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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen

Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen.

The cover might make you think that this is another missing woman plot, but that is not the case for this novel.

Instead, Hannah Monroe returns home from a successful business seminar eager to tell her boyfriend Matt that she may be due for a promotion.

On entering her home, all traces of her boyfriend have disappeared.  His posters, his television, his clothing, anything that belonged to Matt is gone.  Every photo that included Matt is gone. Even texts and emails have been deleted.  Matt has been effectively erased.

Shocked and confused, Hannah tries to comprehend the situation.  She is determined to track Matt down, but her attempts are fruitless.  This opening section is fascinating--and I was intrigued.  Did Matt simply leave Hannah or was something more sinister at play?

Hannah's obsession with finding Matt begins to affect her work.  The prospect of a promotion dims.  This is where the novel becomes a bit predictable and finding Matt becomes a pathological fixation.  

Gone Without a Trace is a page turner with few likable characters.  

Read in Sept.; blog review scheduled for 3-29-17

NetGalley/Berkley Publ.

Psychological Thriller.  April 11, 2017.  Print length:  352 pages.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

I looked forward to The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova but have an ambiguous opinion after finishing.  

More than one story takes place in this long novel, but for me, only one story felt genuine--that of Stoyan Lazarov.

Two narratives involve Alexandra, a young American woman who comes to Bulgaria to teach English.  One narrative involves her childhood in the Appalachians and the disappearance of her brother Jack on a family hike. This story, told through occasional flashbacks, involves Alexandra's guilt at her last words to Jack.  The contemporary narrative follows Alexandria in Bulgaria.

In 2008, Alexandra arrives in Sofia.  She helps three people into a taxi and inadvertently keeps one of their bags.  After they've left, Alexandra gets into another taxi and discovers her mistake.  She is dismayed to realize that she has an urn with the ashes of someone called Stoyan Lazarov.  Her attempts to return the remains will have her and her intrepid taxi driver traveling from one site to another throughout the book.  She doesn't speak Bulgarian, but remarkably, her driver Bobby is willing to take her from village to village despite increasing danger.  Yep, that sounds reasonable.

Obviously, Elizabeth Kostova loves Bulgaria, but the amount of detail that does not advance the story becomes an encumbrance and the journey itself becomes repetitive--this village, that village, into the mountains, back down again.  Most of this week long adventure would have been spent in travel.

But about half-way through the book, we begin to get the story of Stoyan Lazarov, a gifted musician.  Communist occupation forces took over Bulgaria after the war, and postwar Bulgaria was a dangerous place.  Stoyan happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and became a political prisoner without trial.  Sent to a labor camp with hundreds of others who often did not even know what they had done wrong, Stoyan endures the horrific conditions by retreating into his mind and his music.   

Stoyan's story is the important part of The Shadow Land.  The plotting on the journey portions made the book slow going, the back story about Jack did not contribute to the plot. 

Stoyan's story, however, has a vitality and coherence that the rest of the book lacks.  The Shadow Land looks behind the Iron Curtain in the years after the conclusion of WWII and provides a reminder of the kinds of abuse society can inflict on its citizens.  

It takes half the book to get to Stoyan's story, and many will abandon the book before they get there, but Stoyan made the experience worth it for me.

From a Kirkus Review:  "Kostova’s passion and tragic sense of history, along with jewellike character studies, almost make up for the overplotting and repetitiveness as she drums her points home."

Read in January; blog review scheduled for March 27.

NetGalley/Random House/Ballentine

Literary fiction.  April 11, 2017.  Print length:  496 pages.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

An Eclectic Mix of Mysteries

The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief caught my interest with the cover, the idea of a psychic, and this brief description: "Should you find yourself in need of a discreet investigation into any sort of mystery, crime or puzzling circumstances, think of Jesperson and Lane . . ."

 The first page had promise.  Miss Lane had been friend and collaborator to a "Miss X" -- a psychic investigator and member of the Society of Psychical Research, but when Miss Lane suspects her friend of her own brand of chicanery,  Miss Lane takes abrupt leave of Miss X and returns to London. 

In search of a job, Miss Lane happens on an advert for a position as a consulting detective with Mr. Jasper Jefferson.  Her previous position involved investigating psychic phenomena, perhaps detective work would not be too much of a transition.

