lenox's untried colleague, Dallington, sends lengthy telegrams full of pleas to return and solve the crimes. Lady Jane, facing the tottering marriage of close friends, wobbles in her commitment to her forthcoming marriage. And the villain continues his plotting while the hero labors to be elected. Does all come right at the end? I'll give this a 4, only because the characters and their privileged, monied millieu have been done so often before. But I plan to read The September Society and A Beautiful Blue Death, Finch's first two novels, because he does them so very well.


MISTRESS OF NOTHING, by Kate Pullinger

Lady Lucie Duff Gordon chronicled Egypt in the 1860's, when a Turkish-appointed ruler ransacked the country and abused its people for his own purposes. At one point, she was "urged"  to abandon her letters home so as not to upset the Bey. Her maid, Sally, a dedicated, no-nonsense woman who - in the unspoken rules of the day for hired help - has stayed unmarried and on call almost around the clock, is the fascinating main character of this story, a tale of loyalty and devotion, love and temptation, punishment and vindication. Sally, who should have adhered to the rules governing intimate helpers such as lady's maids, instead is seduced by the ancient auras of Egypt, and falls in love. The inevitable happens - the one inevitable sure to ruin a maid's life - and Sally's life takes a drastic turn. Written from Sally's viewpoint, and based on the true story of both Lady Duff Gordon and her personal maid, you'll find this hard to put down. It's a 4.5 on my scale.



I found this book on an exchange table at a hotel on Lombok, Indonesia. I never would have considered it had I not just finished another book and was desperate for a new read. I hadn't expected to read more than a few pages; it's about war, and you'll never meet anyone more opposed to war than I am. A book review about a book published a long time ago gives you a chance to wander down memory lane. The memories in this book are harrowing, and the read is not for the faint of heart. The infamous Bataan death March was only a small part of the World War Two battles in the Philippine Islands. As the war in the Pacific was lurching toward its close, the Japanese had to come up with a solution to the thousands of American prisoners who had been held in captivity, some for three or more years. The High Command came up with the Nipponese version of Hitler's Final Solution: in effect, no American soldier was to be left alive. A camp several hours south of Manila held 300 emaciated, disease-ridden American and Filipino soldiers. This book is about their rescue. We hear, in some book reviews, how a tale is "touching", "heart-warming", "gut-wrenching", all those high-octane adjectives that usually deal with shattered families, thwarted loves, lost opportunities, comings of age. Ghost Soldiers gives you a finely-wrought view of the hell of war. A 5+.

CASTING SPELLS, by Barbara Bretton

A romance with a knit and a purl instead of a twist: Chloe Hobbs, owner of Sticks and Strings in picture-perfect Sugar Maple, VT. A nice normal beginning, you might say...and then the fun begins. Sugar Maple flies below the crime and police radar because it has no crime...and no births or deaths, either.  There's magic in the air, on the roads, and it blows the roof off Chloe's house at one point. Super-model-hot Suzanne Marsden shows up at Sticks and Strings front windows in a nude dress, not a good idea in mid-winter; she's dead the next morning, (and not from exposure) dragged from the town pond. Handsome (what else?) Luke MacKenzie, Boston cop, arrives on a temporary assignment to investigate Suzanne's murder. A human in Sugar Maple? A power struggle erupts between magickless Chloe and mind-bogglingly gorgeous but deadly Isadora who seeks the Hobbs's Book of Spells so she can control the town. So many plots, so much believable action (Britton can charm you with the magick action as surely as if she were more than just a writing wizard), and an explosion-filled finale. This romance/ mystery gets an 4 from me, and I'll seek out more of Bretton's tales when I want a fun, easy read.


THE RONIN’S MISTRESS, by Laura Joh Rowland

15/series. Based in part on the ancient Japanese legend of the forty seven ronin (masterless, disgraced samurai), this intricate tale set in isolated Japan in 1703, it traces the reasons for the forty seven ronin’s actions and motives. Sano Ichiro, unjustly demoted chief of the childish, petty Emperor’s security services, investigates the ronin’s attack and, with the help of Lady Reiko, his aristocratic wife, unravels the mystery. The climactic scenes are hair-raising, making this dangerous, glamorous, mysterious world spring to life. This will keep you glued for the weekend! They're better read in order, but stand-alone could work, it's jsut ot as much fun. A 5.


Comic Brenner offers up a series of chuckle-ridden schticks on how best to deal with life, among them male virility, the American justice system, loosing and gaining weight, and a score of others. In amongst the laughs are some fairly solid morsels of advice from a man who obviously enjoys life, family, friends, food, and any other "f" you can think of. This could be a great convalescing gift for that grumpy 50-something guy (or gal) who's tired of TV drivel and apocalyptic espionage novels. Alternatively, put it in your second bathroom...just don't expect the next occupant to give up the throne promptly...and expect a lot of guffaws. I'd give this little gem a 4.



