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Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by Susannah Calkins

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate is a Net Galley ARC, and the first in a series of Restoration mysteries featuring Lucy Campion.  Release date scheduled for April 23, 2013.

Lucy, a chambermaid in the home of a magistrate, is an intelligent young woman who appreciates both her situation and Magistrate Hargreaves, an enlightened master for the time.

When her friend and fellow servant is murdered and Lucy's brother William accused of the murder, Lucy finds herself desperate to prove his innocence.

The characters are well-drawn and the mystery is entertaining.  A nice debut novel for Calkins.  I will be interested in seeing how Calkins handles Lucy (her situation changes in the course of the novel) in the next installment of the series.

Historical Mystery.  2013.  print version 352 pages.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I was late to the party with Gone Girl; it seems as if everyone has read this one.  The title appeared over and over again on everyone's list, but I didn't decide to read it until Amelia started talking about it.

It didn't take long to see what all the hype was about-- Gone Girl is an intense read and surely one of the best suspense novels in a long time.

When Nick's wife Amy disappears on their fifth anniversary, Nick is as puzzled as everyone else.  Is Amy a runaway, is she dead, did Nick kill her?  Flynn presents two versions of the marriage--one through Nick's eyes and one through Amy's diary.  But talk about unreliable narrators!   As details of the marriage are revealed, the versions both match and diverge, not so much in events, but in the presentation, in the deciphering, of the events.

With the accumulation of information, the reader becomes more and more uncertain as to whose account of the relationship is the truth, but one thing is clear, the marriage is full of poisonous, subversive elements.  Whose version to believe?

There are lot of things I'd like to mention and discuss, but the success of the novel is largely in the gradual absorption of information and the interpretation of events.  Flynn releases this bit of information and this seemingly contradictory bit, and the reader's opinion changes, and changes again.

Suspense.  2012.  432 pages.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Thief of Auschwitz

The Thief of Auschwitz by Jon Clinch is an ARC sent by Kelley & Hall.  Clinch took an unusual step in self-publishing this novel: could have been risky-- but maybe not, because he had already made a name for himself with his first novel Finn, which was "named a best book of the year by  the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor."  Other critical acclaim came from the ALA, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and Kirkus.

I can't say that I "liked" Finn, but I appreciated the quality of the writing and the content.  It is one of the rare novels that you don't exactly enjoy (I mean, Pap Finn is a wicked protagonist), but you recognize its worth and admire the author, and you know that it is a good book and are exceedingly glad you read it.

The Thief of Auschwitz, however, shows Clinch's versatility as an author.  The protagonists in this novel are people you care for, the loving and compassionate Rosen family, who show courage and loyalty in the midst of the hell in which they find themselves.

Clinch relates the Rosen family's journey, before and during their incarceration in Auschwitz, in two different narratives.  Max Rosen, a famous artist, is preparing for a retrospective at the National Gallery in Washington, and we have Max's voice in the present, a survivor who has met with remarkable success.  The alternate narrative of the family's experiences in Auschwitz is the heart of the book.  Max, now an old man, knows the importance of remembering what happened, and his voice in the present is vital, irreverent, and aware of the importance of remembering and honoring those who perished, and how, and why.

I feared it would be a tear-jerker, but it wasn't.  While Clinch lets us know the atrocities of which man is capable, he does it in a way that avoids sentimentality and mawkishness.  There is a sense that Clinch genuinely cares for these individuals, he is...solicitous?  Yet he doesn't manipulate our emotions, and there is definitely a trick to that.  Especially when dealing with the Holocaust, it is difficult to tell a story without exploiting the many avenues of tragedy, but Clinch manages to involve us deeply with the characters without excessive sentimentality.
He somehow mingles sadness and hope

OK - This one is worth your time.

Thanks to Jocelyn at Kelley & Hall for sending me a copy.

Literary Fiction. 2012.  258 pages.

