Wednesday, October 1, 2014

TLC Blog Tour - To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie

Finally, the newest Deborah Crombie is here, and it's every bit as good as the earlier ones in the Duncan Kincaid/Jemma James series.  Crombie, like Louise Penny and Elizabeth George, has developed a tightly paced, historically enlightening, and personally edifying collection of stories set in modern day London.   I was thrilled when TLC blog tour announced that To Dwell in Darkness was being made available for reviewers.  Although I  had read about half of the earlier installmets years ago, I did not have time to read the 8 I had missed along the way.  So, I was able to review this one almost like I'd never read any of the previous episodes.   I found this one works just as well as a stand-alone.  Crombie gives us enough back fill to flesh out characters who may be new to the reader, but doesn't feel the need to rehash every sentence of older segments.  This one centers around the rehabilitration of the area around historic St. Pancras station and gives us a broad brush of traffic, housing and other cross cultural issues as well as present day environmental debates, explosives, and out of control crowds. The publisher's blurb gives you just enough without giving away the plot:
 In the tradition of Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, and P. D. James, New York Times bestselling author Deborah Crombie delivers a powerful tale of intrigue, betrayal, and lies that will plunge married London detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James into the unspeakable darkness that lies at the heart of murder.
 Recently transferred to the London borough of Camden from Scotland Yard headquarters, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his new murder investigation team are called to a deadly bombing at historic St. Pancras Station. By fortunate coincidence, Melody Talbot, Gemma's trusted colleague, witnesses the explosion. The victim was taking part in an organized protest, yet the other group members swear the young man only meant to set off a smoke bomb. As Kincaid begins to gather the facts, he finds every piece of the puzzle yields an unexpected pattern, including the disappearance of a mysterious bystander.
The bombing isn't the only mystery troubling Kincaid. He's still questioning the reasons behind his transfer, and when his former boss—who's been avoiding him—is attacked, those suspicions deepen. With the help of his former sergeant, Doug Cullen, Melody Talbot, and Gemma, Kincaid begins to untangle the truth. But what he discovers will leave him questioning his belief in the job that has shaped his life and his values—and remind him just how vulnerable his precious family is.
Crombie is especially talented at keeping several story lines going at the same time.  We have the bombing, we have an upcoming custody battle concerning Duncan's son, we have developing friction in the personnel structure of Scotland Yard and the local police departments.  Duncan and Jemma are still adjusting to married life, their blended family, and the concerns of parenting a teen-ager.  Crombie is beginning to show us more of new characters that have recently appeared in the series: Melody and Doug.  Their motivations and personalities are increasing my interest and certainly have me already looking for the next book.  This one is a definite addition to the series.

In my opinion, Deborah Crombie is one of the best detective crime writers working in the genre today.  You can follow her on her websiteFacebook or on Twitter.

To see more reviews,follow the TLC

Deborah’s Tour Stops
Tuesday, September 23rd: Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, September 24th: 5 Minutes For Books
Thursday, September 25th: Back Porchervations
Monday, September 29th: Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Monday, September 29th: Drey’s Library
Tuesday, September 30th: Helen’s Book Blog
Wednesday, October 1st: Tutu’s Two Cents
Thursday, October 2nd: A Bookworm’s World
Monday, October 6th: Dwell in Possibility
Tuesday, October 7th: No More Grumpy Bookseller
Wednesday, October 8th: My Bookshelf
Thursday, October 9th: Jen’s Book Thoughts
Friday, October 10th: Book Addict Katie
Saturday, October 11th: Living in the Kitchen with Puppies

Title: To Dwell in Darkness
Author: Deborah Crombie
Publisher:William Morrow (2014), Hardcover, 336 pages
Genre:  police procedural mystery 
Setting: London
Series: Duncan Kincaid and Jemma James
Source: review copy from publisher
Why did I read this book now?  I'm a fan of the series.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Review: A Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

A Spinning Heart is a small book, written in a series of 21 short, concise, heartbreaking and/or heartwarming vignettes about the inhabitants of an unnamed town in contemporary Ireland.  Simply put, it's 156 pages of pure literary gem.

Around 2008 Ireland had been experiencing a building boom, its young people had jobs, and the older generation was perhaps breathing a bit easier that this upcoming generation would not be forced to emigrate to find employment.  Then the world financial crisis burst upon the scene with its impact crushing not only huge banks but small villages worldwide.

Ryan takes us to one such village, and tells the story of that burst bubble on the lives of the people living there.  With raw vernacular and piercing wit, we get to see a story through the eyes of each participant, whether active or passive.  The writing is stunning, the characters are so intricately carved that it is almost impossible to believe that we can know them that well when they each get only an average of 7 pages to tell their story.

