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Posts Tagged ‘Book Recommendations’

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Demure Defendant

Monday, November 5th, 2018

The Case of the Demure Defendant by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Nadine Farr’s head-turning beauty is no help in dealing with her anxiety symptoms. Bad dreams. Jumpy. Feeling guilty. She has turned to the retro-named Dr. Logbert Denair, a psychiatrist who has her do a talk session under the influence of truth serum. Under sodium pentothol, she confesses to poisoning her uncle and then throwing the bottle with the cyanide pills into a small lake. Dr. Denair recorded the confession on reel to reel tape. Fearing the legal consequences but not wanting to hand the tape to the police, the good doc consults attorney Perry Mason concerning how to proceed.

Mason tells the shrink that the statements of a patient are confidential and protected by professional privilege, but evidence a crime has been committed must be reported to the police. Mason, also reluctant to run to the police (which may lead to a defamation charge), points out that since the confession could be a delusion caused by drugs and thus not legally effective, the doctor had better make further inquiries. Denair hires Perry to take the lead since and who would know better that the illustrious legal expert?

This 1956 mystery has a lot of surprises. As for Mason, he is accused by Hamilton Burger, with frank and inhuman glee, of fabricating evidence. Things look pretty dicey for our hero until the last few pages. I would highly recommend this as better than average to readers who know they are fans of Perry, Della, and Paul but readers not used to Gardner’s shenanigans with evidence may be put off by the convoluted plot.

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – The Tsarina’s Daughter

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

The Tsarina’s Daughter by Carolly Erickson

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

There is something about the Romanovs, something that has made many people question what really happened to the family. Were they all executed? Could some members of the family and household have escaped the tragic end? Historical accounts tell us the Romanov family died 1918, executed by the Bolsheviks to keep the Russian people not loyal to Lenin from uniting under Tsar Nicholas, who abdicated the throne in 1917. But there are questions that surround the events of the execution and where there are questions, there will (inevitably) be doubts.  These questions and doubts have led to numerous books and movies about the possibility that not all of the Romanovs died that fateful night in 1918.

I was first drawn to Carolly Erickson when I read her novel The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette many years ago. That novel was based on the ‘what if’ scenario of Marie Antoinette leaving a hidden diary behind to be found after her execution by guillotine. I found it to be a real page turner. Erickson’s The Tsarina’s Daughter is written from the same ‘what if’ perspective. What if one of the Romanov daughters managed to escape? What if she was able to immigrate to the United States under a new name and live a full and meaningful life?

Erickson weaves a love story for Tatiana, daughter of the Tsar. Accustomed to a life of luxury, Tatiana is unexpectedly exposed to the dark reality of life in Russia after World War 1 and the start of the Russian Revolution.  Tatiana begins to go out in disguise and works to help the poor and sick. Tatiana meets people who are strong but struggling with the hardships of Russian life. While she is out from the confines of the walls of the palace, she falls in love with a young doctor. Tatiana also begins to see her father in a different light. He is not the strong leader she thought he was; his choice to turn a blind eye to what is really happening in Russia is doing real damage to the country. Upon his abdication, the family is imprisoned, and their lives quickly degenerate from the life of abundance they have always known.

This is not an accurate historical account of events, but it’s not supposed to be. Erickson clearly states this in her ‘note to the reader’ at the end of the book. She writes, ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter is an imaginative retelling of Tatiana’s story, with many invented characters and events added to the historical background’. Some of the more negative reviews I have read were accusations of the author’s lack of research and that things weren’t based on fact.  I think this is an unfair reason to not offer a positive review. Erikson has written her share of nonfiction works and knows how to do research but The Tsarina’s Daughter wasn’t meant to be an addition to the historical record, it was created to be a fictional, ‘what if’ tale.