Friday, January 18, 2013

These Old Shades

I ordered These Old Shades  from Amazon because I'd recently read and reviewed Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester.  I enjoyed the biography more than the novel, though.

My experience with Heyer has been mixed.  I've thoroughly enjoyed some, while others have OK.

These Old Shades is an early Heyer and a disappointment.  The characters are not terribly appealing, although I admit to liking the Duke better as the novel progressed, Leonie remains insipid throughout.  Plot is pretty predictable, but kept me reading.

Although this is a favorite for many Heyer fans, I didn't much care for it.
It does, however, provide a good example of some of Heyer's earliest work, and that is always interesting.  Authors develop in so many ways as they continue to write, and Heyer published over 50 novels throughout her long career.

Historical Fiction.  Original publ.  1926; republished 2009.  384 pages.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Two Mysteries

Talking to the Dead (e-book ARC from Net Galley)  is the first in a new series about DC Fiona Griffiths, a young woman who has difficulty naming her emotions.  Or feeling them, perhaps, emotionally, although intellectually Fiona can process them.

The technical term for this syndrome is Alexithymia:  Alexithymia is the inability to talk about feelings due to a lack of emotional awareness. Alexithymics are typically unable to identify, understand or describe their own emotions. (from Anxiety, Panic, & Health)

I enjoyed the book, but found it a bit off-kilter.  Well, what can you say when the protagonist is a bit off-kilter?   I will read the next in the series to see if the series jells with me.  Or not.

From Booklist:  When a prostitute and a young girl are found murdered in a run-down South Wales apartment building, police immediately place the blame on drugs. But when a dead millionaire’s credit card is found at the crime scene, Welsh Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths suspects something even more sinister afoot. Faced with cracking her first big case, the Cambridge-educated rookie cop must take care not to ruffle feathers as she pursues leads. Everyone on the squad knows she suffered a psychological breakdown years before joining the force, and her supervisors err on the side of caution when assigning her tasks. DC Griffiths may be battling demons, but she’s not going to let them win, proving herself more than worthy as she closes in on possible culprits, including a corrupt former cop who’s equal parts trouble and charm. She also finds a romantic diversion with a handsome blond colleague. In his American debut, British novelist Bingham renders a sympathetic heroine and a crackerjack mystery. Happily for readers, he’s already working on the next series installment. --Allison Block

Net Galley.  Random House.  Delacorte Press.

Mystery.  2012.  print version 352 pages.

Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeil is another Net Galley e-book and continues the adventures of Maggie Hope from MacNeil's Mr. Churchill's Secretary.  If you liked the first one, you will probably like this one as well.

Truthfully, I wasn't as taken by the first one as many readers were and only read this one because I wanted to see if my opinion would change and because it was free.

Most reviews I've read have been extremely positive, but neither book really engaged me.  Since I really love this period in history, I'm sorry that the series doesn't appeal to me.

Net Galley.  Random House.  Bantam Dell.

Mystery/Historical Fiction.  2012.  print version 380 pages.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Three Mysteries (more from 2012)

A Door in the River:  A Hazel Metcallef Mystery by Inger Ash Wolfe was an e-book from Net Galley.  I read The Calling by Wolfe (actually, the pseudonym of Michael Redhill) a few years ago and had mixed feelings.  I thought the characters were well done, liked having a protagonist in her 60's, and loved the satirical wit of Hazel's mother, but didn't really care for some of the more gruesome and the over-the-top aspects.

Found the dialogue improved in this one; much easier to determine who was speaking than in The Calling.  An interesting initial murder mystery turned into a more complicated conspiracy involving drugs and human-trafficking.  It is at this point that the novel moves into the area that some readers like better than others--sadistic, psychopathic criminals/crimes.

It seems that often the purpose of the plot is to provide opportunity for shock value.  Or perhaps, the shocking (or titillating) aspects of a novel are to camouflage a weak plot.