As the stories progress, the puzzle pieces begin to fit together, and a whole emerges.  It is a spell-binding literary tour-de-force.  Donal Ryan certainly deserved the Irish Book of the Year award for this one.  He has another book coming out soon: The Thing About December.  I'm already lining up for this one too.  This is an author we're going to be hearing about.  In the meantime, dust off your Irish slang dictionary, pull yourself a pint, and settle down.  This one can be read in a very pleasant evening.

Title: A Spinning Heart
Author: Donal Ryan
Publisher: Steerforth (2014), Paperback, 160 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: small town life in Ireland
Setting: unamed Irish village
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's being considered for the 2015 Maine Reader's Choice Award.

Many thanks to Steerforth Press for providing a review copy.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Sleep Walker's Guide to Dancing

What an enjoyable and enchanting read!  The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing brings us a cast of sometimes looney, but always loveable characters whose quirks are laid out for all to see, and whose struggles to become integrated into their society while holding onto their unique cultural identity are easily understood by anyone who has ever felt "different" for whatever reason.

The publisher's notes about the premise "Brain surgeon Thomas Eapen's decision to shorten his visit to his mother's home in India has consequences that reverberate two decades later as he starts conversing with the dead and daughter Amina must sort through the family's past to help him."  give us just a hint of the magic and mayhem the reader deals with in this story of three generations of family coming to grips with illness, emmigration, and different cultural norms - especially for young women.

The main character, Amina Eapen is a 20 something budding photographer living in Seattle who is called home to Albuquerque by her mother to help with her father Thomas' strange behavior.  (He's talking to dead people for one thing.)  Not only does Amina have to decide if this call for help is just a ploy on her mother's part to get her home again, but she has to sort out whether or not her father truly needs help and what she is responsible for doing.    All during her visit, various relatives appear, (among them her cousin "Dimple" the all-American girl who has fully adopted to not only the American way of life, but to the full feminist agenda) telling stories about the family back in India, and pulling Amina further along into the family past, not to mention trying to convince her to abandon her job in Seattle, and find a nice Indian boy to marry to settle down near her parents.

Mira does a fantastic job of weaving back and forth from past to present, of painting word pictures that have us seeing, hearing and smelling all the elements of the cultures this family is dealing with.  It's an emotional roller-coaster; it's a long read that takes a while to settle into; but in the end it's a story of love, forgiveness, acceptance, and hope.  It's perfect to settle into as the nights lengthen this autumn.  I just wish we had a good Indian take-away close by!

I had so much fun with this I checked out the audio also.  It's exceptionally well done - read by the author - and really gives the listener an added emotional dimension. Her ability to give different voices and accents to the characters is exceptional.

Title: The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing
Author: Mira Jacob
Publisher: Random House (2014), Hardcover, 512 pages
Audio: Books on Tape (2014) 12 hours.
Genre: Literary fiction
Subject: immigration, assimilation, cultural differences
Setting: Albuquerque, Seattle, India
Source: Public library

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TLC Blog Tour: Ballroom by Alice Simpson

Ballroom dancing seems to be making a recovery these days, perhaps thanks to several "Dancing, etc etc etc" TV shows.  Ballroom, Alice Simpson's debut novel tries to captures the world of ballroom dancing in the late 20th century by looking at that world from the point of view of about six major and several minor characters.

Although billed as a series of interconnecting stories, the characters connect only in the fact that they meet at a ballroom on Sunday nights.  I kept waiting for some deeper connection, but with two exceptions, these were lonely, shriveled up, past their prime, solitary creatures whose individual tales  related to each other only in their personal fantasies.

I really wanted to like this book, but it took quite a while for any relationships to develop, and when they finally began to emerge, they didn't go very far.  Even the endings of the stories left me bereft.  The ballroom, the dancers, the hangers-on, all of them seemed not to get what they were looking for, and it was hard for the reader to decide if the lack of closure was deliberate on the part of the author, or just not written well enough to bring some resolution to the reader. 

