My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Seventeen year old Natalie Kessler is beautiful, sullen, and determined to have things her own way. Her brainy younger sister, Alice, plans to become an ornithologist. While on vacation with their parents, they each develop crushes on the moody artist in the neighboring cabin, Thomas Bayber, who does some sketches of the family. Ten years later, Alice is forced to give up her graduate studies by the debilitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Wanting to be alone to come to terms with the death of her dream, Alice retreats to the same lakeside cabin, not knowing that Thomas, now well on his way to fame, will also be there. An intense but brief liaison ensues, after which they go their separate ways.
The second half of the novel takes place decades later. The Kessler sisters are now living secluded lives in Tennessee, and Alice is completely dependent upon Natalie and their housekeeper. Thomas has succumbed to alcoholism, squandered his fortune, and become a recluse. He has long since been supported by Dennis Finch, the art historian who wrote the catalog on Bayber’s work. Now he summons Finch and disgraced authenticator Stephen Jameson to locate a heretofore unseen triptych that he painted from the Kessler sketches.
The Gravity of Birds has a complicated plot, told in a series of alternating flashbacks and present-day scenarios. There are two mysteries to unravel: why did the sisters leave New England so precipitously, and why did Thomas send Finch and Jameson on this close to impossible quest? There are poetic and fairy tale elements in the narrative that create an almost gothic, other worldly atmosphere. It is easy to empathize with each character, so much so that the revelation of the novel’s central mystery comes as a blow. If the novel has faults, they lie in the resolution, which relies too heavily on serendipity to be entirely credible. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive debut by an accomplished writer. I finished it last week, and it’s been staying with me; I look forward to Ms. Guzeman’s future work.
my rating: 3 of 5 stars
In the 1990′s, before switching to the medical thrillers she is famous for, Tess Gerritsen published a number of romantic thrillers. Girl Missing, published in 1996 under the title Peggy Sue Got Murdered, foreshadows the currently popular Rizzoli and Isles series.
Kat Novak is a pathologist working for the greater Boston medical examiner. She’s tough, self-reliant, and something of a maverick, having grown up in the projects, and is not one to let go of suspicions easily. When three corpses turn up in her lab, each having OD’d on an unidentifiable substance, she sets out to find out what that substance is and who is distributing it. And someone among society’s elite wants to prevent her from finding out.
Girl Missing does center upon a criminal investigation, one that the police somehow have little interest in, so the pathologist does it for them. But sharing the stage is the romantic involvement that develops between Kat and Adam Quantrell, who owns a giant pharmaceutical company and fears that his stepdaughter may be the next to OD. Not particularly suspenseful, except at the end, there is little here to entice readers other than those who enjoy a lot of romance in their mysteries.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anne Perry’s books about William Monk always have a moral theme, and with A Sunless Sea, the Commander takes on the opium trade. Early one morning, when on routine business, Monk discovers the horribly mutilated body of a middle aged woman, lying in the open on Limehouse Pier. As his investigation commences, the victim appears to be a prostitute with a single client, who stopped visiting her about two months before her death. With considerable difficulty, Monk tracks him down, only to find that he too is dead, apparently from suicide. The authorities providing him with the details strike him as suspiciously evasive, persuading Monk that all is not what it seems. This man was a well regarded researcher who was trying to convince Parliament to regulate the labeling, dosages, and sale of heroin. A few days after his report was publicly debunked, he killed himself in humiliation, according to the inquest results. But the doctor’s widow, Dinah, immersed in grief, adamantly refuses to believe that he’d do such a thing. Soon she finds herself arrested for the prostitute’s murder. But Monk’s instincts tell him that something’s not right, and as he delves ever deeper, he finds himself embroiled in a governmental cover up of astounding proportions.
Although it drags in places, particularly at the start, once the pace picks up the plot becomes compelling. It seems certain that Dinah will be convicted and executed. As always, Monk’s success depends upon the help he is given by his wife and close associates, and as they team up to ferret out the facts, the reader is taken into dark scenes and settings that illustrate well Opium Wars and the development of the opium addiction that continues to plague society to this day. The courtroom scenes are equally effective, and culminate in the need of the defense counsel to make a gut wrenching moral choice of his own. No traditional happy endings, here, but this is a book that drives its point home.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sissinghurst, one of the greatest of English gardens, is the inspiration for Westbourne, the very interesting setting of More Than Meets the Eye. Westbourne’s director, Dennis Cooper, loves his job, but possesses many irritating habits, such as collecting dirt on his employees, that make him less than a favorite among the staff. When Cooper’s lifeless body is found on the grounds, Inspectors Lambert and Hook encounter many likely suspects. Author Gregson provides each of them with chapters of their own, and the mystery unfolds as the chapters alternate. Rather than planting red herrings, he provides each character with very good reasons for wanting Cooper dead. The reader never becomes certain about who really did it. So, More Than Meets the Eye works well as a bona fide whodunnit, but, in this episode at least, the investigators, DSI Lambert and DI Hook, come across as rather flat. I found myself rooting more for the suspects than for the cops, and, no doubt as the author intended, felt considerable sympathy for the murderer. Let’s hope he/she is only charged with manslaughter!
“March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb” is probably the most famous and popular saying about this transitional month. But why those particular animals? Some authorities believe that the lion and lamb saying has a heavenly connection. The constellation Leo, the lion, is rising in the east at the beginning of March, hence the “comes in like a lion,” while Aries, the ram, sets in the west at the end of March, and so “will go out like a lamb.”
Perhaps the strongest literary and historical association of this month is not with the weather, but with the “ides”, or middle day of the month, in the ancient Roman calendar. Julius Caesar, who in Shakespeare’s play unwisely ignores the soothsayer’s warning, “Beware the Ides of March!”, was murdered on the Ides (15th) of March in a conspiracy led by Brutus and Cassius.
