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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Historical Fiction Review – The Winter Sea

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

When thinking about this review I had a difficult time deciding what category to put it in…The Winter Sea is historical fiction, with the feel of chick lit and modern day fiction and a little fantasy thrown in for good measure.  I decided to go with historical fiction due to the presence of actual historical figures and events that were integral to the success of the novel.  But with all of that said, I hope the readers who claim not to be fans of historical fiction will still give it a chance.

Carrie McClelland is an author conducting research regarding the efforts to restore James Stewart (the young King James) to his throne in Scotland.  Beginning her research in France, where James was living in exile, she soon realizes she actually needs to be in Scotland and changes the perspective of her story.  Through historical research and family connection, Carrie creates the story of Sophia and her place at Slains Castle, her relationships with various supporters of King James, and her love story that transcends war and exile. The depth of Carrie’s connection to the story, and the way in which the truth is revealed to her, leaves her questioning what she has long believed of her family history.

I think Kearsley has a winner with this novel.  She used an interesting format (chapters set in the present day and chapters that were from Carrie’s historical novel that she is writing) and I liked the mirroring of the past in the present. Kearsley carefully weaves together the past and present and makes sure all of the details connect between the past and present. Kearsley created an ethereal love story that left me feeling hopeful and fulfilled with both stories being told.  For creating fantastic characters and leaving me satisfied with the story but still wanting more, I give this novel 5 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – The Track of Sand

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

The Track of Sand by Andrea Camilleri

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

I hesitated to read The Track of Sand, a 2008 mystery that is the twelfth in the series of mysteries starring a Sicilian police inspector. The reason is that the one previous, The Wings of the Sphinx, was so weak. The recurring themes – Salvo’s rocky romance with Livia, globalization as criminal enterprise – felt stale, so I wondered if the series, like The Big Bang Theory, was just going through the motions.

I was pleasantly surprised that international crooks play no part in The Track of Sand. The series hero Salvo Montalbano wakes up one morning to find in his yard the battered carcass of a horse that was beaten to death. Salvo feels admirable grief for the horse and rage at the evil-doing perps. His half-official investigation delves in Mafia schemes and the lifestyles of the filthy rich. A new character, the lovely Rachele Esterman, adds to Salvo’s diversions.

The sense of place still feels authentic and familiar, with Salvo walking on his jetty and sitting on his rock. He still eats local cuisine at Enzo’s trattoria. The translation is extremely smooth and readable, with helpful cultural notes at the end. Camilleri handles skillfully the spectrum of life, from the funny to the horrible, often following each other only in minutes.

The plot, however, is thin and the reveal has a tacked-on feeling. There’s no harm reading this one if human interest and like of characters outplay plot and detecting, but I advise readers new to Camillieri to read – in order, please – The Shape of Water, The Terracotta Dog, The Snack Thief, The Voice of the Violin and Excursion to Tindari.

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Biography Review – Petty

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I have been a huge fan of Tom Petty for years.  My earliest recollection is finding my sister’s copy of the Full Moon Fever album but my love for Tom Petty really began in 1993 in Miami and Brazil with the Greatest Hits album; it became the music of my summer.  Any time I hear songs from that album I feel compelled to sing along and I am taken back in time. While I’ve attended Tom Petty concerts and listened to his music for years, I really didn’t know much about the man himself.  In comes Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes.

Zanes chronicles Petty’s life from his childhood in Gainesville, Florida to his meteoric rise in the music industry to his position now as rock royalty.  Petty: The Biography was rated as #4 in Rolling Stone’s top 10 music books of 2015.   Beginning with Tom’s troubled childhood with an abusive father and a mother who tried her best, Tom was determined to get something more from his life that was expected.  It was heartbreaking reading of his accounts of living with his father and the lengths his father’s family went to in an effort to exploit his fame. What sticks with me the most was Tom’s admission that having his brother acknowledge and validate Tom’s abuse at the hands of his father proved that he was not alone or making it worse in his mind than it actually was.  I found that to be truly heart wrenching to read.