I found the publisher's back cover blurb to be misleading. 
Told in interconnecting stories, Ballroom is a beautifully crafted debut novel—reminiscent of the works of Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Haigh—about a group of strangers united by a desire to escape their complicated lives, if only for a few hours each week, in a faded New York City dance hall.
Time has eroded the glamour of the Ballroom, but at the end of the 1990s, a small crowd of loyal patrons still makes its way past the floor-to-ceiling columns which frame the once grand hall each Sunday evening. Sweeping across the worn parquet floor under a peeling indigo ceiling, these men and women succumb to the magic of the music, looking for love and connection, eager to erase the drab reality of their complicated lives.
Nearly forty and still single, Sarah Dreyfus is desperate for love and sure she’ll find it with debonair Gabriel Katz, a dazzling peacock who dances to distract himself from his crumbling marriage. Tired of the bachelor life, Joseph believes that his yearning for a wife and family will be fulfilled—if only he can get Sarah to notice him. Besotted with beautiful young Maria Rodriguez, elderly dance instructor Harry Korn knows they can find happiness together. Maria, one of the Ballroom’s stars, has a dream of her own, a passion her broken-hearted father refuses to accept or understand.
As the rhythms of the Ballroom ebb and flow through these characters’ hearts, their fates come together in touching, unexpected ways.
This opens the door to let us spy on the main players, but I just don't buy the implication that everything comes together in the end.

The quotes from various dancing handbooks and etiquette books at the beginning of each chapter were fascinating and gave us a excellent glimpse into the past glories of the art.  There's an excellent bibliography of material about ballroom dancing in the book for those who want to delve further.

Author: Alice Simpson
Publisher: Harper Collins (2014)  ARC 285 pages
Genre: fiction
Subject: Ballroom dancing
Setting: New York city and environs
Source: review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  I was asked to do a review by the publisher.

This review is being provided in connection with the TLC Blog Tour.  Many thanks to publicist Trish Collins from Harper Collins for making the galley available.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Review: Euphoria by Lily King

Anthropology is not a reading topic I'm apt to run right out and grab off the shelf. I'm marginally aware of what the subject matter purports to study, and I'm minimally acquainted with Margaret Mead's early studies.  That's about where my background ends.  Euphoria is an articulate exposè (albeit fictional) of the early history of the practitioners of the craft. The publisher offers this recap:

.... a breathtaking novel about three young anthropologists of the ‘30’s caught in a passionate love triangle that threatens their bonds, their careers, and, ultimately, their lives.
English anthropologist Andrew Banson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.
Set between two World Wars and inspired by events in the life of revolutionary anthropologist Margaret Mead, Euphoria is an enthralling story of passion, possession, exploration, and sacrifice from accomplished author Lily King.
The ill-fated three-sided love story pulled me in emotionally.  The scenes of tribal practices left me less than excited, although from a strictly intellectual perspective, like all new material, I found the descriptions riveting.  It's a short book, the action moves along at a decent pace, and the publisher's addition of end-papers with a map of the region was extremely helpful.  While it did not entice me to set off for more on the subject matter, neither did it tempt me to stop reading until the book was finished.  It's well worth the read, even if this isn't your normal cuppa.  I certainly would recommend it to readers with an interest in South Pacific early tribal customs.

Title: Euphoria
Author: Lily King
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014), Edition: 1ST, Hardcover, 256 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Anthropology
Setting: South Pacific Islands
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now?  It's being reviewed for consideration for the 2015 Maine Reader's Choice Award.
Many thanks to publisher Atlantic Monthly Press for the review copy.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Wow!  Every once in awhile a book comes along that gives the reader an "AHA" moment.  Shotgun Lovesongs is such a book.  I didn't want this book to end.  I wanted to read, re-read, listen to the audio, and just sink into the glorious prose telling the simple story of four friends who grew up together in a small town, and whose individual stories are told in such clear, stellar prose that I was captured by the end of page 3!

Each of the stories is discrete, but each advances the story of the whole, of the group.  Each life is separate and unique, but every life meshes with all of the others.  In the end, we see an entire range of experiences and relationships.  Friendships turned sour, friendships stretched as friends move away and then return, friendships poisoned by jealousy and rivalries, but through it all, it is the simple, beautiful story of four people whose ties to their life in a small town and to their love of each other overcomes the obstacles and rivalries that are the staples of life and love.  Here's how the publisher describes it:
Henry, Lee, Kip and Ronny grew up together in rural Wisconsin. Friends since childhood, their lives all began the same way, but have since taken different paths. Henry stayed on the family farm and married his first love, whilst the others left in search of something more. Ronnie became a rodeo star, Kip made his fortune in the city, and musician Lee found fame but heartbreak, too. Now all four are back in town for a wedding, each of them hoping to recapture their old closeness but unable to escape how much has changed. Amid the happiness of reunion and celebration, old rivalries resurface and a wife's secret threatens to tear both a marriage and a friendship apart.
Not only did I read this one in print, but I listened to the audio - a spectacular production from MacMillan Audio, read by Ari Fliakos, Maggie Hoffman, Scott Shepherd, Scott Sowers and Gary Wilmes.  Each voice clarified the character, and each story took on an even more defined picture from the audio.  The word pictures are as sharp as one listens as they are when we read the well-written words.  This is definitely going to be on my top of the year list.

