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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Merlin at War by Mark Ellis

Mark Ellis' Merlin at War, featuring London DCI Frank Merlin, is the third in this series.  In 2014, I read and enjoyed The Princes Gate, set during the phony war between September 1939 and May 1940, but I somehow missed Stalin's Gold, the second in the series which also received positive reviews.

 Merlin at War takes place after the fall of France; the armistice between Vichy France and Germany is in effect, and the nominal government of France collaborates with Nazi Germany in reprehensible ways.  

The book begins, however, in Crete where a team of British soldiers hope to escape and be evacuated. Only one man survives the perilous journey.  The survivor carries a letter from his superior officer, but the officer dies before he can definitively designate the letter's recipient.  

Ellis depicts a London during the nervous calm after the autumn Blitz of 1940:  a young woman dies in a botched abortion; the French emigre doctor who performed the abortion is murdered;  a traitor among the Free French delegation operating from London sends messages to the Vichy government with the time and place a young agent is to be dropped into France; there are a connections to Buenos Aires and New York. 

Most of the book is a satisfying mystery with compelling historical elements, but the multiple subplots slow it down a bit. Nevertheless, Merlin at War presents a view of the war from many angles, and Ellis' main characters have depth and dimension.

Read in August; blog review scheduled for Sept. 27.

NetGalley/JKS Communications

Historical Mystery/WWII.  Oct. 12, 2017.  Print length:  490 pages.     

Friday, September 22, 2017

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

The opening of Bluebird, Bluebird grabbed my attention and my imagination immediately. 

We first meet Geneva Sweet as she snakes an orange extension cord through a cemetery, past the grave markers that read "Mayva Greenwood, Beloved Wife and Mother, May She Rest With Her Heavenly Father" and "Leland, Father and Brother in Christ" until she reaches her goal, the final resting place of her husband, Joe "Petey Pie" Sweet, whose monument reads "Husband and Father, and Forgive Him Lord, A Devil on the Guitar."

The extension cord and the transistor radio allow Geneva to play Joe some Muddy Waters.  

Geneva Sweet, almost seventy, is in many ways the heart of the novel.  She is not the protagonist; she is the core, the center that anchors a tiny community with deep roots in the past.

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger, and he is justifiably proud of the fact.  He loves Texas and the Rangers, but his pride in both doesn't mean Darren isn't aware of flaws in the justice system.

Raised by his twin uncles (Clay, a celebrated law professor and William, the first black Texas Ranger), Darren's background is privileged.  At the other end of the spectrum, Darren's mother is a poor alcoholic who is always cadging money. Darren's connections run the gamut of the socioeconomic spectrum. 

After a degree from Princeton and two years of law school, Darren's career path derails after the horrific event in 1998 in Jasper, Texas.  He drops out of law school, much to the disappointment of his wife and his Uncle Clay, and joins the Texas Rangers.  

While it is easy to love Darren, despite his ideals, he is as imperfect as any other human being, and in the midst of some serious problems at work and at home, he finds himself in the tiny town of Lark, Texas at the request of a friend in the FBI.  A black man has been found dead and the death receives only a cursory examination.  Then a few days later, a white woman is murdered.  

When he walks into Geneva Sweet's tiny establishment, Darren has no idea of how his perspective will undergo change.

Bluebird resonates on so many levels--from the piney woods setting in East Texas, to the strengths and frailties of the human condition, to the historic and current effects of race relations.

The novel is a love song to Texas in many ways, despite the acknowledged racism and the impact prejudice and discrimination have on the lives of both blacks and whites.  That, I think, is what makes this different from many novels that attempt to cover racism.  Attica Locke's roots (like those of her protagonist) are deep in the red soil of East Texas and despite all of the injustices, historic and contemporary, she loves the state and her own heritage.

The novel presents a thoughtful and humane look at the characters while still making the situations perfectly clear, never excusing and never despairing.  Locke examines the complexity of the events of a small town and leaves her protagonist uncomfortably aware of a script that diverges from his expectations. 

The prose and the images from this novel will remain with me.  Highly recommended.

From a Literary Hub interview with the author:
Attica Locke: I’m from an area that kisses the border of Louisiana. It’s infinitely more Southern than it is Southwestern. Is there still that Lonestar spirit? Yes, but it’s not big sky country, it’s the piney woods. They call a portion of it Big Thicket. It’s lumber country, woods and trees everywhere, creeks and bayous.
To me one of the great contradictions about East Texas is the sense of familiarity among black and white folks. Folks have been living up under each other for hundreds of years. There’s a familial quality to it. That doesn’t mean we’re all holding hands and singing cumbaya. But the people there are fundamentally intermixed—culturally and genetically. So there really is a sense of family.

(The piney woods and the names of some of the small towns along the Texas/Louisiana border are as familiar to me as the music that runs like a melody through the novel.)