Tom’s honesty with Zanes about his struggle through the dark times in his life and the roles of his friends, family, and bandmates was illuminating. I felt in the beginning Zanes spent too much time identifying the myriad of former bandmates of Tom’s and it got very overwhelming. I couldn’t keep a lot of the names straight and it was a lot of ‘he was in the band, he was out of the band’.  I think that could have been streamlined quite a bit.  But whether with The Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, or Mudcrutch, Tom has created unique sounds that fit each band and over the years he has worked at his bands like a business, which I think is what accounted for much of his success.

I admit I was apprehensive about reading this book because I was afraid something would be divulged that would change how I felt about Tom Petty.  Thankfully that did not happen and I got a deepened respect for the man who overcame personal demons and challenges to being a rock and roll legend. I can’t recommend this book enough to other Tom Petty fans.

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Epitaph for a Lobbyist

Monday, May 8th, 2017

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Epitaph for a Lobbyist by R. B. Dominic

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

An indiscreet memo leaked to the papers by her own daughter implicates Shirley Knapp, lobbyist for energy and oil companies, in a possible case of bribery. The vote to kill a pollution control provision in a new law cost $50,000 in 1974, which would be about $235,000 in today’s purchasing power. Series hero Congressman Ben Safford (D, OH) is named chair of the committee to investigate the charge of bribery.

When Shirley Knapp is found shot to death in her car, Ben leads his committee members as they formally and informally investigate the bribery, which they assume is linked to Knapp’s murder. House members Val Oakes and Lou Flecker are veterans of politics, both conservative, though in different parties. Elsie Hollenbach is a California liberal, moralistic but politically canny. Tony Martinelli is machine Democrat from RI, practical and realistic. Their conversations are intelligent and plausible.

Suspicion falls on the three congressmen that voted to kill the proviso. Although this really limits the number of suspects, I didn’t see whodunit until the reveal. The fair play really is amazing. We are indeed given all we need to know. The reveal proves that we missed the obvious as do our hero congress members. It is often the case that the really sophisticated can be in the end very simple.

The authors of this book were Mary Jane Latsis, an economist, and Martha Henissart, an economic analyst. Both knew from their professional experience that astute people will in fact get distracted and miss what is staring them in the face. They know how people at all levels think and act in business and government. Obviously specific conditions are dated (e.g., the non-partisan respect the politicians have for each other), but classic are the treatments of how people with agile minds and deep experience deal with novel situations. That timelessness is what makes these R.B. Dominic novels – there are seven –worth reading still.

These authors also wrote a couple dozen business mysteries under the pen name of Emma Lathen. Perhaps to distinguish the style of R. B. Dominic, they have the mildly annoying wont of always modifying a verb meaning “say” with an adverb or adverbial phrase: “said reminiscently” or “roared in anger.” Also, people don’t just say things they “mutter,” “interject,” “murmur,” “bleat” and so on. It’s a defect we expect from a whodunnit writer of the 1920s.

 

 

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Mystery Monday – Death before Bedtime

Monday, April 24th, 2017

Death before Bedtime by Gore Vidal writing as Edgar Box

Gore Vidal wrote three mysteries as Edgar Box in the early 1950s. In this, the second novel, series hero Peter Sargent, ex-reporter and PR man, lands a contract with a Senator whose eye is on the Oval Office. On the day prior to his tossing his hat in the ring, he’s blown up in the study of his DC house. In a highly unlikely move, the cops keep all the suspects in the house while they try to identify the culprit.

Helping the cops as he writes sensational articles for a newspaper, Sargent interacts with a weird group of people. The wanton daughter. The too loyal aide. The distant widow. The smooth munitions manufacturer. The lefty journalist.The unctuous governor who appoints himself to fill the murdered Senator’s spot.

Vidal wrote as Edgar Box when publishers thought he was radioactive because of the fallout over his novel about gay men, The City and the Pillar. When his publisher suggested he write mysteries under a pen name, Vidal claims he said “I don’t think I’m sufficiently stupid to be a popular author.”

A man’s got to eat, though.  Vidal was not a mystery writer so the mystery side of this novel is weak though the tone is confident, ironic and suave. It’s worth reading if one is into thrusts and jibes and swipes against the American ruling class in cahoots with conceited politicians. If a reader likes the blunt satire in Burr, 1876, and Hollywood, she will be entertained by this artifact of the Eisenhower era.