Title: Shotgun Lovesongs
Author: Nickolas Butler
Publisher:Thomas Dunne Books (2014), Hardcover, 320 pages
Audio Publisher:  Macmillan Audio, 2014. 10 hours
Subject: small town life, friendship
Setting: rural Wisconsin
Source: review copy from publisher; audio copy from public library

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Summer of the Dead by Julia Keller

Earlier this year, I discovered Julia Keller's dynamic new crime series featuring prosecuting attorney Bell Elkins.  I was delighted to be able to get an early review copy of the third entry in this group.  The publisher tempted me by offering
High summer in Acker's Gap, West Virginia-but no one's enjoying the rugged natural landscape. Not while a killer stalks the small town and its hard-luck inhabitants. County prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong are stymied by a murderer who seems to come and go like smoke on the mountain. At the same time, Bell must deal with the return from prison of her sister, Shirley-who, like Bell, carries the indelible scars of a savage past.
In Summer of the Dead, the third Julia Keller mystery chronicling the journey of Bell Elkins and her return to her Appalachian hometown, we also meet Lindy Crabtree-a coal miner's daughter with dark secrets of her own, secrets that threaten to explode into even more violence.
Acker's Gap is a place of loveliness and brutality, of isolation and fierce attachments-a place where the dead rub shoulders with the living, and demand their due.
Keller is doing an excellent job developing these characters, fleshing out their motivations to stay in Akers Gap, while presenting the reader with sterling mystery plots.   This is a series to watch, and one that gives us not only strong characters, but a definite sense of place to anchor them.

Title: Summer of the Dead
Author: Julia Keller
Publisher: Minotaur Books (2014), e-galley 368 pages 
Genre: mystery
Subject: poverty, family secrets, murder
Setting: Akers Gap West Virginia
Series: Bell Elkins Novels
Source: e-galley from publisher via Edelweiss

Monday, September 1, 2014

September Series and Serials

Over on, my Read 75 in 2014 group always has a roster of different threads going to get members to participate in clearing out the TBR piles, finding new titles, and just having fun reading.  Every September, people are encouraged to catch up on series they started and then neglected, try a new series, or re-read a series that is a particular favorite.

I NEVER HAVE TROUBLE finding something to fit this challenge.

Early this morning, I finished #8 of the Duncan Kinkaid/Jemma James series by Deborah Crombie,  And Justice There is None, as I work toward reviewing the latest #16 To Dwell in Darkness, coming out next month.  This is a series I started about 10 years ago, after my first visit to London where it's set, and I've tried to read at least one a year since then.  Unfortunately,  I got behind.  Now the September S&S challenge will give me a push to catch up.

I've really enjoyed getting reacquainted with both the characters in these classy mysteries.  Each detective - Duncan and Jemma - has different strengths and weaknesses.  Each has personal/family issues to complicate their already erratic work schedules, and the burgeoning romance is carefully nurtured by Crombie with just enough growth allowed in each new episode to keep us wanting to come back for more.  There will defintely be at least two more of these this month.

Another series I'm reading is the Bruno Correges series - earlier reviews this summer are here. I got the jump on September when I read The Dark Vineyard and The Black Diamond in August.   This series is definitely one I'm getting to like a lot!  Bruno is such a loveable, no nonsense cop.  His character is perfect for the setting- a gentle farm town where people don't want life too technologically connected, where wine, food, truffles, and friendship are what really matters.  Generational clashes  the incursion of "progress," discussions of the GMO movement in agriculture, some romantic entanglements, and scrumptious food discussions all add to the authentic flavor of these polished and undervalued police procedurals. Do take a look if you've not tried them.

Also appearing this month is the latest Jan Karon Father Tim/Mitford book: Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good.  I'm waiting for my copy to arrive (I was selected by LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program to receive a review copy) so I can dive back into this favorite series.