The proverbial phrase “mad as a March hare” has a similar origin: a “March hare” is a brown hare in the breeding season, noted for its leaping, boxing, and chasing in circles in its mating ritual.
The best known of March holidays, if Easter falls in April, is St. Patrick’s Day, the 17th. Saint Patrick used the
three-leafed clover (or shamrock) to explain the holy Trinity and cleansed Ireland of snakes by driving them into the sea with his staff (or shillelagh). To this day, shamrocks and shillelaghs are well known symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, and, there are no snakes in Ireland. St Patrick’s real name was Maewyn Succat. No wonder he changed it.
Discovery News writer Rosella Lorenzi has posted an exciting article about the two portraits shown above. According to Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel, a professor of English at Mainz University, Germany, the one on the left shows Shakespeare as he was experiencing his first successes on the London stage, around 1594. The one on the right depicts him around the age of 50, relaxing at home in Stratford. These two newly authenticated discoveries increase the number of known likenesses of the Bard to six. For more information, see the original article here, where you can also find images of the other known portraits.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Where Death Delights is a new mystery about a pathologist written by a pathologist, set in 1955 in the west country of England. Following his recent divorce, Richard Pryor has left government service in Singapore to set up a private practice in the newly emerging field of forensics. Pryor and his new partner partner, biologist Angela Bray, also on the rebound, set up their labs in the rambling house that he has inherited from an aunt. Neither is certain of the success of their new and risky venture, so both are relieved when cases begin to come their way. Most are fairly routine, but one, the discovery of a skeleton, which two women are claiming as relatives, is interesting and challenging. Within a few days, they are also contacted by a prominent London QC who suspects that the death of his daughter, ruled a suicide by the coroner, is actually a cleverly planned murder executed by his philandering son-in-law.
Don’t expect the caustic scenarios of a Patricia Cornwell from this novel. Rather, it is a sort of medical procedural that just misses classification in the cozy mystery genre. That does not mean the book is not worth reading. On the contrary, despite the absence of violence and gore, it’s fun to follow Pryor as he applies the new forensic techniques (deriving blood type from bones, for instance) to his first puzzling cases. There are a few confusing moments trying to keep the bits of evidence separate from each other, and, while one of the puzzles is brought to a satisfying solution, the other is not. There are also hints that Pryor is developing romantic feelings for his partner and also his attractive, widowed housekeeper, but those have yet to blossom.
A promising beginning to a new series, hopefully one in which these characters have a chance to grow.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Grace Alban left her childhood home for college more than twenty years ago, and has never looked back. Alban House, a grand Victorian estate on the shore of Lake Superior, holds too many melancholy memories for her, stemming from the drowning deaths of her younger twin brothers and her father. When her mother Adele dies, Grace has little choice but to return to make funeral arrangements, bringing along her teenaged daughter. From the moment she sets foot in the mansion, she’s struck by the sense of being surrounded by spirits. Little does she know……
The Fate of Mercy Alban is a gothic ghost story, which only just misses categorization as romance. The Alban family has buried some very macabre secrets over the generations, and poor Grace, kept in the dark about them until now, must learn all about them the hard way. The novel is populated by some obvious types, such as the loyal family retainers, the elderly aunt who was ensconced in a private institution for the criminally insane, and an understanding and very dishy vicar. Its plot revolves around a manuscript that Grace discovers, which tells the thinly veiled story of whatever happened to Aunt Fate, the twin sister of the evil aunt. Is it fact or fiction? Grace is soon to know the whole truth.
This is a mildly creepy story, one that would probably make a scarier movie than book. It’s fun to read, and holds back one last secret till the very last page, which will leave you with food for thought and speculation. And possibly a sequel?
by Edna St. Vincent Millay
No hawk hangs over in this air:
The urgent snow is everywhere.
The wing adroiter than a sail
Must lean away from such a gale,
Abandoning its straight intent,
Or else expose tough ligament
And tender flesh to what before
Meant dampened feathers, nothing more.
Forceless upon our backs there fall
Infrequent flakes hexagonal,
Devised in many a curious style
To charm our safety for a while,
Where close to earth like mice we go
Under the horizontal snow.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The English Girl is author Silva’s thirteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, the brilliant, honorable, and ruthless Israeli intelligence operative. The book opens with a summons from number 10 Downing Street. The PM has been conducting a secret affair with Madeline Hart, a political aide who was just kidnapped while on holiday in Corsica. Hoping to keep this potential scandal from the press, the Brits are calling in a favor, asking Allon to find and rescue Madeline. Reluctantly, and against his better judgment, he agrees. What follows is a kind of Russian doll of a situation, made up of plots within plots that grow ever more perilous,
Just as Allon is the consummate master of his trade, so too is Daniel Silva. There is no writer working today who is better at crafting a credible, mesmerizing thriller, one that reads like a James Bond movie. Allon, his wife Chiara, and his team, are by now old friends of readers, serve as the hook on which to reel us in. But Silva’s secondary characters are equally three-dimensional, and in this case include the killer for hire who recently targeted Allon, the Don of the Corsican underworld, and a peasant woman who can read the future in a bowl of water and olive oil. The exotic settings, which Silva brings to life with rich detail, and the intricate plots that never grow stale or predictable, add to the enjoyment. As for the icing on these cakes, the geopolitical situations underlying all the intrigue provide the moral reason for the mayhem.
All of the Gabriel Allon novels can be read as stand-alones, but, for the richest experience, it’s best to take them in order. Highly recommended for those attracted to literary thrillers.