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Tuesday, February 25, 2020

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald and Glass Houses by Louise Penny

I know a lot of people loved When We Were Vikings, and sometimes I did, too. 

from description:  For Zelda, a twenty-one-year-old Viking enthusiast who lives with her older brother, Gert, life is best lived with some basic rules:

1. A smile means “thank you for doing something small that I liked.”
2. Fist bumps and dabs = respect.
3. Strange people are not appreciated in her home.
4. Tomatoes must go in the middle of the sandwich and not get the bread wet.
5. Sometimes the most important things don’t fit on lists.

But when Zelda finds out that Gert has resorted to some questionable—and dangerous—methods to make enough money to keep them afloat, Zelda decides to launch her own quest. Her mission: to be legendary. It isn’t long before Zelda finds herself in a battle that tests the reach of her heroism, her love for her brother, and the depth of her Viking strength.

I loved Zelda, who suffers from cognitive disabilities as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, and sympathized with Gert, who had been responsible for her most of her life. 

It wasn't the characters that didn't work for me, they were well realized.  It was the narrative that bothered me.  Also, Zelda's ability to read and retain information,to add and use words to her vocabulary daily, as well as her ability to problem-solve were a little puzzling.  I know college-educated adults who would have difficulty reading nonfiction works about Vikings and remembering in detail.  Zelda shows both maturity and immaturity in equal measure, almost as if her intellect was fine and only her emotional responses were childlike. 

There were parts I loved, but something (I'm not sure exactly what--a kind of ambivalence or doubt that kept creeping in) kept me from wholeheartedly believing.

I do recommend When We Were Vikings.  A sense of compassion permeates the story.  It is easy to fall in love with Zelda and to admire Gert's commitment to his sister.  The support of AK47 and others is another uplifting element to this modern myth of heroes, Valkyries, and villains.  

NetGalley/Gallery, Pocket Books
Literary Fiction.  Feb. 1, 2020.  Print length:  335 pages.  

Louise Penny's Glass Houses begins slowly with a murder trial, but moves back and forth in time between the inciting event and the trial.  

Nearly a year before the trial, a strange masked figure wearing a hooded black robe appears at a Halloween party.  No one recognizes the figure and the figure remains silent, ignoring the questions of party goers.  Puzzling, but since it is a Halloween party, most of Three Pines residents and the two visiting couples find it merely curious.  

The next day, the figure appears on the village green, silent and seemingly immobile--and curiosity turns to uneasiness.  When Armand Gamache approaches it, questioning its identity and intent, the silence and lack of physical response begin to feel menacing.  The figure has hurt no one, but the silent vigil is unnerving for the community.  They want Gamache to do something, but no laws have been broken.

Eventually a guest mentions the cobrador del frac--a Spanish debt collector dressed in top hat and tails who follows people who owe money and refuse to pay.   

He adds that much less is known about the medieval origin of the cobrador, a collector of moral debts--who acted as a conscience and stalked his target until confession or penance occurred.  

The idea of an incarnation of the ancient cobrador--taking no action, speaking not at all, but shaming the guilty party--causes citizens of Three Pines and their guests to wonder whose moral crimes have attracted the cobrador.  And who has called a Conscience to Three Pines.  

In a discussion of conscience, the question is asked about why the Holocaust happened.  Myrna answers, "It happened because no one stopped them.  Not enough people stood up soon enough.  And why was that?"  

Clara suggests fear may have prevented people taking action,  and Myrna responds, "Yes, partly.  And partly programming.  All around them, respectable Germans saw others behaving brutally toward people they considered outsiders.  The Jews, gypsies, gays.  It became normal and acceptable.  No one told them what was happening was wrong.  In fact, just the opposite."   

Armand follows up a little later with "We see it when bullies are in charge.  It becomes part of the culture of an institution, a family, an ethnic group, a country.  It becomes not just acceptable, but expected.  Applauded even."

The cobrador is conscience, and someone in  the tiny village knows that he or she is the guilty party.  Then a murder.  

As the narrative moves back and forth between the court scenes and the arrival of the cobrador in Three Pines nearly a year earlier, the background is gradually filled in.   

Gamache faces a dilemma that results in a decision that will bother his conscience with either  dreadful choice.  

Character-driven and complex, Glass Houses is another outstanding offering from Louise Penny.

Now, I have only three more books to be caught up with this remarkable series.  

Crime/Mystery.  2017.  Print length:  391 pages.

One of my favorite books last year was Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile:  A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

Here is an interesting interview:  Erik Larson on Writing Wartime Life During the London Blitz

Friday, February 21, 2020

Mike Hambling's DCI Sophie Allen Series

In November of last year, I read Silent Crimes by Michael Hambling as an ARC from NetGalley. The book was #8 in a series featuring DCI Sophie Allen, and although I had not read any of the previous books, it worked well as a stand-alone.  

