Friday, September 30, 2016

Murder Among the "Elite"

Leslie Nagel
Random House Alibi September 27, 2016

The upscale small town of Oakwood,Ohio has a very low crime rate but more than its share of gossip and infighting. Charley Carpenter's boutique, Old Hat Vintage Fashions, is her baby and she will do whatever is necessary to succeed. Charley is not one of the "elite" but when her friend, Frankie, suggests that she join the Agathas, a mystery book club run by the richest and most prominent women in town, she jumps at the chance. Charley finds more than a few of the women insufferable but with a local charitable costume event coming up she is looking for a bonanza of orders. Then Oakwood is shocked by two murders of women associated with the Agathas. When an Agathas member is also murdered, Charley recognizes that the methods of the killings correspond with those on the book club's reading list. She is able to persuade Detective Marcus Trenault to use her as an inside informant; much to his chagrin and discomfort.

Charley is a fiercely independent and stubborn young woman with a circle of supportive friends and family. She dropped out of college to look after her father after his series of debilitating strokes and has made a success of her business against steep odds. Detective Trenault and she have had a long and largely antagonistic relationship, despite a mutual attraction. It will be interesting to see the relationship develop in future books. I didn't figure out the perpetrator of the murders, much less the motive until the end. There were so many good suspects and that, I think, was a weakness. The Agathas were not as well defined as Charley's support group and I had difficulty keeping them sorted. Otherwise, The Book Club Murders is a very promising debut.

Thanks to Random House Alibi and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review. 

RATING-3.5 Stars

Monday, September 26, 2016

THE SINNER (Graveyard Queen # 5)
Amanda Stevens
September 27, 2016

It has been a year since the events of The Visitor, when cemetery restorer Amelia Grey's lover, John Devlin, told her he was taking a leave from his police job and moving out. Amelia is still nursing her hurt but takes on the job of restoring Seven Gates Cemetery. In the course of the restoration, she is drawn by what seems to be chanting voices to a circle of twelve graves in a secluded clearing, all guarded by mortsafes. Mortsafes are graves covered by a framework of iron and seldom seen out of early 19th century Scotland. They were used to defend against grave robbing to unearth corpses for dissection in the medical schools of the day. There is a pair of hands extending from one of the graves, centered in the circle; fresh hands.

The arrival of the police brings a new and enigmatic character in the Graveyard Queen's life.
The detective in charge of the investigation is Lucius Kendrick, handsome, charismatic, and apparently able to see ghosts, just as Amelia does. But is he trustworthy? The investigation takes them into a shadowy world of a cult of immortality questers, led by an apparently immortal figure, and a group of local citizens determined to stamp out anyone with paranormal abilities. To all appearances, John Devlin is now a member of the latter group. 

I am not a devotee of the horror genre, neither movies or books. I was hooked by the first three books in the Graveyard Queen series because of the original premise and the mystery of Amelia herself. My problem with both The Visitor and The Sinner is that there is frustratingly little overall story progression in either. I hope that the upcoming and final book in the series, The Awakening, will pull together all the disparate elements and provide closure. I got a little annoyed by the continuing angst in Amelia's relationship with Devlin. As far as I am concerned, John Devlin has a whole lot of explaining to do. I agonized somewhat over the rating for this book and finally settled on 3 stars. It was more than just "ok" and there were elements that I liked well enough to up the rating. Amanda Stevens has a masterly touch with suspense and an original take on some familiar genre conventions. I wish I was able to give The Sinner a higher rating.

Thanks to Mira and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3 Stars

Friday, September 23, 2016

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Flavia de Luce # 8
Alan Bradley
Random House, Ballantine, Delacorte Press
September 20, 2016

"Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd. Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined. Harpier cries "Tis time, 'tis time"....MacBeth

After only a few months in Canada at a girl's boarding school, Flavia de Luce is on a ship bound to England, her home, Buckshaw, and the village of Bishop's Lacey. Accompanying her is Mrs. Bannerman, an acquitted murderess, who was also Flavia's Chemistry Mistress. The two have formed a firm friendship. Flavia will need that friendship before the end of the novel. Upon her arrival at Buckshaw Flavia learns that her father is in the hospital, gravely ill with pneumonia. Indeed, he is so ill that neither she nor any of her family is allowed to visit. Therefore Flavia is more than happy to visit an elderly woodcarver, on the request of the Vicar's wife. It being Flavia, however, when she arrives she finds the body of the woodcarver, murdered in a particularly gruesome manner. After forming her own conclusions, Flavia determined to unmask the guilty party.