But the book didn't seem to know where to go:  humor? quirky? serious? real  or fake psychic abilities?  The first seemed to offer an offbeat, quirky narrative, but that got lost fairly quickly.  Miss X is initially presented as perhaps being vindictive and vengeful, but that, too, disappears.  Miss Lane and Mr. Jesperson should have some chemistry, it is certainly implied, but it fails to feel genuine.

The possibility of fleshing out these characters remains, but in this first book in the series, Miss Lane and Mr. Jesperson remain two dimensional.  Both characters need a good deal of development to help them evolve into interesting and unique personalities rather than pawns around which a story emerges.  The plot is a little muddled and could use some efficient editing. 

The Somnambulist & the Psychic Thief has potential for a fun and suspenseful series, and perhaps the next in the series will give a bit more "character" to the characters, a clearer tone, and a more incisive plot.

NetGalley/Random House

Paranormal/Mystery.  First published in 2016; May 16, 2017.   

Lie to Me by Jess Ryder begins with an old videotape that Meredith discovers in the attic. When her father realize that she has the tape, he is upset and attempts to seize it, but Meredith keeps it and is later stunned to see her four-year-old self with the mother who disappeared shortly after the tape was made.  Meredith's investigation into the meaning of the tape and what happened to her mother leads her to a crime that occurred thirty years ago.  

Putting the pieces together reveals a number of surprises associated with the murder that took place at Dark Pool and questions about who was responsible.  Meredith researches the trial and meets some of the people involved. Since the hypnosis and past life segment wasn't really pursued, I wish it had been left out, but Meredith's persistent search for answers kept me interested although I didn't always find her behavior reasonable.

Told from three perspectives, the plot has several twists.  


Crime/Suspense.  April 19, 2017.  Print length:  388 pages.

What really created my interest in What the Dead Leave Behind was the idea of Blizzard of 1888, and strangely,  I finished the book a few days before the prediction of the huge blizzard to hit New York and the east coast in mid-March of this year. 

Prudence McKenzie, still grieving over her father's recent death, awaits the arrival of her fiance as the blizzard sets in, covering New York in snow.  Charles, however, will never arrive and will be one of the 200 bodies discovered on New York streets in the aftermath of the storm.

Charles Linwood and Roscoe Conkling were out in the storm; Conkling made it to safety, but Charles' body was found after the storm.   

Prudence is devastated.  Her doctor had recommended laudanum to help Prudence deal with her father's death, but had issued strict instructions.  Now, Prudence is even more in the drug's clutches.

OK- there is a wicked stepmother and some dastardly deeds done, but Prudence does have some support in the characters of Roscoe Conkling and Charles Linwood's friend Geoffrey Hunter, a former Pinkerton Agent.

I assume this is to be a new series.  Although my main interest was the Great Blizzard, that part of the story is only at the beginning.



A Buried City: The Blizzard of 1888
The Great Blizzard of 1888  

NetGalley/Kensington Books

Historical Mystery.  April 25, 2017.  Print length:  304 pages.

Over the Hills and Far Away: The Life of Beatrix Potter

Over the Hills and Far Away by Matthew Dennison offers a glimpse into the life of Beatrix Potter, the beloved author and illustrator whose life was circumscribed by Victorian traditions and parents who kept her isolated from other children, whose inquiries into the natural world are worthy of any scientist, whose illustrated letters to children helped inspire the "little books" that are still beloved by millions, who was an astute businesswoman, and who bequeathed over 4,000 acres to the National Trust in an effort to preserve the English countryside.  

Potter was shy and under the thumb of her domineering parents, yet she defied her parents to fulfill her dream of becoming an artist.  

Much of the book was fascinating, but I found the shifts in chronology unsettling at times--since my version was a NetGalley manuscript, perhaps further editing has taken place.  Or maybe I should have adjusted better.  I also found the too frequent connections Dennison makes about her characters (those anthropomorphic and charming rabbits, mice, and ducks) to Potter's life overdone.

Nevertheless, Over the Hills reveals a great deal about Potter and her life, and I'm very happy to have learned about her family pets (lizards, birds, rabbits, hedgehogs, newts), her naturalist efforts, and her stubborn efforts to pursue her art.  

I would like to read another biography of Potter for comparison and because I'm still fascinated by the journey she made throughout her life.

