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Monday, February 27, 2017

Himself by Jess Kidd

Oh, how I loved the first of Himself.  The writing, the quirky characters, the Brigadoon-ish Irish town which was definitely NOT Brigadoon.  I've mentioned before that I'm ambivalent about magical realism--loving some, but mostly not enthralled.  The ones I've loved, however, have been marvelous with the perfect balance of magic and real life.

For me, the lyrical prose that makes the acceptance of magic in the real world possible--is the key to whether or not I can slip into the story.  Jess Kidd's prose is lyrical and poetic, a  mixture of images, humor, and story telling that flows almost like music.

Raised in a Catholic orphanage, Mahoney is 26 when he receives a letter and a phoograph that upends his previous assumptions that he was abandoned by his mother.  He leaves Dublin and travels to the small village of Mulderrig to find out more.  

His arrival disturbs the village in various ways.  The entire village "almost" recognizes him from the first, but his personal charm carries the day... until the villagers realize that Mahoney is Orla's Sweeney's son.  Then the secrets that have been long hidden cause a dilemma of emotions.  

Almost everyone insists that Orla left the village with her infant 26 years ago, but old Mrs. Cauley becomes Mahoney's ally and abettor, and the two of them--the handsome young man and the fragile, bald old actress--investigate what they believe to be a murder.

Although a little ambivalent about Mahoney, I loved Mrs. Cauley and Bridget.  I had several quibbles as the book progressed, but the first half of the book makes everything worth it, and I am eager to hear more from Jess Kidd.  

Read in Dec.; blog post scheduled for Feb. 27, 2017

NetGalley/Atria Books

Literary Fiction.  March 15, 2017.  Print length:  384 pages.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger and Only the Innocent by Rachel Abbott

Iron Lake by William Kent Kreuger was a Kindle Unlimited offer.  Three-dimensional characters and a plot that involves former sheriff Cork Corcoran coming to terms (sometimes belatedly and frequently dragging his feet) with the dissolution of his marriage, his ambiguous relationship with his heritage, and the realization that underneath the surface of the small town he loves--there are sinister secrets lurking.

A reliable fourteen-year-old boy goes missing, a powerful man commits suicide, problems at the Indian casino, heartbreaking revelations about Cork's wife, an ambitious politician, and a far-right anti-government survivalist group all intertwine in this suspense novel.  

 Although I had a few quibbles with this one, the writing was excellent, the characters were compelling, and I'm eager to read the next in the series.
Barry Award for Best First Novel (1999)Anthony Award for Best First Novel (1999)Dilys Award Nominee (1999)Minnesota Book Award for Mystery (1999)
Atria Books

Mystery/Suspense.  1998.  Print version: 464 pages.

Only the Innocent (also on Kindle Unlimited) is the first in a series by Rachel Abbott.  DCI Tom Douglas is called to a murder scene that has trouble written all over it. The victim is a billionaire philanthropist and the murder has all the elements of a sex crime.  

The prologue deals with the actual murder, but of course, it is impossible to identify the woman who ties the willing Sir Hugo Fletcher to the bed.  He expects a sexual experience, but what he gets is...dead.  

The first chapter has DCI Tom Douglas on the scene and the obvious conclusion is that a woman is responsible. Sir Hugo's charity involves helping young women escape prostitution so that is one avenue to follow, but another prime suspect is always the spouse.

The more Douglas digs into Sir Hugo's life, the more unpleasant secrets surface.  Laura Fletcher was out of the country at the time of the murder, but she is keeping secrets, too.  And what about the inconvenient arrival of her sister-in-law as Douglas is informing Laura of her husband's death?  The more Douglas learns of the controlling and manipulative Sir Hugo, the more complicated the case becomes.

I found it difficult to sympathize with Laura.  I know that some men are capable of controlling every detail in a spouse or partner, but through the letters that were written and never sent, I have to question Laura's willingness to submit to Sir Hugo's dictates.  The letters reveal that she has a handle on what is going on, but she cuts off her family anyway.

The writing was fine, but certain elements were repetitive and did not advance the plot.  There were several characters--the ex-wife, the creepy nanny, and the callous PA--who were at least partially aware of Hugo's proclivities, but kind of stood back and grinned.  Coupled with Laura's willingness to surrender her personality, that makes too many women who are complicit in Hugo's crimes.

This was Abbot's debut novel, and I definitely see some promise with this series, even if it did not entirely work for me.  I may give the next one a try since it is also a Kindle Unlimited.