This ‘imaginative retelling’, as Erickson calls it, allows the reader to daydream of a situation where an innocent girl finds love, escapes a terrible fate, and goes on to live a full and complete life….and I’m ok with that.  I read the book in two days, so it was another Erickson page turner for me.  I think if you can accept that it’s meant to be a ‘what if’ scenario and not a retelling of fact, you will enjoy this novel by Erickson as much as I did. After all, The Tsarina’s Daughter won the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction so I can’t be the only one who thinks it is a great read!

 

 

 

 

Literature and Fiction Review – The Third Angel

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

There are many different types of love in the world. There is romantic love, familial love, platonic love…but sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to love yourself. Alice Hoffman explores all facets of love in her beautiful novel “The Third Angel.” She tells the story of three women, who have encounters with love that will forever change their lives.

We start in 1999. High powered attorney Maddy Heller has come to London to act as a bridesmaid in her sister Allie’s wedding. Allie, a famous children’s author, is having second thoughts about this marriage. What she doesn’t know is that Maddy has had an affair with Allie’s fiancé, Paul. This tangled triangle becomes further complicated when Paul is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The book skips back in time to 1966. London is alive and swinging, and Frieda Lewis has left the country life to come to the city and be in the middle of the energy and excitement. She works in a hotel called Lion’s Park, where rock musicians occasionally stay. She meets an up and coming singer/songwriter, and falls deeply in love, knowing that his addiction to drugs, and his girlfriend, could ruin what might be a beautiful relationship.

The last third of the book takes place in 1952. Twelve-year-old Lucy Green is traveling by ship to London with her father and stepmother to attend her stepmother’s younger sister’s wedding. They stay in the lovely hotel Lion Park, where Lucy, who is currently obsessed with Anne Frank, meets a handsome stranger who befriends the lonely girl, and asks a great favor of her. By getting involved in a love triangle between three adults, Lucy’s life will be forever altered.

Hoffman weaves these three stories together on numerous levels; Lucy Green will grow up to be the mother of Maddy and Allie Heller, while Frieda will become Paul’s mother, Allie’s fiancé. The stories take place in the same hotel, Lion’s Park. And the women in these tales are all experiencing love, in all its incarnations. Hoffman shows us how love can be beautiful, bittersweet, and sharp enough to wound the heart. It can strike one suddenly, with no rhyme or reason. It can enrich one person’s life while at the same time destroying someone else’s.

This is one of those rare books that I wanted to read again the minute I finished it. I had an urge to read it back to front, and I may just do that. Hoffman is another one of those writers that uses language to effortlessly create moods and emotions in her readers. Her sentences are made to be savored, and I am in awe of her writing talents. She makes it look so easy.

The title comes from Frieda’s father, an old country doctor who always told her that there was the Angel of Life, the Angel of Death, and the Third Angel. When he went on his rounds, or was called out late at night, it was either the Angel of Life or the Angel of Death that rode in his car with him. But it’s the Third Angel that is the most curious. “You can’t even tell if he’s an angel or not. You think you ‘re doing him a kindness, you think you’re the one taking care of him, while all the while, he’s the one saving your life.”

This beautiful novel is a story of love, of forgiveness, of deep sorrow, and incredible joy, and enduring regrets. Hoffman breaks your heart while she examines the human condition, and the lives of women who have loved, and lost, and yet hope to love again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – From London Far

Monday, October 22nd, 2018

From London Far by Michael Innes

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Richard Meredith is a middle-aged classics professor who specializes in Martial and Juvenal. As an absentminded intellectual (is that redundant?), he finds himself in his tobacconist’s shop and mutters a phrase from Dr. Johnson’s London, a Poem. He is surprised when the clerk opens a trap-door and ushers him down into the depths of London. He comes upon scores of art masterpieces. Against the smugglers of looted art, he finds an ally in Jean Halliwell, a young scholar in archeology with a specialty in Minoan weapons. In an exciting if far-fetched scene, they and two bloodhounds escape being put in a sack and dropped into the Channel by fleeing across the rooftops of London.