I like police procedurals, so I ordered and read the first in the series Dark Crimes: Sophie Allen #1.

from description:  A young woman’s body is discovered on a deserted footpath in a Dorset seaside town late on a cold November night. She has been stabbed through the heart.
It seems like a simple crime for DCI Sophie Allen and her team to solve. But not when the victim’s mother is found strangled the next morning. The case grows more complex as DCI Sophie Allen discovers that the victims had secret histories, involving violence and intimidation.

I just realized that I didn't review it at the time, but I did keep Hambling in mind because I wanted to read more.  

Kindle Unlimited

This month, I went back to the series and read books 2,3, and 4.  They read quickly and are full of puzzling investigations.  

from description:   A young man’s mutilated body is found on top of the Agglestone, a well-known local landmark on Studland Heath
It seems that he was involved in a human trafficking and prostitution gang. 
There is also a thread concerning Sophie's father.  It was believed that he deserted her pregnant mother, but when a body is found down a mine shaft, Sophie and her mother realize he was murdered.

Kindle Unlimited. 

from description:  The body of an attractive festival-goer is discovered on the rocky shoreline at Peveril Point
But the young woman’s injuries arouse suspicion. Who was the man she met? Is there a history of suspicious deaths at other music festivals across the area?
 Sophie is still dealing with the effects of the previous book and her own involvement.  She has had therapy and is now trying to get on with her life.

A new character is introduced.  Transgender detective constable Rae Gregson joins the team--hoping to fit in, but aware of potential problems.

Kindle Unlimited

 from description:  A family move into their dream home in Dorchester: it seems perfect, particularly for their two children, but when Philip and Jill Freeman decide to move a buddleia bush, what they find buried beneath its roots will haunt them forever.

 Decades old murders are short on clues, but the team works at all of the twists presented.  Kept me a bit off-center and guessing about two possible suspects.  

Kindle Unlimited.

I'll eventually get to the other books in this series.  :)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Saturday, February 15, 2020

18 Tiny Deaths by Bruce Goldfarb

When I requested 18 Tiny Deaths, it was this sentence in the description that caught my attention:  

"The fascinating story of the forgotten woman who pioneered forensic science."

I'd never heard of Frances Glessner Lee, but one of my reading objectives is to read more nonfiction and more biographies of women.  The idea of a woman having pioneered forensic science was an irresistible bonus to a fan of mysteries and police procedurals.  

Frances Glessner was born in 1878 to a family of great wealth and influence.  She and her brother were home schooled by private tutors, receiving a wide-ranging education significantly beyond what a public school could offer.  They were also encouraged to be children and to appreciate the outdoors, music, and arts and crafts in ways outside of academics.  Although her brother went to Harvard, women were not admitted to those "hallowed" halls and Frances did not go to college.  While she may have been brilliant and accomplished (more so than most college educated men), she personally felt the lack of formal education.

It is a thorough biography; however, since Frances did not become interested in what was termed medicolegal pathology until the latter portion of her life, it is in the last half of the book that her efforts to transform medical legal medicine into a unique division of medicine  is presented.  Inspired by her friend and mentor George Magrath, Frances used her wealth and influence to improve the system.

"She persisted" genuinely applies to Frances' efforts to revolutionize the ways sudden or suspicious deaths were examined, to replace the ancient coroner system with medical examiners, and to train police to preserve crime scenes and become intently observant.  

Previously much of what can be found about Frances Glessner Lee  has to do with her dioramas, the nutshell models--and they are important.  But Bruce Goldfarb has brought to light all of what the woman accomplished.  While the nutshell models are crucial, what impressed me most was the money, energy, time, and effort Frances put into her attempts to end a corrupt coroner system and replace it with trained medical examiners and to educate crime scene investigators (patrolmen and detectives) on how to observe and preserve a crime scene.  

A compelling look into the life of the woman who is responsible for scientific approaches to crime investigation.  A remarkable book about a remarkable woman--highly recommended for those interested in history, crime, and forensics.

Extensive primary and secondary sources.

A look at the Nutshells.

Nonfiction/Biography.  Feb. 4, 2020.  Print length:  336 pages.

Saturday, February 08, 2020

Thief River Falls by Brian Freeman and Safe House by Jo Jakeman

I had looked forward to this one, and at first, I thought I might like it.  

That didn't turn out to be the case.  The behavior of the main character was off-the-wall questionable from the first chapter and became more questionable with each succeeding chapter.  

More filler than thriller.  And then there was the conclusion.  

NetGalley/Thomas & Mercer
Feb. 1, 2020.  Print length:  314 pages.  

