Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A Promising Debut set in 1919 Alaska

Charlotte Brody Mystery #1
Cathy Pegau
Kensington Books
November 24, 2015

I know you shouldn't judge a book by its' cover, but the cover of Murder on the Last Frontier really sold me. I could tell that it was set in a favorite time period, just after WWI, and the Alaska setting was something new for me. Charlotte Brody has traveled from her Yonkers, NY home to the small Alaska town of Cordova to visit her brother, one of the town's doctors. She is a journalist and her plan is to send a serial to her publisher about the women of Alaska. She is also hoping to get a new start. Charlotte has had to make difficult decisions and deal with heartbreak in the past year and hopes to turn things around in Alaska. As a committed suffragette and an outspoken opponent of the Volstead Act (Prohibition), she is bound to make waves.Charlotte finds a town that is striving to become more "civilized" but has a dark underside. She has also found a much-loved brother who appears to be greatly changed; a brother with as many secrets as she. When a local "working girl" is brutally murdered, Charlotte puts herself in the center of the investigation, despite warnings from the investigating deputy, James Eddington, and her brother, Michael. The murderer, too, takes an interest in her activities; an interest that might be fatal to Charlotte and those around her. 

Murder on the Last Frontier is a promising debut for a new series and I look forward to the next installment, due in July 2016. As much as I liked Charlotte, I also found her alarmingly naive about the danger to not only herself but others. The writing and pacing are very good, as well as the setting in frontier Alaska. Thanks to NetGalley and Kensington for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review. 

RATING- 3 Stars

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Winemaker Detective visits Beaujolais

The Winemaker Detective # 9
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Le French Book
November 19, 2015

Guillaume Périthiard has spent thirty years building a business empire and after selling it, is still young enough to enjoy his billions. But retirement is not in the cards for him; his new dream is to buy a vineyard and begin producing a premier Beaujolais Nouveau. The fact that his wife has no desire to leave their home in Versailles and move to the provinces has no bearing on his decision-making. So who would he call to advise him on the purchase of a defunct vineyard other than the premier winemaker and critic, Benjamin Cooker. Mr. Cooker is more than happy to help (for a very large fee) but refuses to be bulldozed by the hard-driving businessman. Guillaume manages to offend quite a few people in the region. He hires away two employees of the powerful wine merchant family of Dujaray; one a Dujaray family member. He gets involved with a local real estate agent, hires a cousin with a long-standing grudge against him, and let's not forget his unhappy wife. What follows is vandalism escalating to murder and can only be solved by Benjamin Cooker and his assistant, Virgile.

Backstabbing in Beaujolais is aptly titled as well as being a very entertaining read. As usual with this series, one learns about a new region of France, and much about wine and wonderful food. I really enjoy this series, perfect for an evening read and I look forward to the next visit with Benjamin, Virgile and the other characters in the Winemaker Detective series. Thanks to NetGalley and Le French Book for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 3 Stars

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Home by Nightfall

Charles Finch
Minotaur Books
November 10, 2015

It is 1876 and Charles Lenox has left Parliament and founded his own detective agency. The agency is prospering despite the efforts of a powerful peer to scuttle it. London is abuzz with rumors of the disappearance of a famed German pianist. The Yard is getting nowhere, but Charles has not been called in. His associates are eager for involvement, but Charles' mind is elsewhere; his elder brother, Edmund, has recently lost his much-loved wife. Edmund is still deep in grief and Charles is concerned. He decides to visit his brother in their childhood home in Sussex in an effort to help where he can. He is expecting a quiet time, but strange events are happening in the village; thefts, a missing dog, and most seriously, a break-in at the home of an insurance agent.  As time goes on, it becomes clear that something very serious is happening in the village. Meanwhile, the search for the missing pianist is heating up, especially after the Yard calls in a rival detective agency and Charles' associates feel that they must investigate, with or without Yard approval.

The Charles Lenox series has always been a pleasure to read, but a bit uneven at times. I found the books covering his Parliamentary years less involving, so I am very happy to see Charles back to full-time detection. The village investigation was of greater interest to me, but Charles' efforts to supervise the London inquiry from a distance were very well handled. The village mystery was almost Sherlockian; lots of odd, seemingly unrelated events adding up to a sinister whole. It was great fun, as a reader, to try to put the puzzle pieces together. The depiction of  the symbiotic relationship between village and "great house" shows the depth of knowledge that Charles Finch has of Victorian life in England.  All in all, Home by Nightfall is one of the best books so far in the series. I look forward to many more! 

RATING-4.5 Stars

Monday, November 9, 2015

Susanna Kearsley
October 6, 2014

Susanna Kearsley has been one of my favorite authors since The Winter Sea. I had long wanted to read Named of the Dragon but was unable to get my hands on a copy. It has been out of print for quite awhile. So when Sourcebooks offered me the opportunity to read and review a digital copy I was delighted.

London-based literary agent Lyn Ravenshaw allows herself to be persuaded to spend Christmas in Wales with her flighty and flamboyant client, Bridget Cooper. Little did she know that she would be stepping into a world in which Arthurian legend is still very much alive. Lyn is a young widow who has suffered another devastating loss; a still-born child. Her grief is always with her along with dreams of her child. In Wales, the dreams increase in intensity; meeting another young widow whose child seems to be in some sort of jeopardy does not help. Lyn's conflicted feelings for an irascible playwright who lives near the farm she is visiting add to her turmoil.

The excellent world-building and lyrical descriptive language I have come to expect from Susanna Kearsley is very much present in Named of the Dragon. I have never visited Wales, but I have some clear pictures in my head now. I enjoyed the book but thought the characterization was a little weak and the ending rushed. Perhaps if I had a better understanding of Arthurian legend I might have enjoyed it more.The romance element didn't work nearly as well as in her later work. Susanna Kearsley has grown tremendously as a writer over the years. Overall, Named of the Dragon is a good read, but not a great one.