Paris, 1870: the Franco-Prussian War is about to begin. Baron Ferdinand Harsanyi, a Hungarian military attache to the Austrian Embassy, is summoned home to Vienna where his wife dies. Harsanyi, aloof and calculating, is now sole owner of cinnabar mines which provides mercury, indispensable in munitions. With war looming, every major European country seeks to buy Harsanyi's cinnabar. But who will he sell to? His son Rudolph and daughter Therese have tenuous connections with their father, who takes them away to Paris. All are swept into the machinations of subtle and not-so-subtle opponents, including Napoleon III's Empress Pauline, handsome and flamboyantly French Captain l'Imperator who pursues Therese, the slimy Sarroche, and an old family friend, Professor Pock. Zoltan, the Baron's right-hand man and confidant, tries to keep everyone safe. The French are maneuvered into declaring war on Prussia. France's much-vaunted defense lines are impossible to defend, their generals are inept and their armies misused and slaughtered, the supplies arrive only to be destroyed when the Prussians threaten...and Rudolph is catapulted into the middle when Therese begs him to rescue her beloved. But...this is not a spoiler! I haven't mentioned anything of importance, as much of the story happens behind the scenes. The ending is fascinating, almost nobody is what they seem. If you enjoy historical almost-fiction without obvious sex scenes, characters that are subtle and complex, and highlights on little-known historical moments this is a book for you. I give it a 4.5, and you might also (or maybe not; let me know what you think).


TELL ME LIES, by Jennifer Crusie

Here's your Valentine's present! If you haven't found Jennifer Crusie, this is the best resent you could get! Another romantic lady-in-jeopardy romp by this accomplished author. Maddie Faraday, not exactly happily married, discovers solid (lacy) evidence her husband is cheating on her. Brent, big overbearing Brent, Maddie's high school sweetheart and father of their nine-year old daughter Em, was also distracted and edgy. Trouble enough. But then another high school sweetheart shows up and hormonal complications soar out of control...almost. And then Brent, who has an awful lot of cash hidden in his golf bag, vanishes. Sparkling dialogue, interesting introspection with a dash of spice. Everything Crusie writes is spicy, and can get distinctly hot at times. For a great modern romance, this is your author. A 4.


MIDNIGHT MILE, by Dennis Lehane

One of the masters of contemporary writing has done is again, as the team of Kenzie and Gennaro are asked to re-find a young women who first vanished a dozen years before but was returned to her neglectful mother. Still struggling with the rightness of the decision, they are approached by the girl's aunt: Amanda has vanished again. Kenzie refuses to be drawn back in to those impoverished, wrecked lives, but when a third party threatens him with consequences if he doesn't back off...of course he steps forward. We've all been faced with the dilemma of doing something we know is right, but turns out wrong...and vice versa. This is a searing story about such decisions, come back to haunt. A 4.



Heartbreaking, graphic historical fiction set in World War I by a fabulously talented author. This is the book for a discussion group. Wide ranging but microscopically focused, two young men and two young women are followed through the ghastly nightmare of trench warfare, death and disfigurement, and (not incidentally for me) the horrible cruelty, willful ignorance, and cold intransigence of commanding officers. Click for more...but no spoilers!


REBELS & TRAITORS, by Lindsey Davis

Historical fiction doesn't get much deeper or satisfying than this exciting, complicated novel set in England as the ideological battle between Charles II and reform-minded citizens came to a head. The fall of devious and arrogant Charles Stewart, the endless and vicious battles that ravaged the land, the slow but inexorable rise of Oliver Cromwell is detailed. All of it set against the lives of a half-dozen men and woman, fictional, who endured and triumphed (largely) in these turbulent years. Davis is well known for her brilliantly-detailed novels of ancient Rome (reviewed on other posts in this blog), but this has to be her tour-de-force: stunning history with a human face. A 5+, perfect for a history-minded discussion group. A must-read for war-mongers, too.


A beguiling adult non-fiction book but suitable for most ages, certainly fun for a parent to read to their children (given a caveat or two about gun-toting poachers). Lawrence Anthony, conservationist, a native of South Africa, bought Thula Thula, a 5000 acre Zululand game reserve once a private hunting preserve. Determined to turn it into a model conservation area, he was asked to accept a herd of "difficult" elephants, led by a wily matriarch who could get out of any enclosure, even electrified fences. The tale of the relationship between Anthony and his elephants is filled with adventure, happiness, witch doctors, and sorrow. A marvelous read for anyone who loves big animals. A 5.


SHATTER, by Michael Robotham

4/series. A distraught woman, a cellphone pressed to her ear, tells psychologist Joe O'Loughlin "You wouldn't understand." Then he watches as she jumps. Sucked into the mystery surrounding the woman's supposed suicide, it quickly becomes clear to O'Loughlin that she was driven to her death. But how? The police are willing to put it down as a suicide. Only her daughter and her friends say she wasn't the kind.O'Loughlin enlists the help of his friend Vincent Ruiz, retired London homicide cop. A second, similar, suicide drives home the danger women are in. But how does the killer select his victims, and how does the killer make the women kill themselves? A skilfully-plotted, graphic, compelling book. A 4.5.


EYES RIGHT, by Tracy Crow

A memoir by a woman who rose to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, no mean task in the late 70's when the Marines was a man's outfit, and women were routinely disrespected and harassed. Crow, with her life an uncontrollable mess, enlisted at the age of eighteen. Through discipline and obsessive determination, she rose through the ranks, becoming a publicity officer. Along the way, she married another Marine, bore a daughter, had miscarriages, worked so hard her marriage deteriorated, and had an affair with a high-ranking officer. The story, told with candor and no apology, is mesmerizing.  You may not approve of some of her choices, but you have to admire her for her dedication and hard work. Few Marine women today do not owe Tracy Crow a thank you for her trail-blazing and sacrifice. A 4.


THE NIGHT FERRY, by Michael Robotham

3/series. Contemporary suspense by a master. Detective Ali Barba, a young Sikh female detective, sets out to find why a childhood friend died in a suspicious auto accident. The friend, heavily pregnant, turns out to be wearing a very skilful prosthesis: she wasn't pregnant at all. Why the elaborate charade? Click for more...but no spoilers!