NetGalley/Mulholland Books

Mystery/Crime.  Sept. 12, 2017.  Print length:  320 pages. 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Hollywood Hang Ten and Penance of the Damned

Hollywood Hang Ten by Eve Goldberg.  I requested this one because of the connection to the years of Hollywood Blacklisting.  This disgraceful period of blacklisting writers and actors who refused to name names was instituted by HUAC in 1947 and lasted until 1960. 

In 1963, young Ryan Zorn, who has been working with his uncle for a number of years, finds himself alone at the detective agency during his uncle's hospitalization. Twenty-three-year-old Ryan has never been in charge of an investigation and has not always paid strict attention to his uncle's techniques and advice.  On his first solo case, Ryan has to learn from his mistakes.  

The case of a missing boy leads to stolen photographs, blackmail, and murder--with tentacles reaching back to the 1950's.

Hollywood Hang Ten adeptly places the reader in time and place.  I liked the way Ryan's character is forced into growth by the circumstances he encounters.  It is particularly interesting to see the cultural differences that have occurred since 1963.  

Eve Goldberg is a writer and award-winning documentary filmmaker.  Her screen credits include the Emmy-nominated "Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist" (co-writer), "Cover Up: Behind the Iran-Contra Affair" (writer) and "Maestra" (writer).Her writing has been published in American Popular Culture, The Reading Room, The Gay & Lesbian Review, Hippocampus, and Censored: The News that Didn¹t Make the News. Hollywood Hang Ten is her first novel.

NetGalley/Thistle Publishing

Mystery/Historical Fiction.  Oct. 5, 2017.  Print length:  247 pages.  

I've only read one other Sister Fidelma mystery and feel much the same way about Penance of the Damned as I did about the earlier book--good mystery, excellent history.  

Set in Ireland in 671 AD, Fidelma is sent to find out more about the murder of a bishop.  What she finds is a friend accused, religious disagreements, disquisitions on Irish law vs the laws of the New Faith, and a locked room mystery. 

The first of the novel is a little slow and deals with the recent history between Irish principalities that will effect Fidelma's mission to discover the truth about the bishop's murder. When Fidelma and Eadulf arrive in Prince Donnenach's fortress, however, the story begin to get interesting.

These books are as much (or more) for those interested in ancient Irish history as they are for lovers of historical mysteries.  I find the historical elements fascinating, especially conflicts between the New and the Old Faith and the information concerning ancient Irish law.

Peter Berresford Ellis (born 10 March 1943) is a historian, literary biographer, and novelist who has published over 90 books to date either under his own name or his pseudonyms Peter Tremayne and Peter MacAlan. He has also published 95 short stories. His non-fiction books, articles and academic papers have made him acknowledged as an authority on Celtic history and culture. As Peter Tremayne, he is the author of the international bestselling Sister Fidelma mystery series. His work has appeared in 25 languages.

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press

Historical Mystery.  July 25, 2017.  Print length:  352 pages.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Devil's Wedding Ring by Vidar Sundstol

The Devil's Wedding Ring is a stand-alone novel that takes place in the Telemark region of Norway.  From the author of the Minnesota Trilogy, The Devil's Wedding Ring  is Nordic Noir --combining the present and the legendary past and revealing an intricate darker side to a beautiful region.

Max Fjelllanger left Norway almost thirty years ago after an unsettling incident in his early career with the police.  When he hears about the death of his former partner, Max feels compelled to return for the funeral.  Knut Abrahamsen supposedly filled his pockets with rocks and walked into the water, but Max is uneasy about the verdict of suicide, partly because of where Knut drowned.  

In 1985, both Max and Knut had been involved in the search for Peter Schram, a folklore researcher who disappeared on Midsummer Eve, and Max's own burden concerning that investigation revives his questions and guilt--especially about the corrupt sheriff who threatened him at the time.  The case was never solved; the young man was never found. Max feels he bears some responsibility...and wonders if Knut, too, found the case haunting.

When Max discovers that Cecilie Weiborg, who had also been researching pagan traditions and the Stave Church in Eidsborg, disappeared on the previous Midsummer Eve, he finds the coincidence too close for comfort. Instinct tells him that the disappearances of the two folklorists and Knut's death might be connected.

In the meantime, Tirill Vesterli, a librarian who loves mystery novels and wants to be a detective, is concerned when a man who has been stalking her returns after an absence.  She has her own theories about what happened to Cecilie Wieborg--she believes Cecilie's research into pagan folklore associated with the Stave Church in Eidsborg put the young woman in danger. 

Tirill is the highlight in this novel that is full of dark and atmospheric landscapes.  She is whip-smart, intuitive, and an intriguing mixture of quirky and practical.  Max eventually (reluctantly) teams up with Tirill, and the two make an excellent duo, playing to each other's strengths.