They proceed to have adventures that are so zany as to lead us readers to think that John Buchan’s rousers like Greenmantle are being parodied. As usual, the villains are bizarre. For example, one is an eccentric rich guy – with the hyper-American name of Otis K. Neff – that will call to mind the unhinged oil millionaire Jo Stoyte in After Many a Summer Dies the Swan by Aldous Huxley.

Also as usual, there are plenty of erudite laughs:

The man was … simultaneously enjoying the remains of a cigar and a thoughtful study of the girl’s knees. Habit apart, there seemed to be no reason why he should not study the superincumbent parts of her anatomy as well, for the girl was stripped for bathing to a degree which Meredith could not at all approve.

At 300 pages, some snipping in the middle and near the end would have been in order. But members of the thinking audience – i.e., us avid readers — will be able to pat themselves on the back for understanding allusions to The Perfumed Garden and knowing already what pygmalionism is.

It’s not, however, merely learned yuks. Innes describes rural Scotland and its remotes fastnesses so vividly we wish we could visit Caledonia someday. He makes wise observations of religion in Scotland, art appreciation, and the mentality of collecting. Published in 1946, it also touches on the heavy subject of Europe pulling itself together after the most destructive war in history.

I think that Innes had a middle-aged, male, middle-class, educated and bookish target audience in mind. However, he always portrays his female characters with lots of smarts and readiness for action. Against scholarly stereotype, Jean Halliwell combines dedication to fighting evil-doers with a zest for adventure. There’s a wonderful parody of academic disputation near the end when Jean incisively supports her position in an argument where she and Meredith are trying to account for the art collecting mania of Otis K. Neff.

Michael Innes was the pen name of J.I.M Stewart (1906 – 1994), an English prof in the UK, Ireland, and Australia until his retirement in 1973, after which he wrote mysteries full-time until about 1985. Most of his mysteries starred Sir John Appleby, a Scotland Yard Detective Inspector. But many of his books are stand-alone novels like this one and Lament for a Maker.

 

 

 

Spy Thriller Review – Call for the Dead

Tuesday, October 16th, 2018

Call for the Dead by John LeCarre

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This is the first thriller written by LeCarre, who later became a best-selling spy novelist in the middle 1970s. Published in 1962, this mystery features the first appearance of his series hero spymaster George Smiley, who appears in A Murder of Quality and the Karla trilogy: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

Tightly written, the novel spins out a plausible story with believable characters, especially Elsa Fennan, wife of a murdered diplomat. It gives the backstory on Smiley’s unhappy marriage to Ann and his early spying days in Germany in the late 1930s, a time and place not high on our list of historical eras we’d like to visit.

Smiley’s trusted associate Peter Guillam, who plays a big part in the Karla trilogy, also appears as a character who teases Smiley like a school chum from the same generation would. Peter is younger in the Karla trilogy. Yard Inspector Mendel is fiercely protective of Smiley in this one, as he is in later books.

There are mere hints that LeCarre would let himself stretch out, with only short digressions on the importance of individualism and on the sprawl that started around UK cities in the car crazy Sixties. All in all, well worth reading.

 

 

 

Historical Suspense Review – Kingdom of Shadows

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

Kingdom of Shadows by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Published in 2000, Furst’s sixth historical espionage novel won the 2001 Hammett Prize, given for literary excellence in the field of crime-writing. The novel begins in 1938 and goes to the brink of war in September, 1939. Nicholas Morath, Hungarian bon-vivant, is living a life of ease in Paris, working a silly job in advertising, and sleeping with a beautiful heiress half his age from Buenos Aries. I totally believe this is possible since my Hungarian grandmother said Hungarian men are handsome and charming.

Despite his shallowness, Morath is loyal to his country and aristocratic family. So he always says yes when his uncle Janos Polanyi, diplomat in the Hungarian legation, has him perform little tasks in the secret world. Morath deals with refugees, killers, gangsters, fascist thugs and scamps of various stripes in efforts to fight Hitler’s aggression in Europe.