In some ways, A Door in the River is a compelling mystery; I just wish the author would concentrate less on making villains monstrous and on excessively sadistic situations-- because the regular characters (Hazel, her police department, and her friends and family) are really worth following.  Oh, one more point:  I'd like to see Emily's (Hazel's 88-year-old mother) health improve and find her more active again.  Her relationship with Hazel is one of the strongest points in this series.

Net Galley.  Open Road Media.  Pegasus Press

Fiction.  Police Procedural/Mystery.  2012.  print version 288 pages.

Eleven Pipers Piping by C.C. Benison is also a Net Galley read.  Classified as a cozy (and the titles in this series, the setting, and  the main character are definitely part of the cozy genre), the novel has deeper characterization and some edgier elements than many cozy mysteries.

Once you get over the Father Christmas nomenclature and begin to view Tom Christmas as a real man and not as a caricature, the characters and situations become more intriguing.  Vicar of a small English parish, Tom has a tragedy in his past that influences his behavior and makes him seem less the typical cozy protagonist and more of a real person.

The interplay of all the villagers and the role of gossip move the plot forward in an interesting way as the reader contemplates various red herrings and tries to interpret situations from various sources.

I enjoyed this mystery and will look for the first in the series, but found the conclusion a bit convoluted and deus ex machina.

Net Galley; Delacourt Press

Fiction.  Mystery.  2012.  print version 496 pages.

The Hangman's Row Enquiry by Ann Purser features crotchety Ivy Beasley, and elderly but shrewdly intelligent inhabitant of an assisted living
residence in a small English village.  Her cousin Deirdre and the mysterious Gus Halfhide round out a strange trio of characters who form Enquire Within, a private investigation service.

What I liked:  the characters, the inclusion of an often neglected age group, and the incongruous nature of the relationships.  The plot was lacking, but maybe the plotting will improve as I move on to the next in the series.  The characters, including Roy, who has taken a fancy to Ivy, are enjoyable.  A light, fun read.

I read this one after reading Teresa's review over at My Highland Cottage.

Fiction.  Mystery.  2010.  print version 320 pages.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Two YA Fantasies

Graceling is a YA fantasy by Kristin Cashore.

From Library Journal:  "In this debut fantasy novel, Cashore treats readers to compelling and eminently likable characters and a story that draws them in from the first paragraph. In Katsa's world, the "Graced," those gifted in a particular way, are marked by eyes that are different colors. Katsa's Grace is that she is a gifted fighter, and, as such, she is virtually invincible. She is in the service of her tyrannical uncle, king of one of the seven kingdoms, and she is forced to torture people for infractions against him. She has secretly formed the Council, which acts in the service of justice and fairness for those who have been accused and abused." 

I enjoyed this YA fantasy, but was a bit disappointed to disover that the other books in the "series" do not continue the story of Kat and Po.

Fiction.  YA/Fantasy.  2009.  471 pages.

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater is another YA fantasy.  I loved The Raven Boys (an ebook ARC from Net Galley), and wanted to try something else by Stiefvater, so I ordered this one for my Kindle.

The water horses, capaill uisce, of the small island of Thisby are carnivores--beautiful and terrifying.  The annual Scorpio Races, held each November, are thrilling and often deadly, but the ancient tradition continues to be practiced regardless of the risks.

Puck Connelly's parents were killed by a capaill uisce, (you didn't have to be involved with the races to be killed by the water horses) and she and her brothers have difficulties making ends meet.  This year's race might present an opportunity for Puck to keep her home and to prevent her brother Gabe from leaving the island.

Sean Kendrick, a stoic young veteran of the races, works as a trainer for the largest stable on the island.  With several wins under his belt, he sees this year's race as an opportunity to own his beloved water horse, Corr.

Both young people have huge investments in the November race, and they move from active dislike to an uneasy friendship as they prepare for the race.