Thanks to NetGalley and Sourcebooks for a digital copy of Named of the Dragon in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3 Stars

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Very American Historical True Horror Tale

THE WITCHES: Salem 1692
Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Audio
October 27, 2015

In the summer of 1692, after a long and bitter winter in Salem Village, Massachusetts, the forces of superstition, religious fervor, and paranoia erupted into the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Before the madness subsided, twenty men and women were executed for practicing witchcraft; one by "pressing". The hangings were gruesome enough, but the death of Giles Corey is in a league by itself. His body was crushed over the course of several days by rocks. All the hysteria was begun by the accusations of adolescent girls, whose numbers grew and accounts became increasingly ridiculous as time went on. The girls threw fits, talked about specters in the courtroom and gave absurd accounts of black masses and flying on "poles". The fact that spectators in the court could not see the ghosts seemed to bother no one.

The Puritans of Salem did have some reason for their paranoia. Raids by the natives were commonplace, with French collusion. The colonial government was inept insofar as it even existed.The Puritans of Salem were also known far and wide for their litigious and argumentative ways. A strong component of the Puritan belief system dictated that if things were going badly, someone must be to blame. Perhaps it was the sufferer's fault; he or she must have offended God if the crops failed or a pig died. Or it might be the doing of one's neighbor. Another feature of Puritan doctrine required watching and if need be, denouncing another's faults. The addition of the usual misogyny made the whole spectacle irresistible to the 17th-century mind. Indeed, there were men accused and executed, but those could be traced back to such things as land disputes and old grudges. Even a former preacher in Salem fell victim to the hysteria. Anything resembling proper judicial procedure flew out the window aided by what can only be described as "hanging judges". Mothers denounced daughters and sons, husbands denounced wives, ad infinitum. The act of refusing to confess and to name names was a near guarantee of a guilty verdict. By the time the madness passed, the Salem community was in ruins. Then the cover-ups began. The New Englanders were inveterate record keepers, but the records of the summer of 1692 are suspiciously scarce.

Stacy Schiff has given us an exhaustive- and I do mean exhaustive- account of the mindset of the times and the individual cases. I can't fault her on that, but I did find it rambling and confusing. There were so many characters involved that I was sometimes at sea. Her style is one that I can only describe as "chatty" for lack of a better word. It may be that is the fault of the narrator but I found her style inappropriate at times. She does convey the full horror of and injustice to the victims, caught in an inescapable trap. The description of the 72-year-old  Rebecca Nurse, dragged from her cell and excommunicated by her community is simply heartbreaking. To Rebecca, a devout and harmless woman, it must have been a punishment far worse than the hanging awaiting her.There is no real explanation for the actions of the girls or the credulousness of the populace. We have seen this happen many times in America, whenever we feel threatened. The internment of Japanese citizens in WWII, the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, and our present Islamaphobia are just a few examples. Rating The Witches is somewhat difficult for me. The material is well worth study, but I found the delivery somewhat lacking.

RATING- 3 Stars

Sunday, November 1, 2015

An Intrepid Heroine in a Glittering Era

Ashley Weaver 
Minotaur Books
October 13, 2015

Death Wears a Mask begins about two months after the events of Murder at the Brightwell. Milo and Amory Ames have retired to their country estate, mostly to avoid the press, but also to try to repair their faltering marriage. Things on the relationship front seem to be proceeding well and they hope the tabloid furor has died down. However, when you are young, rich and beautiful in 1930s London, the press is always on hounding you. Milo's well-deserved reputation as a playboy doesn't help.

Upon their return to London, one of the first invitations they receive is from Lady Serena Barrington, an old friend of Amory's mother. Their presence is requested at a dinner party. When they arrive, they encounter a group that is only somewhat familiar. The group includes a woman of mystery, a voluble nephew of the Barrington's, two sisters, a tennis star, a highly placed foreign office official and his American wife, and the very dodgy Lord Dunmore. Lord Dunmore delights in scandalizing Society at every opportunity. Serena Barrington has a personal agenda, however; there have been a series of jewel thefts occurring at her dinner parties. All the guests at the dinner party were also guests at the parties in question. She asks Amory to investigate the thefts, based upon her success at the Brightwell Hotel. When her old acquaintance, Inspector Jones, now of Scotland Yard, also asks for her help she accedes. After all, Amory can go places in Society where Inspector Jones cannot. When a murder occurs at a masquerade ball hosted by the dodgy Lord Dunmore, Amory is committed to the investigation fully. Everyone at this particular ball seems to be wearing a mask, both literally and figuratively. Things are not good on the homefront, though; Milo appears to be embroiled in more playboy behavior with a French actress.

The fact that I enjoy this series so much is quite a tribute to Ashley Weaver's writing chops. Everyone in Amory's world seems to be living useless lives of shopping, lunching and partying. No one even seems to be aware that there is a world depression, not to mention events in the rest of Europe at the time. In spite of that, I like Amory quite a lot. She is reckless at times but dogged in her search for answers. I can't find the same liking for Milo who seems to be determined to hurt Amory with his seeming philandering and poor excuses. I have my pet theories about Milo and while he redeems himself somewhat at the end of Death Wears a Mask, I am not convinced! The relationship tension is a plus, though; will she kick him to the curb or will he come clean at last?

Death Wears a Mask is a very enjoyable look at an era long gone; one in which there were idle aristocrats who lived lives of complete leisure. No wonder they got up to so much hanky-panky! I also have to give Minotaur kudos for the beautiful, evocative covers on both books in the series.

RATING-4 Stars