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Mystery Monday – Up for Grabs

Monday, April 17th, 2017

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Up for Grabs by A. A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner)

The PI team of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam resemble the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. Bertha Cool, like Hardy, is irascible, easily driven to distraction by her partner’s antics.

There’s an important difference, however, between Bertha and Babe. Oliver Hardy sagely observed of his character, “He’s the worst kind of dumb guy. He’s the dumb guy that thinks he’s smart.” Bertha may be a lot of things – ham-handed, hard-charging, overly fond of barnyard epithets and old-fashioned (even for 1964) expressions like “Pickle me for a beet.” But one thing she is not, is dumb. Her canny observations cut to the pith of the investigation.

On the surface, Donald Lam resembles Stan Laurel.  Both are short and slight. But bright Donald stands in contrast to dim-bulb Stanley. Bertha praises Donald with, “He’s a little runt, but he’s brainy.” As a disbarred lawyer, Donald knows the law well enough to bend it, and the cops enough to send them into conniptions by making evidence twist like a tornado.

Erle Stanley Gardner goes against stereotype by making Bertha the shrewd one and Donald the intuitive one. Materialist Bertha is always distracted by the prospect of big client fees while subtle Donald inevitably senses that the client is not on the up and up, or that something is screwy about a situation. The game afoot is usually a scheme in the grey area between the unethical and the illegal.

Describing the involved plot in this review will dilute the pleasure of surprise for the reader, so I won’t go there. Suffice to say, an insurance executive hires Lam and Cool to catch out malingers who file false claims of injury and disability. Lam flies to Tucson and Dallas to solve the case. He also spends time at a guest ranch in Arizona, in which the desert makes Gardner’s mundane writing as pretty as it ever gets (see also the descriptions of Nevada landscape in Spill the Jackpot!). The exec’s elaborate plan goes by the board, when murder enters the picture.

The mystery plot is not the main attraction. The enjoyment is in watching Donald get in and out trouble with the crooks, the clients, the cops, and crabby Bertha. The complexity of the plots showcases how ingeniously con artists cook up scams and how adroitly Donald can think on his feet and talk his way out of jams. True, Donald Lam, unlike PI Lew Archer or Archie in Nero Wolfe stories, never tells us readers what he is thinking so we have to take his leaps of logic and stunning insight on faith.

Getting to the resolution adds to the fun, even as we shake our heads in bewilderment at Gardner’s endless inventiveness in devising swindles and twisting plots. Gardner’s prose is necessarily concise and plain so the convolutions of the plot won’t confound us alert readers to the point of exasperation.  But who needs puzzles or amazing reveals when the characters are so much fun to hang out with?

 

 

 

 

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Mystery Monday – The Hand in the Glove

Monday, March 13th, 2017

The Hand in the Glove aka Crime on Her Hands by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

In the late Thirties, Stout’s publishers were worried that his prolific output featuring his PI hero Nero Wolfe would overexpose the rotund detective. They urged him to try another project so as not to inundate the market for Wolfe tales.

So, with a female readership in mind, he created Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner. She was all ready to live the life of the carefree socialite when the Depression wiped out her father and drove him to suicide. Her cad of a fiancé, seeing that she had no great expectations after all, dumped her. Like Anthony Trollope‘s jilted heroine Lily Dale, Dol swore never to love another and started a detective business with her friend, the heiress Sylvia Raffray.

Basically, this has the elements of a cozy mystery from the classic era of whodunnits between the wars. The characters are affluent, cultured, charming. The setting is a house in the New England country. There is a fistful of suspects. Aside from the female PI, what makes this mystery something different is the totally believable character of George Leo Ranth. He is a guru of a belief system that seeks to separate society matrons from their money and chattels. Stout gives him a line of mystical patter about Ranth’s “League of the Occidental Sakti,” patter than is simultaneously familiar, demented, and laughable. Stout had a sharp sense of language and its various styles to balance his over-fondness for and frequent use of unusual words such as “quidnunc.”

Anyway, hardcore Stout fans may want to check this out if it comes their way. Stout never returned to starring Dol in another novel, but she does show up with other Wolfe helpers like Saul and Orrie If Death Ever Slept and Plot It Yourself and a novella, Too Many Detectives, which is one of 3 stories in Three for the Chair.

 

 

 

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