Character development and atmosphere are so well done that the reader feels present on the island, and while the plot development is slow, it is not plodding.  I liked the fact that Stiefvater took an old myth and altered it to fit the story she wanted to tell, but although there were many elements I admired, I liked The Raven Boys much better.

YA/Fantasy.  2011.  print version 416 pages.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The Dalai Lama's Cat by David Michie

The Dalai Lama's Cat  was from Net Galley, and I wish I had not let it languish in my TBR que for so long because it was a genuine pleasure from beginning to end.

This charming Himalayan relates the way she found her way into the Dalai Lama's household and into the hearts of all, from the Dalai Lama and his staff, to the owner of the local cafe and many of its patrons.

Snow Lion, Rinpoche, or Bhodhicattva, this feline goes by many names (descriptive, endearing, or punning) and is privy to many interviews and discussions with some very famous people.  She charmed everyone, myself included.

A whimsical and educational little book about a remarkable little cat, who arrived as a kitten and stayed for sixteen years

You may also be interested in David Michie's Blog

Loved it!

Net Galley; Hay House Publishers.

Inspirational/Anthropomorphic.  2012.  Print version 217 pages.

One by Deborah Crombie; One by Margaret Maron

Necessary as Blood by Deborah Crombie continues the adventures of Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid, a series I always enjoy.

Why would a young woman leave her child with a friend for a short time with every intention of returning and then disappear completely?  When her husband, the usual suspect, turns up dead the case becomes more involved.

For some reason, although I always enjoy this series, this one didn't quite measure up to previous books.  The character development, an element I usually appreciate in Crombie's work, felt more two-dimensional.  So...not my favorite, but not a bad.

Mystery.  2009. 384 pages.

The Buzzard Table is the first novel I've read by Margaret Maron, and although the first few pages didn't grab me (I almost abandoned it), my interest grew pretty quickly thereafter.

This is the 18th installment in Maron's series about Judge Deborah Knotts, so perhaps coming so late to the series was a bit detrimental initially.  At any rate, I did end up liking this mystery enough to want to read more, and it is always nice to find that there are plenty more to read.

The novel also includes a character from another series by Maron about Sigrid Harald, a NYC police detective that I may also explore.

Mystery.  2012.  print version 320 pages.

Friday, January 04, 2013

I'm frantically trying

to catch up with reviews of books 
read before January 1, 2013.  
Not that it makes any difference to anyone but me,
 but I had wanted to get them all done in December, 
and of course, that didn't happen.

For several reasons, I read fewer books in 2012 than usual.  
One big reason has to do with my obsession 
with Korean Drama on Hulu and Drama Fever. 
 Instead of reading for several hours after dinner, 
I would retreat upstairs 
and watch K Drama while embroidering
 or working on eccentric figures. 

 The result: fewer books, but more craft.

 I made book dolls, Halloween figures-witches,
ghosts, and black cats,
strange eccentrics with wire hair
and watch parts and Monopoly pieces,
prim Santas and mice and sheep; 
prayer flags, small encrusted pieces, 
a very few Alzheimer's art quilts,
 a boro jacket, a slow cloth embroidered shirt 
which is still in progress and probably will be forever.
cloth and clay Santa, muslin sheep
clay and glittered snowman in egg cup
tiny muslin primitive Santa in wool coat and cap

prim muslin snowman on old bobbin
muslin mice dressed in left over scraps from other projects
Another clay snow man, mounted on old bobbin, but I painted this bobbin
trio of witches, one on a "wheelie" broom stick

tiny clay figures on papier mache box covered with book pages
Oh, I love glitter!
altered baby doll made this year and witch made last year
clay Baker's Man on vintage eggbeater; crow from Michael's
Slow cloth embroidery on Fee's old shirt that I've been working on forever
and will probably never finish.
That is just a portion of what occupied me from Oct. - Dec.,
all the while watching my Korean shows.
Can't complain--
the sewing and sculpting gave me an excuse 
to indulge in a myriad of Korean saegeuk, 
comedy, mystery, and mythic adaptations.
Or the other way around.