Mystery/Suspense.  2013.  Print version:  470 pages.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

An unusual, but effective take on the Gothic novel,  The Roanoke Girls is set in Kansas--on the flat plains with acres of wheat and soybeans and summer sun and heat-- hardly the usual Gothic setting.  

Except for the house; except for the mysterious, twisted plot.  Even those elements are handled in a contemporary style that is appropriate to the flat plains of Kansas as opposed to ancient European ruins surrounded by dark woods.  There are no moors, no treacherous cliffs, no supernatural elements, but there are secrets.

Plenty of them, as Lane Roanoke discovers when she leaves New York to live with her grandparents after her mother's suicide. She is definitely not in New York anymore, not that she wants to click her heels and return.

That summer, her vibrant, irrepressible cousin Allegra is 15 and Lane turns 16.  Lane learns to feed and care for the farm animals, learns to drive her grandfather's truck, and has her first real experience with boys.  And she finds out a little about her family's history--so many girls who left Roanoke, like her own mother--or who died, like Allegra's mother.  Allegra tells Lane that she will never leave Roanoke.

The summer has some dark turnings, however, and Lane leaves.  She tries to avoid even thinking about that summer, until eleven years later, when she receives a text and a phone call from Allegra.  Neither of which she answers.

A call from her grandfather to tell her that Allegra is missing brings her back to Kansas. Lane returns, hoping to find her cousin, not expecting to stay. The longer Allegra remains missing, however, the more determined Lane becomes to discover what happened, where she is, why she finally left.

Tangled, twisted, the story and the history.  Lane, caught between wanting to unravel both past and present and to deny both, struggles with what she knows and what she suspects. The plot moves back and forth between the present and that long ago summer.

The Roanoke Girls is a dark and disturbing tale told in a way that contains both intensity and detachment.  "Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly."
Originally, the title had much to do with my request for the book.  How many thousands of people have a fascination with Roanoke, VA, the colony that disappeared without a trace sometime between 1587 and 1590?  There are several possible connections, but the most tangible is the carving.

I can't say I liked it, but I did want to know what happened.

Read in August, 2016; blog review scheduled for Feb. 20, 2017.

NetGalley/Crown Publishing

Psychological/Suspense.  March 7, 2017.  Print length:  288 pages.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Death by Any Other Name by Tessa Arlen

A Death by Any Other Name is the third in this series by Tessa Arlen.  Somehow, I missed the second in this series, but perhaps the library will have a copy.

from the description: The elegant Lady Montfort and her redoubtable housekeeper, Mrs. Jackson, investigate a murder among a group of amateur rose-breeders while the idyllic English summer days count down to the start of the First World War.

The cook from Hyde Castle has been dismissed from her position when a guest dies after eating one of her dishes.  Although the inquest determined the death was a result of tainted fish, the cook had eaten of the same fish with no ill effects.  In hopes of restoring her reputation, the cook approaches Lady Montfort and her housekeeper Edith Jackson clear her name.

Lady Montfort, eager for another chance to use her skills of detection, elicits an invitation from the Haldane's to visit the rose-breeders and investigate the incident.  Her name and position alone would gain her admittance, but as the famed Gertrude Jekyll, renowned horticulturist and designer of gardens for Britain's elite, is Lady Montfort's current guest, there is no doubt that her visit will be considered a coup for the Haldane's.

Clementine Montfort and Edith Jackson are welcomed to Hyde Castle and find themselves among a diverse--and not entirely likable--group of rose-breeders whose friendships are rife with gossip and competition.   There are a number of red herrings (not all of which are satisfactorily explained) and undercurrents are plentiful.

Set in the summer of 1914, the events that signal the outbreak of the first World War are daily being reported, increasing the tension for some of the guests, not least Clementine Montfort.

I enjoyed this mystery, but found that some incidents and situations were not adequately explained.   A Death by Any Other Name did not feel as smooth and polished as the first book, but I do like the Shakespeare allusion in the title, and to quote another Gertrude, "a rose is a rose, is a rose."

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press

Historic Mystery.  March 14, 2017.  Print length:  336 pages.

Gertrude Jekyll designed some of the most beautiful gardens in England.  The following images are from Upton Grey, but images of other of her garden designs can be found here.

source:  restoration of Gertrude Jekyll's garden at Upton Grey

source:  restoration at Upton Grey

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Quiet Until the Thaw by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller's Quiet Until the Thaw is a compelling novel that manages to be funny and sad, satiric and sincere, clever...and deadly serious about the history of the government's policies concerning Native Americans and the way those policies have played out.