Read in Jan.; blog post scheduled for 

NetGalley/Pegasus Books

Biography.  April 4, 2017.  Print length:  304 pages.

Monday, March 20, 2017

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

I See You by Clare Macintosh.

I read Mackintosh's I Let You Go in April of last year and really liked it,  so I eagerly took the opportunity to read another book by Mackintosh.

Zoe Walker has a routine, the kind many people who work develop and follow almost without thought.  Zoe's daily commute on the underground is a part of  her routine. 

Reading the classifieds one evening on her way home, Zoe is shocked to see a picture of herself, a phone number, and a link to a website.  The photo is not clear, and when she gets home, Zoe's partner and children aren't positive that the photo is actually of Zoe.

The website to be unavailable.  A prank?  Zoe begins to check the classifieds daily for other listings with a woman's photograph, phone number, and the website.  A different woman is listed each day.  And one of those women is murdered.  Identifying the women whose photographs appear daily becomes imperative.

At first only Kelly Swift, a British Transport officer, takes Zoe seriously, but after the connection to the murdered woman, the police are all in and crack the code for the website where detailed information about the women in the pictures--age, height, hair color, clothing details, and current information and times about their commutes--is for sale. 

Who is selling  the information?  Who is buying it?  Will Zoe be next?

Although I was less impressed with this book than I was with  I Let You Go, it was a suspenseful journey.

Read in Oct.;  blog review scheduled for March 20, 2017.

NetGalley/Berkley Publ.

Crime/Police Procedural.  April 4, 2017.  Print length:  384 pages.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Stolen Lives by Matthew Pritchard

Stolen Lives is set in contemporary Spain and takes its plot from the headlines.  Immediately after the Spanish Civil War, a network of doctors, nurses, priests, and nuns stole babies born in Spanish hospitals and sold them.  From the headlines to fiction...

The fictional aspect of the plot begins when Teresa del Hoyo's body is found in a landfill.  The right-wing press plays up her background as a former drug user, but reporter Danny Sanchez explores the events leading up to Teresa's disappearance and discovers that before being reported missing, Teresa had been investigating events that led back to the Spanish Civil War.  

Teresa's activism and attempts to show the empty graves of children who were recorded as stillborn has generated the interest of a sinister priest known as a troubleshooter for a secretive religious order.  As Danny follows the threads that lead to a labyrinth of political and religious abuses, he finds himself in danger as well.

Although Danny Sanchez and Teresa del Hoyo are fictional characters, the systematic trafficking of infants occurred for decades in Spain,  perpetrated by those who should have been protecting the innocent.

Liked:  the characters, the intriguing historical aspect, the suspense
Not so much:  some pretty brutal descriptions
One surprise:  Teresa's sister Carmen is insufferable and made me so angry, but her determination to find out what happened to her sister was impressive.  

 My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was limited.  I knew that Hemingway was a reporter during the Spanish Civil War, that Nationalists executed poet Frederico Garcia Lorca, and that Picasso painted Guernica to expose the atrocities of war when the village of Guernica was bombed by German and Italian fascists at the request of the Nationalists.  That was about the extent of my knowledge. The book was more than simply an interesting crime/suspense novel, it made me curious about a war I knew very little about and the secret network that felt no qualms about telling mothers their children were born dead, then selling the infants.

Matthew Pritchard worked as a journalist in Spain for ten years, and during that time, he couldn't avoid the persistent shadow cast by the Spanish Civil War.  From 1936-1939, the bloody conflict raged between the Nationalists, who received aid from Fascist Italy and Germany, and the Republicans (Democratic, but left-leaning) who received aid from the Soviet Union. Franco and the Nationalists won, and Franco ruled for 36 years.  

Stolen Lives takes a look at the repercussions of Franco's dictatorship.  Specifically, the novel looks at the child trafficking that began during Franco's reign and continued until the early 90's.  As many as 300,000 babies born in Spanish hospitals were sold to more financially stable and politically-approved families.  Doctors, nurses, priests, and nuns colluded in the sale of babies.  The Church supported the Nationalists during the war, and many of the early cases involved babies born to mothers who were Republican or leftist sympathizers.  The mothers were told their babies were stillborn, then the infants were given or sold to Nationalist families.  The practice continued for over 5 decades; in more recent years, mothers who were young, unmarried, divorced, or left-leaning in a staunchly Catholic country were most vulnerable.