All of the people we have grown to love (or at least tolerate) are present in the novel, the loyal Dogger, Mrs. Mullet, and Flavia's obnoxious sisters, Daffy and Feely. Added to the mix is her cousin, an exceedingly odd little girl. The household is so distraught by her father's illness that Flavia is able to fly around the countryside on her beloved bike, "Gladys", with no one paying any attention. Flavia has always been somewhat neglected by the family, but not even Dogger is paying her much mind this time. She can at least call on Mrs. Bannerman's help in her investigation and it is gladly given. 

I only discovered the Flavia De Luce novels this year and read them in rapid succession. Flavia is a unique voice in fiction, truly one of a kind. She is intelligent, enterprising, strong-minded and, now that she is growing up, developing an adult empathy that makes her even more attractive. However, I was shocked somewhat and saddened by the book's ending. After reading the seven previous books the wait for the next seems very long. Thanks to Delacorte Press and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review. I highly recommend Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, with a further recommendation to start the series at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sisterhood Forged by Shared Secrets

Lindsay Jayne Ashford
Lake Union Publishing
September 20, 2016

Three women come into close association onboard The Orient Express bound for Baghdad in 1928. One woman is the legendary writer of crime fiction, Agatha Christie. Still reeling from her husband's infidelity and their subsequent divorce, as well as her much heralded 10-day disappearance, Agatha doesn't feel she can be in England when her ex-husband marries his mistress. The divorce process in England was torturous at the time and Agatha is exhausted. The press has not been kind to her and she is travelling under her maiden name, Miller. Her cabin mate is Katherine Keeley, travelling to Baghdad to marry Leonard Wooley, the renowned archaeologist. Her secret concerns the tragic death by suicide of her first husband just six months into their marriage. The third woman is Nancy Nelson, on the run from her abusive, titled husband. Nancy is carrying another man's child and is terrified. In the course of the journey the women grow close, but it is in Bagdad that all secrets are revealed. The descriptions of the journey and Middle Eastern locales are breathtaking. One can almost smell the air and hear the sounds of Istanbul, Damascus and Baghdad in the late 1920's.

The three women band together to protect each other, especially the vulnerable Nancy. In the beginning, Katherine appears to be an unsympathetic character, both controlling and manipulative of everyone around, especially the men. Those men include Agatha's future husband, Max Mallowan. Much has been written about Agatha Christie and her disappearance. There is nothing new here on the disappearance but as Christie never addressed it in later life, not even in her autobiography, I don't think we will ever know the why or how. Katherine Keeley Woolley, who became an experienced excavator in her own right, has been overshadowed by her famous husband and persistent rumours about her sexuality. Those rumours and the possible truth behind them are very sensitively handled in The Woman on the Orient Express. 

It seems to me that the historical fiction can be measured by the interest it sparks in real historical events and people. I have read everything I can find on Katharine Keeley Woolley (admittedly not much) and am fascinated by her. She deserves a book all her own. Of course, Agatha Christie's books are a large part of my life-long love of reading. I thoroughly enjoyed The Woman on the Orient Express. Thanks to Lake Union and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING-4 Stars

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Food, Love and Murder on The South African Veld

Sally Andrew
Canongate Books (Kindle Edition)
July 7, 2016

Last year's Recipes for Love and Murder from South African author Sally Andrew set a very high standard, introducing a culture that was entirely foreign to me. South Africa mixes so many cultures, Dutch, German, British, Greek and of course the myriad of native African languages and cultures. Tannie Maria is an Afrikaner woman of a "certain age", widowed, who writes a combination advice and recipe column for her local newspaper. It was disclosed in the first book that Tannie Maria suffered years of violent abuse at the hands of her late husband, Fanie. 

The Satanic Mechanic begins with the court victory of the area Bushmen tribe over two large corporations, one agribusiness, and one diamond mining. The Bushmen have regained control over their ancestral lands which the corporations have controlled and exploited for decades. The leader of the Bushmen, Slimkat Kabbo, had received death threats prior to the case but everyone hopes that they were just that, threats that will disappear with the end of the case. Slimkat is not afraid and attends a food festival where he is poisoned and dies, despite police protection. Tannie Maria is on the spot, along with her new boyfriend, Detective Lieutenant Henk Kannemeyer. Henk is involved as he is one of the policemen detailed to protect Slimkat.