In a portion about the forced removal of children from their families to place them in Indian Boarding Schools (which were mostly shut down by 2007), Rick Overlooking Horse and You Choose Watson are caught running to escape the Bureau of Indian Affairs officers who are chasing them.  Another boy is caught along with Rick and You Choose--Billy Mills, the fasted kid on the Rez, but even he is not fast enough to escape.  

A paragraph or so later, there is a mention of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and an announcer is shouting:  "Look at Mills!  Look at Mills!"  Billy Mills couldn't run fast enough to escape the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but he eventually won a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics--for real.

 It is this mixture of real people and real events along with the fictional stories of Rick Overlooking Horse, You Choose Watson, Squanto, and Le-a Brings Plenty that gives the novel a quiet authority.   

The problems and history of life on the Rez are not avoided or minimized, but they are not treated in the way one would expect.  The problems are part of the story and  part of the characters who inhabit the novel.   

 From early on, Fuller makes a point of how many Indians have filled the ranks of the military over the years from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and through Desert Storm.  Squanto, during Desert Storm has reason to remember what Rick Overlooking Horse has told him:

 "Remember this:  There will be nothing to signal the start of your war.  There will be nothing to signal its end.  There's just your war.  Only you will know it when it has started, and only you can choose when it will end."

The novel shifts from character to character and from event to event, and I loved Fuller's prose which kept me engaged the entire time.  I've pondered this review for the last ten days or so and find myself unable to genuinely relate how good I think the book is.  I've written entire paragraphs and deleted them.  For infinitely better and more thorough reviews, check out Sam and Nancy's reviews on Goodreads.  
In a flashback at the end of the book, Rick Overlooking Horse has been telling the "wonderful, terrible tales of how the whole world came to be," to young Daniel and Jerusalem Brings Plenty and Jerusalem asks, "how does it end?"

The old man replies, "It ends well.  It doesn't end soon, but it ends well.  All of it."

Don't miss this one.

NetGalley/Penguin Group.

Native American/Social Commentary.  June 27, 2017.  Print length: 288 pages.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Shallow End by Brenda Chapman

Shallow End by Brenda Chapman is the latest in the Stonechild & Rouleau series set in Kingston, Ontario.  Chapman's previous plots have taken inspiration from current problems that beset society, and Shallow End is no different.  Chapman, a former special education teacher, was at a special development day when a young teacher told about false accusations against him by two young women.  Although the girls eventually confessed that they were lying, the damage to the man's life and marriage was incalculable.

Child predators can be found in churches and schools and sports training, and in recent years, the predators have frequently been women.  Accusations of sexual predation are hard to refute, and even if proven false, the repercussions for everyone involved can be devastating.  The story that Chapman heard that day simmered in her brain until she formulated the plot that became Shallow End.

Jane Thompson, admired teacher and loving mother is accused of a sexual relationship with one of her twelve-year-old students.  The evidence appears solid, but Jane refuses to confess, and is sentenced to prison.  A year into her sentence, however, Jane confesses and agrees to therapy, earning a year off her original sentence.

Shortly after Jane returns to Kingston and a much diminished life, Devon Eton is found murdered.  Jane's husband has already been denying Jane's visits with her children and now refuses any contact between Jane and her children until the person who killed Devon is arrested.  Of course, Jane is the suspect who comes immediately to most minds.

In addition to the major story line, Kala Stonechild is dealing with her own grief and frustration over her niece Dawn, who has been taken from Kala and placed in foster care. Paul Gunderson continues to cope with Fiona, his manipulative estranged wife.  Rouleau has his own grief over his ex-wife's death.  Woodhouse remains the cunning, misogynistic, and vindictive presence that keeps Rouleau's team at odds.

While it isn't necessary to have read the previous books in the series, the characters and their overarching stories are part of the appeal for me.  

Cold Mourning, Butterfly Kills, and Tumbled Graves are the first three books in this outstanding series. (links are to my reviews)

If you have a chance to read this series, take it!  

Read in Dec.; blog post scheduled for Feb. 12, 2017.


Police Procedural.  March 11, 2017.  Print length:  384 pages. 

Monday, February 06, 2017

The Undesired and Catching Echoes

The Undesired opens with a scene of a father and young daughter in a car, dying from the exhaust fumes.  Your mind automatically wonders how they got there and who is responsible.  

Chapter One introduces single father Odinn, whose ex-wife has recently died.  Odinn struggles with the responsibilities of being more than a weekend father and seeks ways to help his daughter with her grief.