Tales of the ghostly monk and pagan rites may be more than embellished folklore, and Max and Tirill find that secrets of the past are still being protected, regardless of the human cost.
 Eidsborg Stave Church; source
More images of Stave Churches.

NetGalley/University of Minnesota Press

Mystery/Suspense.  Sept. 26, 2017.  Print length:  280 pages. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Dark Lake by Sarah Bailey

A debut novel by Sarah Bailey, The Dark Lake provides a compelling psychological drama.

DS Gemma Woodstock is a complex and not always entirely likable character.  Her mother's death when she was thirteen and her boyfriend's suicide a few years later cast a pall on several aspects of her life.  Her job is extremely important to her; she likes the details of investigation and is respected and valued by her boss.  On the other hand, Gemma often seems insensitive, callous, or needy, and the decisions in her private life are often questionable.

The discovery of the body of Roselind Ryan, an enigmatic young teacher, shocks the community.  Rose and Gemma were high school classmates, but not friends.  Rose was the kind of person who charmed and intrigued others: beautiful, elusive, very private.

 Gemma and her partner Felix are beset with a litany of questions, but few answers.  Who would want to hurt Rose Ryan? What brought Rose back to her hometown?  Is there anyone at all who had a close relationship, a more than superficial knowledge of Rose?  Certainly not her family or her colleagues. 

Rose's murder and the subsequent investigation have an emotional effect on Gemma, reviving memories of the past.  The puzzle of Rose Ryan consumes her, but Gemma has some secrets of her own, past and present, that she is keeping.

An impressive first novel--a gripping psychological police procedural.  Well-written and deftly plotted.  Recommended.  :)

Read in June; blog post scheduled for Sept.   14

NetGalley/Grand Central Press

Psychological/Police Procedural.  Oct. 3, 2017.  Print length:  400 pages.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Five Books Due in 2018

Often the books I get from NetGalley are 6 months or more in advance of publication; this can be frustrating because I don't want to publish reviews that far in advance, but I can't hold off reading the books.

Here are some brief descriptions of books I read in July and August that won't be published until 2018.  Reviews will follow closer to publication dates.

*The Night Market by Jonathan Moore (Jan.)   "..a near-future thriller that makes your most paranoid fantasies seem like child’s play."
Intense and uncomfortable speculative fiction. Engrossing, disquieting, conspiracy, manipulation, ambiguous conclusion.  I haven't read The Poison Artist by Moore, but now I want to--I think.  Maybe because I am now so distrustful of any rich and/or powerful institution (business, industry, church, state) right now, The Night Market had a chilling effect.

A Cold Day in Hell by Lissa Marie Redmond (Feb.)  (Cold Case Investigation #1) The major story line involves a current case in which detective Lauren Riley agrees to help a defense lawyer whose godson is on trial for murder.  OK, but not a series I will pursue.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig (Jan.)  Kind of spooky Gothic Lite.  If you are looking for Wilkie Collins or Du Maurier, this isn't going to satisfy, but The English Wife can provide an entertaining few hours and will be appreciated by fans of the author.

*The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor (Jan.) Had my complete attention from beginning to end!  Suspenseful, twisty psychological--an impressive first novel.  

**The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (Mar.)   Yes! A great ghost story!  I love a good ghost story, but I'm fussy and critical--and frequently disappointed when most ghost stories turn out to be less than I hoped for.  The Broken Girls was more than I expected or hoped for. Two time frames, a boarding school, a murder mystery, and plenty of suspense.  

I'm surprised the publication wasn't scheduled for October or November--prime reading time for eerie, mysterious, and supernatural stories.  Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed it in the heat of summer, but would have been the perfect book for an autumn evening with a fire in the fireplace and a cold wind moaning outside.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Clever and On Target

Tom Gault on saving time online

And More...

Can't help but laugh 
at Tom Gault's incisive humor.

How many of us recognize that library?

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The Scarred Woman by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Each of Adler-Olsen's previous Dept. Q books have been engrossing, and I looked forward to The Scarred Woman.  However, I found myself starting and stopping a half dozen times before getting into the novel enough to finish it.

Even after I finally got engaged enough to finish the book, the novel never invoked the same fondness for the characters that I've had in all of the previous books, nor did I find the plot(s) as compelling. 

All of the women were disturbed, shallow,self-indulgent, and violent.  Rose isn't shallow, but deeply disturbed, and I felt strangely distant from her character.  

Why didn't this one satisfy me?  For many reasons, but mostly because it felt so different in character and plot development  from earlier books.  Obviously, this is my own opinion and others may not have the same perception. 

Read in July;  blog review scheduled for 9/7/17

NetGalley/Penguin Group
Police Procedural.  Sept. 19, 2017.  Print version:  480 pages.   