I am, after all of the holidays,
the company, the celebrating, the friends and family,
the general business, and the clean-up,
now back in a full reading mode.
Indulging in print this week.

And reviewing.
I've decided to do more grouping
of two or three books per post
when there is a common theme.
That should help.

Best Wishes 
for 2013!

The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan

The Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:  The Epic Life and Eternal Photographs of Edward Curtis was an uncorrected e-book manuscript from Net Galley.  The e-book galley was full of random capitalization and occasionally a little lacking in narrative coherence, but a totally involving read!  What a fascinating life the obsessed Curtis lived in his attempt to document the story of the vanishing cultures of the American Indian, and what a record of photographs and text he left behind!  I may have to purchase the completed print version just to get the photographs that the Kindle version mangles.

Despite my complaints (and it was a free and uncorrected version), the book tells the haunting story of a man with a project that was, as he was repeatedly told, too large for fifty men, much less the one man and his few devoted friends and assistants, and I read it avidly.  What an adventure story, what a consuming passion, what a remarkable achievement!

In his early thirties, Curtis, who was a premier portrait photographer, found himself completely fixated by his idea of documenting as much as possible about the life, traditions, and spiritual beliefs of the Native Americans.  Even as these traditions were being eradicated at a rapid rate by missionaries and forced boarding schools that forbade even the use of the children's native languages, Curtis persevered, often finding that on return visits to a tribe, much of what he had recorded previously was no longer in existence as a result of laws forbidding the practice of many spiritual ceremonies.

Regardless of the support of Theodore Roosevelt and the patronage of J.P. Morgan, Curtis was always broke and his financial troubles followed him throughout the thirty years he pursued his dream. His devotion, however, was unparalleled, and in spite of the hardships, Curtis doggedly persevered.

A fascinating biography of the man behind the camera, an adventure story, an intimate glimpse of the despair resulting from  misguided (and greedy?)  government policies,  and images of a way of life that was disappearing even as it was recorded--this book will hold your interest in such a variety of ways.

If you have an interest in photography, history, Native Americans, or life in the early 1900's, I can strongly recommend this amazing book.

Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.

Nonfiction.  Biography/History.  2012.  384 pages.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Kassa Gambit by M.C. Planck

The Kassa Gambit is a science fiction ARC e-book from Net Galley and takes place long after the collapse of earth and the settlement of various planets by humanity.

 Prudence Falling captains a tramp freighter with a small crew, and on arriving at Kassa with a cargo run, discovers the planet has been attack by an unknown force and that survival has been limited.  Shortly after Falling's arrival and her attempts to aid survivors, a League ship arrives (not a good sign) with police officer Kyle Despar on board.  Despar is an undercover operative secretly operating against the League, but is feared and hated as a result of his League status.

O.K.  While the novel starts well and has some interesting aspects, it didn't really hold up for me.  Falling and Despar's attraction and distrust felt artificial and too much on the side of "romance" in the least believable way, and the plot itself left much to be desired.  Short and shallow.  Just my opinion, but then, I'm a David Weber fan and love 600-800 pages with lots of character-driven plots and details that make everything seem possible.

Release date:  Jan. 8; Tor Books.

Science Fiction.  2012.

Two Dystopian Novels

One Second After provides a scenario (although flawed) of what might happen after an EMP attack on the U.S.

From Publishers Weekly:  In this entertaining apocalyptic thriller from Forstchen (We Look Like Men of War), a high-altitude nuclear bomb of uncertain origin explodes, unleashing a deadly electromagnetic pulse that instantly disables almost every electrical device in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Airplanes, most cars, cellphones, refrigerators—all are fried as the country plunges into literal and metaphoric darkness. History professor John Matherson, who lives with his two daughters in a small North Carolina town, soon figures out what has happened. Aided by local officials, Matherson begins to deal with such long-term effects of the disaster as starvation, disease and roving gangs of barbarians. While the material sometimes threatens to veer into jingoism, and heartstrings are tugged a little too vigorously, fans of such classics as Alas, Babylon and On the Beachwill have a good time as Forstchen tackles the obvious and some not-so-obvious questions the apocalypse tends to raise.