Spain continues to reel from court cases concerning the child trafficking.  A couple of links: 

this article by Teresa Cantero gives some of the details.

The Lost Children of Francoism

Spain's Stolen Babies (BBC Documentary)

NetGalley/Endeavor Press

Crime/Suspense.  March 10.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Where the Dead Lie by C.S. Harris

Where the Dead Lie has Sebastien St. Cyr, Viscount of Devlin investigating the torture and murder of a street boy. Ben Thatcher was one of the throw-away children of London, and he and his younger sister had to survive as they could when their mother was deported to Botany Bay.

Devlin, outraged by the abuse inflicted on Ben Thatcher, is determined to bring the guilty party to justice.  His inquiries reveal the disappearance of a number of homeless children, and Devlin's suspicion and apprehension increases.

Someone powerful is responsible.  Someone with money and connections and careful planning is preying on the homeless children.  A couple of names immediately come to mind.

The Sebastien St. Cyr series continues to provide an engrossing look at Regency London.  Harris has provided another excellent historical novel that examines the underside of society.   

Read in Nov.; blog review scheduled for March 15, 2017.

 NetGalley/Berkley Pub.

Historical Mystery.  April 4, 2017.  Print length:  352 pages.  

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Working Women and International Women's Day

International Women's Day was yesterday, but I just found this article about mill workers who agitated for better treatment during the 1830's and 1840's.  The day started at 4:30 AM, and the women worked for 12-14 hours a day, and half a day on Saturdays. 

I read the article and thought of the long struggles women have endured for equal pay, for decent working conditions, for the vote, and my admiration for those women who fought for changes--who still do--is huge.  We aren't there yet, and conditions for workers in other countries are still dreadful.

Anyway, thinking about mill workers, I was reminded of one of my favorite songs from Working, the Broadway musical based on Studs Terkel's book of the same name.   Terkel's book of interviews with working men and women was first published in 1974.  The musical was first staged in 1978.  I love both the book and the entire album from Working.

The interviews in Terkel's book are fascinating and cover a wide-range of working people.  The songs from the musical are just as varied--some are sad, some funny:  The Housewife, the Waitress, the Teacher.  The book and the musical do not neglect men--a Trucker, a Retiree, a Mason....  The videos I've selected are from the original Broadway production.

migrant worker
My kids grew up with these songs--the first one they fell in love with was the Newsboy: 
So when your head is draggin'Cause your momma's been a-naggin'
And your sister's been annoying
Go throw the paper in the bushes
Watch the bushes go Boin-n-n-g-g-g-g-g

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Two Reviews and A Little about Snail Mail

Although I had some problems with Rachel Abbott's Only the Innocent, I knew I was going to give this author another try, and Kindle Unlimited had The Back Road on offer.

I liked this one much better.  DCI Tom Douglas has retreated to a cottage in Little Melham, taking some time off for both personal and professional reasons.  His ex-wife has moved, taking Douglas' young daughter with her, and life at the Met in London has caused Douglas to rethink some important issues.

Of course, his peaceful retreat will not remain as relaxing as he hopes.  A young girl has been struck down and left for dead on a back road.  No one knows why Abbie was out so late or who in the small community could have callously left the young girl to die.  Was the hit and run an accident or was Abbie deliberately targeted?

Douglas' neighbors Max and Ellie Saunders have their own secrets, but they are not the only ones, quite a few people in the village have secrets. 

Secondary threads abound, and the story may be a little overly complicated, but the plot kept me absorbed as I suspected one possible villain after another.

Mystery/Suspense.  2013.  Print length:  479 pages.

Dead Embers by Matthew Brolly is the third in his DCI Lambert series.  I have not read the previous books, but the book works fine as a stand-alone.

DCI Lambert is summoned to the scene of a house fire; a three-year-old has been rescued, but the parents did not survive.  Arson is not part of DCI Lambert's usual purview, but one of the victims is a fellow officer.  At the same time, an anti-corruption investigation is in process concerning Lambert's boss, complicating certain aspects of the investigation.

