my rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sixty- something widow Dorothy Martin is an American ex-pat living in England. Offered the chance to vacation on the tiny Scottish island of Iona, she gladly accepts. But Dorothy has the bad luck to arrive with an American church tour, whose seven members don’t permit their religious convictions to prevent them from squabbling and backbiting. On a group excursion to Staffa, a geological wonder, Dorothy is horrified to observe Bob, the most despised member of the tour, slip on a wet rock and tumble into the churning sea. Shocked at first, she soon recalls that conditions were dry all over the island: could someone have set Bob up for the fall by pouring water on that rock? Perhaps her suspicious would have developed no further, but the next day, huddling uneasily together in the hotel during a fierce rain and wind storm, Dorothy has the perfect opportunity to study each member for motive, and piece her scanty evidence together. What she concludes shakes her deeply.
Holy Terror in the Hebrides qualifies as a classic English village mystery, but its author is no Brit. Jeanne Dams hails from Indiana, and describes her protagonist as her alter ego. Dorothy is a strong central character, propelling the rather simple plot via her observations, thoughts, and reactions. The actions of all other characters are filtered and interpreted through her. The novel is devoid of violence, with the terror promised by its title occurs in passages late in the narrative, and the denouement is curiously lacking in suspense. But Iona is a fascinating setting, and the story’s shortcomings are balanced by personality and atmosphere.
my rating: 3 of 5 stars
Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years, P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”. When their umpteenth nanny quits, Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Lincoln Letter is the tenth and latest William Martin’s series of historical novels, several of which feature antiquarian book dealer Peter Fallon. Now Fallon is back and hot on the trail of a heretofore unknown letter written by Abraham Lincoln on the last day of his life. The letter is brief, addressed to former War Department decoder Hawley Hutchinson , and seems to refer to a diary that Lincoln lost earlier in the Civil War. Fallon heads to Washington DC, only to discover that he is not the only hunter in this increasingly dangerous quest. While Fallon is feverishly searching and defending his life, a series of flashbacks, narrated from the point of view of Hutchinson, illustrate how and why this mystery came to pass. The plot is enriched by the actions of colorful characters in both time periods, and I found the Civil War story the more compelling. Martin adroitly handles the moral issues of slavery and political machination without becoming preachy, and the African American characters are among the best developed. Why were people so determined to find Lincoln’s diary in the 1860’s? For its value to anti-Lincoln factions for use as a weapon. Why are they so determined in the early 2000’s? For the diary’s value, to history, yes, but more importantly, for the fortune it would bring.
A fast paced, engrossing tale, thoughtful and well presented.
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: 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!
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?
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.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Deliverance of Evil is the debut novel of Italian writer Roberto Costantini. It opens in 1982, when Italy is celebrating the winning of the World Cup, thus taking little notice of a young woman’s murder on the streets of Rome. Detective Michele Balistreri doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring the crime, but the heavy drinking, chain smoking womanizer is arrogantly certain that he’ll solve this murder. The case goes cold, however, and the next 100 pages of this book are dedicated to demonstrating what a pretentious, hollow lowlife Balistreri is.
Though not exactly on fast-forward, the story eventually takes its readers to 2006, and Italy is again on the verge of another World Cup. Balistreri has finally hit rock bottom, where he lingers until pulled out of his self destructive funk by the death of his mother. When his clears, he remembers his failure to solve the long ago murder, and, feeling a modicum of guilt, sets out to rectify the situation. Don’t look for the emergence of a Columbo, but Belistreri stumbles upon a deadly Eastern European prostitution ring, and, when more murders occur, begins to piece together some links between past and present.
The Deliverance of Evil is full of extraneous detail, sketchily drawn characters, and a wordy rather than action based plot. But buried among the extraneous clutter are some valuable insights in Italy’s social problems, which include widespread political corruption, a flood of immigrants, and constant conflict between church and state. Rather than repeatedly demonstrating Balistreri’s moral ambiguity, some exploration of his own conflicts would add interest (ala Kurt Wallander.) This novel is too long by at least a hundred pages, and tighter editing might shape it into a tauter, more appealing work.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“When I found the body I thought you might be able to read his death like the read picture cards.” So explains Harriet Westerman, mistress of Caveley Park manor, when she makes her first visit to renowned but reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther. And a forensic team, a la 1780, is formed.
Instruments of Darkness is the debut novel of Imogen Robertson, and an auspicious beginning it is. This book has everything an English country house mystery needs in its compelling characters, beautifully described Georgian settings, and rich historical detail. Conversations are proper but anything but dull, and the multi-murder plot plays out in rural Sussex, London during the Gordon Riots, and the American War for Independence. As Harriet and Gabriel piece the deadly puzzle together, light dawns for the reader as well, and by the end, although we know who’s behind all the evil, that simply makes the denouement that much more satisfying. (One of the villains comes to a particularly gratifying finish.)
As of this writing, there are three sequels to Instruments , and it looks like I’ll be reading and enjoying them all.
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