The writing is not the best, but it is an interesting scenario.  The novel really reminded me of Alas, Babylon, and what really makes you think is the same as in many dystopian novels: how do we survive without the infrastructure we depend on?  Without easy access to food, water, and medical attention?  How atavistic would society become?  We have certainly seen some frightening examples of human behavior after natural disasters (i.e. Hurricane Katrina), and even then, there still existed an infrastructure even though damaged.

Even the government acknowledges the possibility of EMP attacks, although mainly in theory.

Science Fiction/Adventure.  528 pages.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks) presents an account of the Zombie War, ten years after the fact.  Told in all seriousness with "first-hand accounts"  gathered from all over the world, each one covering an aspect from the initial crisis, through the collapse of an organized infrastructure (world wide), to the organization of resistance and resulting battles.

This is not a narrative with a single group of survivors and their experiences along the way, but a series of separate accounts from a wide variety of survivors in various locations.  The technique lends a kind of verisimilitude that is pretty amazing considering the fact that the enemy is a predatory zombie (well, thousands of predatory zombies) and that the increased numbers of the enemy are a result of your fellow man's victimization.

One reason the book feels realistic is simply that, regardless of the enemy or the cause of a collapse of the support of governments and infrastructures, people tend to respond in certain ways and the will to survive can result in a variety of behaviors.

What can I say?  It was an adventure into the fantastic that felt absolutely real.  Well, maybe not the decaying corpses of soul-less zombies, but the way different people respond to a crisis or a previously unimaginable threat--that felt authentic.

The novel (?), if you can call it a novel, rather than a series of fictional interviews, kept me involved and intrigued.  It was easy to read a section and put it down because you finished that particular account, yet  interesting enough to want to move right on to the next account.

 Science Fiction.  342 pages.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chavalier

The Last Runaway is an ARC from Dutton; publication date - Jan. 8, 2013.  This is Chevalier's first novel set in the United States and details the life of Honor Bright, a young Quaker woman who travels to America in 1850 with her sister Grace, who is to marry a young man from their English village.

On their way to Ohio, however, Grace Bright contracts yellow fever and dies.  Suddenly, Honor's position in the world is even less secure and very uncomfortable as she becomes a resented burden on the man Grace was to marry and his unpleasant sister-in-law.

Fortunately, Honor has developed a friendship with Belle, who shelters runaways as a stop on the Underground Railroad and gives Honor her personal support whenever she can.  Interesting that the Quakers are reluctant to get involved, and Belle, who is not a Quaker, devotes herself to the cause.  As Honor finds herself drawn into a life very different from her previous one in England, unsettled by the rough ways of the Ohio pioneers, lonely, and always an outsider, she must decide whether or not to act on her principles when doing so can cost so much.

I enjoyed the book, although I liked Remarkable Creatures better.  There was a great deal of information about the Ohio settlements, the hardships of immigrants, and the difficulties and consequences of opposing the Fugitive Slave Act and helping runaway slaves on their journeys to escape.

The importance of quilting among settlers, the differences in styles on the frontier and what Honor had been accustomed to in England, and Honor's pleasure in her stitches appealed to me (even if I've done very little for a while).

Chevalier doesn't take the easy route with Honor's life; she doesn't romanticize the situations or the relationships.  Honor must find her place in a new world, and finding that place isn't easy physically or emotionally.

Nice reading list about the Underground Railroad, Quakers, quilting in Ohio, etc. is included in the acknowledgements.

My thanks to Amanda Walker (Dutton & the Penguin Group) for sending this one.

Historical Fiction.  2013.  305 pages.