When a colleague dies unexpectedly, Odinn finally gets an interesting assignment investigating possible abuse at a home for young offenders.  The plot moves back and forth from the present to the past.  

The past segments allow us to see the home and the inhabitants through the eyes of Aldis, a young woman who does the cleaning.  In the present, Odinn attempts to balance a series of problems--interviewing individuals who were at the home during the 1974 incident, new information that makes him curious about his ex-wife's death, and his concerns about his daughter.

Definitely some surprises, especially in the conclusion.  It is so tempting to put the spoiler here, but it would change the way the reader approaches the novel.

Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir's The Undesired is a standalone and not part of her Thora Gudmundsdottir series.  

This new cover beats the previous two options by a long shot.

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press

Psychological Suspense.  2012; 2017 (translation).  Print length:  362 pages.

Catching Echoes: Reconstructionist Series Book 1 by Meghan Ciana Doidge has murder, witches, and vampires.

I liked the first of this one quite a lot and was hoping for a fun paranormal romp.  

Unfortunately, the charm of the first portion of the book began to dissipate in the middle, and I was not at all impressed with the conclusion. 

I liked Wisteria in her reconstructionist role,  but the frequent references to a hidden magical power that others seem to recognize and leave Wisteria puzzle--feel contrived.  The creepy attraction between witch and vampire is a given. Much of the middle felt like filler, and it isn't a particularly long book, so that's a lot of filler. The conclusion was disappointing.

Doidge has a dedicated fan base who love her books, but if I want a good paranormal YA book, I turn to Maggie Steifvater or Kelley Armstrong.  I do enjoy a little paranormal mischief every once in a while, but this series may not be a good fit for me.

NetGalley/Old Man in the Crosswalk Productions

Paranormal/Crime.  Dec. 2016.  Print length:  234 pages.

Friday, February 03, 2017

Captive on the Fens by Joy Ellis and Other January Reads

Another addition to Ellis' Fen series featuring DI Nikki Galena and DS Joseph Easter.  

I regret the change in cover as I don't much like sensational covers and prefer the previous covers.

As in previous novels, the location becomes a character.  The Lincolnshire fens are both beautiful and mysterious and getting lost in the fens can be risky.  

Ellis' human characters ring true and feel like old friends when you meet them again.  I liked that Cat gets more attention in this book when she teams up with Ben, a Derbyshire detective who has not given up on a case similar to the one Galena's team is tasked with solving.

An interesting twist relates to an unsolved case from a previous book.  Nikki's mother Eve plays an important, if brief, role.  Eve has an intriguing background, and I hope she will continue to play a part in future books.

It is not necessary to read these books from the beginning--each one works perfectly well on its own thanks to Ellis' skill, but if you follow the series, it is rewarding to see connections and get reacquainted with characters from previous books. 

Captive on the Fens has a kind of serpentine effect going on that keeps the reader following closely, trying to weave the various threads into whole cloth.

NetGalley/Joffe Books

Crime/Police Procedural.  Jan. 25, 2017.  Print length: 315 pages.

Some books read in January, but not yet reviewed:

Over the Hills and Far Away by Matthew Dennison--biography of Beatrix Potter

The Last Hack by Christopher Brookmyre--cyber suspense

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti--coming of age?  mystery

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova--contemporary and historical; behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria

The Undesired by Yrsa Sigurdardottir--set in Iceland; chilling story of a home for young offenders in 1974 and a current investigation of the situation.

Two versions of covers of The Undesired.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Heartbreak Hotel by Jonathan Kellerman

Heartbreak Hotel by Jonathan Kellerman.  I've been reading the Alex Delaware and Milo Sturgis series for years, and while this is not a favorite, I always enjoy the opportunity to catch up with the pair.  

Thalia Mars is almost 100 years old when she calls Alex Delaware in for a consultation.  Although this case is certainly not within Delaware's usual sphere, he is charmed by the elegant and witty old woman.  

Unfortunately, a second consultation that would have explained what the elderly woman wanted from Alex never happens as she is murdered before she can tell him.

Recent books in this series have been uneven--some are excellent, some are not.  I'm sorry to say that Heartbreak Hotel did not engage me as many other books in the series have.   I liked Thalia Mars' character; she was by far the most interesting in the book, but she didn't last long enough to become fully developed.  

Read in November; blog post scheduled for Feb. 1, 2017.

NetGalley/Random House/Ballentine

Mystery/Crime.  Feb. 14, 2017.  Print length:  368 pages.