A secondary plot concerns Tannie Maria's grappling with her inability to take her relationship with Henk to a more physical level. It's clear that her years with Fanie have left her with PTSD and there may be more to his death than meets the eye. After consultations with two "experts", one who prescribes diet pills and the other, anti-depressants, Tannie Maria also hears about an informal therapy group dealing with PTSD, led by the "Satanic Mechanic". He was a Satanist at one point in his life but has renounced those beliefs and is trying to do good instead. He is also an excellent mechanic. The group is a diverse one with a mixture of people and economic statuses. The Satanic Mechanic is helping Tannie but she is still having flashbacks and hallucinations.She also has a very big secret. When another murder occurs, the murder of one of the group members, it is clear that one member has a secret worth killing for.

On its face, The Satanic Mechanic might be a very dark and depressing story. Instead, Sally Andrew has filled it with good humor, quirky characters and above all, mouth-watering descriptions of the food that Tannie Maria makes. Food is something that Tannie Maria loves and excels at. Thankfully, Andrew provides recipes at the end of the book. Under the category of quirky, I have to mention that a Police Detective with a pet lamb is OK with me! I could wish that she had included a glossary as she did at the end of Recipes for Love and Murder. Perhaps there will be a glossary included with the print version, available in the US early in 2017. The book itself is very topical, looking at the dark history of racial tensions in South Africa and the reverberations of violence even years after the events. It ends, however, on a very hopeful note.

I highly recommend The Satanic Mechanic and its predecessor, Recipes for Love and Murder. 

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Monday, September 12, 2016

Under the Glittering Towers

Ed James
Thomas & Mercer
September 1, 2016

A young woman not more than eighteen is found brutally murdered in a derelict building in East London. It appears that she may have been a prostitute but that doesn't matter to DI Simon Fenchurch. She appears to be about the age that his daughter Chloe would be. Chloe disappeared 10 years earlier without a trace and Fenchurch is understandably obsessed. He checks the cold case file every day and his obsession destroyed his marriage. The squad is on the hunt for the man they think murdered the girl when another young, dead female body is found. The case becomes even murkier when they can't identify either girl and their suspect is also murdered.

Fenchurch knows that something bigger is going on. What follows is a high octane thriller involving sex trafficking, police corruption and the worst kind of human depravity imaginable. The Hope That Kills is intricately plotted with well-defined characters, snappy dialogue and a breakneck pace. DI Fenchurch is a complex protagonist, one about two steps away from complete implosion. His obsession with Chloe's disappearance has nearly destroyed him but he is unable to let it go and move on. To lose a child in such a way is almost unimaginable, but to be a policeman in that situation adds another layer to the suffering.

I highly recommend The Hope That Kills and will be on the lookout for the next DI Fenchurch thriller. Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4 Stars

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Velvet Hours

Alyson Richman
Berkley Books
September 6, 2016

In 2010 an apartment in Paris was opened, untouched, after 70 years. Inside was a treasure trove of furnishings and art ranging from the 1880's to pre-World War II. The apartment was owned by Marthe de Florian, a little-known courtesan, and inherited by her granddaughter, Solange Beaugiron. Among the treasures inside was a portrait of Marthe by Giovanni Boldini, a famous portrait painter of the era. In The Velvet Hours, Alyson Richman has fashioned an extraordinarily beautiful and moving imagining of the story behind the apartment. 

The facts known about Marthe de Florian and her granddaughter, Solange, are sparse and sometimes contradictory. Born Mathilde Beaugiron, in Richman's telling she came from an impoverished background and worked as a seamstress until she gave birth out of wedlock to a son, Henri. She knew that she was not able to support the child and gave him to a co-worker who was married and was unable to conceive. She moved on to become a chorus dancer and attracted the interest of a nobleman, Charles. Their arrangement was more than financial but was a true love affair lasting ten years. During this period she developed her natural taste and love for beauty. Charles not only encouraged her but in the end provided her with the means to survive and sustain herself. There were men after Charles, but none who truly captured her heart. Even the painter, Boldini was more of a friend and mentor than a lover. She reconnected with Henri when he was eighteen but the two remained estranged. She did not even meet her granddaughter until Solange was nineteen. It is the telling of her life story to Solange that forms the bulk of The Velvet Hours.

I read a lot of books but it is rare that I find one as memorable as The Velvet Hours. The language is sensual and the descriptions of the glittering life of the Belle Ã‰poque are captivating. Marthe is a wonderful character, resilient, pragmatic and never less than graceful. Solange herself grows to love her grandmother and as the Nazis move into France, Marthe is able to give her a gift that changes Solange's life forever. The book ends in a mixture of joy and sorrow that I am not ashamed to say brought me to tears. I won't forget The Velvet Hours and will be recommending it to everyone I know.

Thanks to Berkley and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 5 Stars