One could complain that it’s episodic and its paper-thin characters are overly familiar from other outings. But Furst pleases discerning readers, assuming they have travelled and read enough Joseph Roth, Victor Serge and Rebecca West to savor asides on the order of:

… Ruthenia. Or affectionately, Little Russia. Or, technically, Sub-Carpathian Ukraine. A Slavic nibble taken by the medieval kings of Hungary, and ever since a lost land in the Northeast corner of the nation. Then, after the world war, on a rare day when American idealism went hand in hand with French diplomacy … they stuck it onto Slovakia and handed it to the Czechs. Somewhere, Morath speculated, in a little room in a ministry of culture, a Moravian bureaucrat was hard at work on a little song, ‘Merry Old Ruthenia / Land we love so well.’

Furst has been an expatriate too so he knows how to evoke place by appealing to the senses. His Hungarian hero returns to Budapest, his sense of smell confirms that he is home: “Burnt coffee and coal dust, Turkish tobacco and rotten fruit, lilac water from the barbershops, drains and damp stone, grilled chicken.” Don’t visit other countries to widen your horizons; go to see what they smell like.

The novel’s atmosphere of world on the edge of flame and blood is palpable. The reader can tell Furst has read the history and the novels of the 1930s, because the air, the very ether of the novel seems so real. And the familiar Furstian theme of “Every helpful act, even the smallest, affirms the bond that unites decent human beings” comes out as does the themes of forgiveness and redemption. Uncle Janos says, “Forgive me, Nicholas. Forgive, forgive. Forgive the world for being what it is. Maybe next week Hitler drops dead and we all go out to dinner.”

 

 

 

Historical Fiction – The Good Thief

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

 

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

There is nothing I enjoy more than a good book that pulls me into another time and place, and makes me forget to take anything out of the freezer for dinner! I love rich stories full of interesting characters, and so I thoroughly enjoyed “The Good Thief,” a first novel by Hannah Tinti.

We meet young Ren, a boy without a left hand, living in the orphanage run by the monks of St. Anthony’s. It’s bleak, cold, and comfortless. Ren doesn’t remember why or how he lost his hand; all he knows is that he is always passed over for adoption because of this handicap. People coming to the orphanage to find a boy need one who can work, and not bring bad luck to their family. Ren’s future looks frightening, as the army will be his only option when he comes of age.

But miracle of miracles, a stranger arrives one day, and chooses Ren. In fact, he claims to be Ren’s brother. And so begins Ren’s new life, with a family of sorts; Benjamin Nab, the alleged older brother, and his friend Tom, a former schoolteacher. It doesn’t take Ren long to realize that things are not quite what they seem; but he still hopes for answers as to his handicap, and his origins, and is content to be a part of a family, even one like this. The three are bound together by a strange combination of con artistry and companionship, and Ren knows he can hardly expect more.

As time goes on, Ren despairs of ever learning of his past. The men try con after con to earn money, selling snake oil, the teeth from corpses, and finally, entire corpses to a doctor who wants to dissect them, which turns out to be both dangerous and quite profitable. In the midst of this, Ren and his fellow grave robbers meet up with a chimney-dwelling dwarf, girls who work for a miserly rich man, making mousetraps in his factory, and one night, while digging up bodies, an assassin who has been buried alive, who becomes part of their ‘family’ once he has been unearthed and cleaned up a bit.

Ren grows accustomed to this life. When told by the doctor who buys corpses from them that Ren is smart and should go to school and study science, Ren briefly considers this. “These possibilities fanned out before Ren like cards on a table, then closed back together until there was only one option left. He was never going to study science; he was never going to be respectable. And he was tired of trying to be good. The best he could do was follow the path that Benjamin had showed him. He belonged to it now.” But, the question remains, for how long?

The narrative flows along as we follow the three on their journeys. The characters are finely drawn, and while not always likable, they are always fascinating. The author was obviously inspired by Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson: orphan boys, colorful characters, dramatic situations, and a pace that keeps you reading to find out what happens next. The Good Thief was the winner of the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize, and named a New York Times Notable book, and given an Alex Award (Best Adult novel for young adults) by the American Library Association.