I really liked Jo Jakeman's previous book (under two titles at the time I read it--Exes' Revenge and Sticks and Stones), and I was excited about Jakeman's Safe House.

from description:  The morning after a terrible storm, a woman turns up in a remote Cornish village. She calls herself Charlie, but it's a name she's only had for a few days. She keeps herself to herself, reluctant to integrate with the locals. Because Charlie has a secret.

Before her ten months in prison for supplying a false alibi for her boyfriend, Charlie was Steffie Finn.  Now with a new name and hopefully a safe place to live without the burden of anyone knowing her past, Charlie is trying to come to terms with who she really is and fit into her new name and new life in a small village.  While in prison, Steffi received twisted hate mail, blaming her for the deaths of the two women her boyfriend killed. It is difficult for her to feel safe physically and she fears exposure that would incite more threats.

Part of the suspense is not knowing who it is that has made such an effort to find her.  Part of the suspense is waiting to see what the twist will be. Jakeman keeps the reader uneasy.

I liked  speculating about this and that possibility.  Until the author wants the reader to know, the guessing game is intact.  Written in past and present and in various perspectives, Safe House was a satisfying psychological thriller, although the conclusion felt rushed.  

NetGalley/Berkely Publ.
Psychological Suspense.  March 10, 2020.  Print length:  336 pages.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

All the Best Lies by Joanna Schaffhausen, an Ellery Hathaway/Reed Markham Novel

Suspended police officer Ellery Hathaway and FBI Agent Reed Markham are back in Joanna Schaffhausen's latest novel.  

Reed asks Ellery's help in investigating a cold case, one that is intensely personal. Reed  knew he was adopted as an infant, and when he was eighteen, his father told him the circumstances of his birth mother's murder and Reed's subsequent adoption by the Markham's.  

In No Mercy, the previous book, a gift for DNA testing revealed secrets that made Reed question everything he thought he knew.  His foundation begins to crumble.

Reed and Ellery head to Las Vegas to delve into the unsolved murder of Reed's mother, Camilla.  A forty-year-old cold case presents multiple difficulties, and Reed is both determined and fearful of the outcome, which may destroy the family that raised him.

Schaffhausen does a good job of keeping the possibilities open, so there are several good options to keep the reader guessing.  Reed and Ellery have complicated pasts to resolve, but the two combine their strengths to support each other.

This series has gotten better with each new addition.  I'm really curious about where the next book will lead.

(I don't like either of these covers, but at least the second one has some connection to the story.)

NetGalley/St. Martin's Press
Suspense.  Feb. 11, 2020.  Print length:  336 pages.

Saturday, February 01, 2020

January Favorites

The Indomitable Florence Finch:  The Untold Story of a War Widow Turned Resistance Fighter and Savior of American POWs by Robert J. Mrazek. I have not scheduled my review, but I'm still in awe of background of the War in the Pacific and the courage of Florence Finch.  

An absolutely engrossing story that reveals the failure of MacArthur in defending the Philippines (and his monumental ego), Florence Finch and her determination to risk her life despite the consequences, and many other real people who defied the odds against them.  

A wealth of primary sources, books, and other material  enabled Mrazek to reveal both personal and historical elements of the War in the Pacific--the battles, loss of lives, and conditions of the Philippines including the last ditch effort on Corregidor, the Battaan Death March, and the occupation of Manila.  I've just started a review, but it will be scheduled for closer to the book's June 16th publication date.  Nonfiction.  Highly Recommended!  

Why Writing Matters by Nicholas Delbanco.  Another one that I read this month, but publication will be in March, so I'll schedule the review closer to publication. Nonfiction.

I also really liked The Hollows, with its strong female cast and historical relevance which I reviewed here.

I finished Hidden on the Fens by Joy Ellis yesterday, and it made the list.  Ellis is one of my very favorites in the police procedural genre, and her latest Nikki Galena/Joseph Easter is one of her best.

A copse of trees, so dense and entangled that getting in is almost impossible, hides a derelict cottage from the early 1900's.  Richard Howard wants to clear the copse and plant local trees--leading to the discovery of the ramshackle cottage and evidence that someone has been squatting there. They find a tent and a satchel with photos of a girl who went missing 15 years ago.  And eventually, a body.

At the same time, Richard's mother has been receiving some disturbing messages, including an athame, a witch's knife.

Nikki's team is working two cases and there is a staff shortage that is keeping everyone busy.  Ellis always writes excellent police procedurals, and this time, she had a number of surprises to keep me off balance as to the identity of the villain.   

I love the characters and the complex, skillfully woven narratives in this series.  I was also intrigued by a couple of mentions of Nikki's mother and friend Wendy undertaking some historical research in Scotland in an attempt to find out more about an artist mentioned in the last book.  The references to this research indicate more of Eve and Wendy in the next book.  :)  

NetGalley/Joffe Books
Police Procedural.  Feb. 14, 2020.  Print length:  302 pages.

A good month that ended on a high note!