DCI Lambert has plenty of other problems as well, but his determination to solve this case is evident.  (Have to admit that I was not all that taken with DCI Lambert, but perhaps if I'd read the earlier books, I would have a better opinion.)   Checking in with Goodreads, I found that the first two books in the series received excellent ratings.  


Mystery/Suspense.  March 6, 2017.  Print length:  287 pages.

Snail Mail

I've been catching up on some letter writing lately.  I love making my own envelopes or decorating purchased envelopes.  Postcards are fun, too.  I like getting out paints or creating a collage or trying a new technique.  I don't always have a great deal to say, but since I love getting letters, I give it a good effort.

 I had fun with Valentine postcards last month.

April is National Letter Writing Month and Write-On is having another letter writing campaign.  The goal is to write 30 letters in 30 days in April.  Last year,  I had fun with this--writing postcards and letters to family and friends and a few new people.  I ended up with fewer than 30 mailed letters, but more than 20.  Writing the grands helped--sent lots of postcards and letters to them.  (30 letters is a LOT of letters!) I combined my letters with National Poetry Month which is also in April and mailed poems or parts of poems, which made a nice mix, celebrating both months at the same time. 

The point of events like Write-On is to encourage letter writing, so I don't worry about meeting a designated number.  You may want to drag out your lovely stationery and favorite pens and write someone just to let them know you are thinking of them or invite someone to lunch with a pretty card instead of a phone call.  Anytime is a good time to send a little something through the mail.  Oh, and Easter is in April this year, so Easter cards are another possibility.  

I've been thinking of what I'll do for Write-On.  I don't know if I will  formally participate, but I will try to get more letters/postcards in the mail than usual.  I may combine it with National Poetry Month again--which saves me having to think of anything to say!  And I think I'll make some bookish postcards....  :)

Just curious--how many of you buy cute cards or beautiful stationery because you can't resist?  

Friday, March 03, 2017

Environmental Disasters

A couple of years ago, I read the book Death Falls, a mystery that referenced Centralia, Pennsylvania, the town destroyed by underground coal fires.  The book wasn't great, but I did a little research at the time and discovered more information about the catastrophe that started with a fire in 1962 in abandoned coal mines, forcing the evacuation of an entire town, and that has burning underground for over 50 years.  According to experts, the fires will continue to burn for another 250 years. 

This morning, I saw this article about Centralia and other towns that have suffered environmental disasters.  

The other environmental disasters in the article are equally horrifying:  Butte, Montana; Picher, OK; Three Mile Island; and Love Canal.  

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Find Me by J.S. Monroe and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Find Me is that the reader is going to be surprised and confused as the story twists and turns.  

From description:  Jarlath "Jar" Costello's girlfriend, Rosa, committed suicide when they were both students at Cambridge, and Jar has thought about her every day since. It's been five years, yet Jar is still obsessed with the idea that Rosa, the one true love of his life, is alive. He's tormented by visions of her and has disturbingly real sightings of her in unexpected places experiences the psychologist treating him describes as "post-bereavement hallucinations."

Is Rosa alive?  Is the entire plot a wish fulfillment dream of Jar's?  Is it a novel within a novel?

Told partly from Jar's pov, partly from Rosa's, partly from diary entries, and partly from a third party, Monroe keeps the reader forming theories, then tossing in a little surprise or two that will modify those theories.  Jar isn't sure whom to trust and struggles with separating the "post-bereavement hallucinations" he knows are not real and the sightings of Rosa that he believes are genuine.  "It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you."  A tangled, twisty tale.

Read in Jan.;  blog post scheduled for March 1


Mystery/Psychological.  March 21, 2017.  Print length:  400 pages.  

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.  I don't know, this one has received some five star reviews, but as I read and when I finished, my personal thoughts were inconclusive.  There was some cleverness in the twelve bullet wounds that Samuel Hawley sports and in the recurring motif of watches/clocks/time.  But when I got it on second mention, the rest felt contrived.    

The book is well-written, and I had no inclination to put it aside, and yet, my feelings about the book were always ambivalent.  

I like this quote from another reviewer: "I felt like I was reading a mashup of John Green and Quentin Tarantino more than once." :) Does that give you a feel for the novel?

I guess this is a wishy-washy view of the novel, but I do think the author is talented.  

NetGalley/Random House

Mystery.  March 28, 2017.  Print length:  400 pages.