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Reading, Books, and Fearless Librarians

What is the point of reading, if you forget most of what you read?  It's OK to "Forget" Most of What You Read  says that "forgetting is not forgetting."       

I may not be able to recall most of what I read when asked on the spur of the moment, but much of what I read resurfaces when the occasion arises--in a conversation or when reading another book that references information I've read previously.  My subconscious background has been broadened--and maybe my understanding is more complete when an esoteric subject arises.

Even in fiction (especially if a book sends me to research an actual person or event) the information can be relevant in many other instances.  Novels that I can't even remember have led me to explore historical events, to reconsider social problems, to question my previous beliefs, to become more empathetic and understanding of certain situations.

I read a lot, and much of what I read is purely for entertainment. But even bad fiction can provide insight.  When I read nonfiction, I find myself more critically aware of what I read in fiction.  As a result, a novel I've all but forgotten may have influenced my reading in ways beyond conscious awareness, and nonfiction reading can help me appreciate the characters and events in various novels and to judge the accuracy of the history or setting.

I love this article about librarians on horseback.  

"The Pack Horse Library initiative was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA), created to help lift America out of the Great Depression, during which, by 1933, unemployment had risen to 40 percent in Appalachia. Roving horseback libraries weren’t entirely new to Kentucky, but this initiative was an opportunity to boost both employment and literacy at the same time." (source)
There are more photos and information in the article.  Librarians are, indeed, amazing!  This was not an easy job, but these women could certainly be proud of the work they were doing.

Monday, September 04, 2017

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. Mckillip

These two books have little in common other than their publication dates, but both are novels that can leave you pondering.

The William and Hester Monk series by Anne Perry is one of my favorite historical mystery series.  Each new release piques my interest, and I downloaded An Echo of Murder as soon as it was offered.

William Monk is an enigma.  In the The Face of a Stranger, the first novel in the series, he awakes in a hospital bed with amnesia.  He learns his own name only by a visit from someone who knows him, but hides his complete loss of memory of his past.  What he does learn fairly quickly is that he was a policeman; however, what he learns about the sort of man he was--doesn't present a flattering picture.

Over the many novels since then, Monk has continued to learn more about himself, has met and married Hester Latterly, and has had some career changes, all involved with investigating murder; he is currently the Commander of the Thames River Police.

Hester Latterly Monk served in the Crimea under Florence Nightengale.  She, too, has had several changes in her career, but she is dedicated to medicine and to serving those who can least afford care.  Intelligent, outspoken, and courageous, Hester is the kind of woman who precipitated change in the roles of women during the Victorian Era, and along with Nightengale, Hester was outraged and critical of those in charge of the disastrous Crimean War.

Both characters have an innate sense of justice, and Perry uses each of them to explore social and political issues of the time.  One of my favorites in the series was a mystery involving some of the first experiments with blood transfusions.

An Echo of Murder deals with a horrific series of murders against members of the Hungarian immigrant population in London;  the "echo" is relevant to present opinions and treatment of immigrants, a problem that has always existed.  Those who are different have difficulties in their attempts to maintain their own histories and culture and to assimilate into a new society.  

Aside from Monk and Hester, there are a number of recurring characters that make their appearance.  Perry does a fine job with characterization, plot, and addressing the kind of social issues that never go away. 

Read in June; blog review scheduled for Sept. 4

NetGalley/Random House/ Ballentine

Historical Mystery.  Sept. 19, 2017.  Print length:  320 pages.  

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillup is one of those books that has had an enduring effect on its readers over the years.  First published in 1974, the next year it won the Young Adult World Fantasy Award. It has influenced authors such as Susan Fletcher, Peter S. Beagle, Bruce Colville, Ben Lory, Gail Carriger, and Max Gladstone.  

Both a poetically rendered fairy tale and a morally complex narrative that illustrates large and small corruptions that result from destructive decisions, the novel turns a fairy tale into a kind of parable.

The villains can't be absolved for their decisions, but their reasoning and histories are understandable in the realm of human flaws and motivations.  The heroine is justified in her fury, but is also forced to confront her own destructive need for revenge.

A beautiful wizard; magical, sentient animals,; lovely prose; and complex attachments and relationships have made The Forgotten Beasts of Eld a classic adored and re-read by those who first discovered it decades ago.  Does it appeal to today's youth?  I don't know, but it seems that its influence remains in the works of many current authors who fell in love with it when they first read it.

I've read other books by McKillip, but it was Lark's review that encouraged me to read this one.  Fortunately, it was still available on NetGalley. 

Read in June; blog review scheduled for Sept. 4

NetGalley/Tachyon Publications

Fantasy/Fairy Tale.  Sept. 19, 2017.  (has been re-published numerous times, but I love this new cover!)  Print length:  248 pages.