Finally, I'm hoping there's enough room in my series schedule to fit in another Frederick Ramsay Ike Schwartz mystery, and ARCs of Donna Leon's latest Brunetti and Andrea Camillieri's latest Montalbano episodes.  That ought to keep me busy.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: the Home Place by Carrie LaSeur

A bold well-written novel featuring the trendy theme of successful family member who has left the hometown and is pulled back into a family disaster/drama she thought she was well out of. In this case, the setting is a bleak, rundown rural town in Montana. With the exception of the main character Alma Terrebone, the family is underemployed, under-educated, dysfunctional, and struggling to recover from a series of poor choices, bad luck, and outside villains.  The publisher tells us:
The only Terrebonne who made it out, Alma thought she was done with Montana, with its bleak winters and stifling ways. But an unexpected call from the local police takes the successful lawyer back to her provincial hometown and pulls her into the family trouble she thought she’d left far behind: Her lying, party-loving sister, Vicky, is dead. Alma is told that a very drunk Vicky had wandered away from a party and died of exposure after a night in the brutal cold. But when Alma returns home to bury Vicky and see to her orphaned niece, she discovers that the death may not have been an accident.
The story is deeply emotional, offering insights into the basic human need for forgiveness, for family, and for a place that holds the roots of our grounded-ness.  There were a few sections where I almost lost interest, but on the whole, readers will find this an excellent debut novel with a story worth reading. I look forward to more from this author.

Title: The Home Place
Author: Carrie La Seur
Publisher: William Morrow (2014), Advance Reader's Edition, egalley, 304 pages
Genre: literary fiction, mystery
Subject: family secrets,
Setting: Montana
Source: egalley via Edelweiss
Many thanks to the publisher for making a review copy available.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Review: The Girl Who Came Home by Hazel Gaynor

This one is bound to please Titanic fanatics, romance readers, and historical fiction fans.  It's was a bit tear-jerky for my taste, but it's well-written, gives us good insight into the main characters, and provides enough detail that the reader definitely can feel the disaster as it happens.
Ireland, 1912, Fourteen members of a small village set sail on RMS Titanic, hoping to find a better life in America. For seventeen-year-old Maggie Murphy, the journey is bittersweet. Though her future lies in an unknown new place, her heart remains in Ireland with Seamus, the sweetheart she left behind. When disaster strikes, Maggie is one of the few passengers in steerage to survive. Waking up alone in a New York hospital, she vows never to speak of the terror and panic of that fateful night again. Chicago, 1982, Adrift after the death of her father, Grace Butler struggles to decide what comes next. When her great-grandmother Maggie shares the painful secret about Titanic that she's harbored for almost a lifetime, the revelation gives Grace new direction, and leads both her and Maggie to unexpected reunions with those they thought lost long ago.
 I found the ending rather contrived, although I disappointed myself in that I hadn't seen it coming.  It's still a book worth spending some time with.  Not a barn burner, but a good comfortable read - either for these last weeks at the beach, or to settle down with as the autumn creeps in and days grow shorter.

Title: The Girl Who Came Home
Author: Helen Gaynor
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2014),  egalley 384 pages
Genre: historical fiction
Subject: travel on the Titanic
Setting: Ireland, onboard Titanic
Source: Net Galley

Friday, August 22, 2014

Summer Series Fun -Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James Mysteries

Earlier this summer I was offered a chance to review the upcoming To Dwell In Darkness, #16 in this very exciting series.  I had read (or listened to) several of them over the past 10 years, but hadn't kept up with the series.

Since I'd so much fun re-reading all the Louise Penny Chief Inspector Gamache series earlier this summer, I decided to do some catch up on Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. 

These are every bit as good as I remember them.  Like Penny, Crombie uses dynamic characters to catch our interest, involves them in well-plotted murder mysteries, and gives us a good sense of modern day London and its environs.

As crime fighting partners - he's a Superintendent at Scotland Yard, and she's the Sergeant Detective assigned as his partner - Duncan and Gemma bring different skills to the team, but both have a professional respect for each other's competencies.  They also each carry a load of emotional baggage from their previous marriages, and as the series begins at least, Gemma is struggling with all the logistics and financial issues plaguing many single custodial parents while Duncan is dealing with the sudden and depressing realization that he has no life apart from his work.

These are great mystery reads with enough clues to allow the reader to say "Aha....I should have known", heart-warming romances, and well-written fiction, all told over a series that has not waned in its quality.  I can't wait to get the newest one which I'll be reading and reviewing for TLC Blog on October 1st, so you (and I) will get a good peek at what's way ahead.  In the meantime, I'm going to continue to sprinkle the rest of this series into my ongoing reading.

What about you?  Do you have a favorite series to recommend?  Let us hear about them, and what keeps you coming back.   Over the rest of August, I'll be commenting on a couple of other series I've been trying to catch up with, and why I love reading about characters who have such staying power in our reading.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Review: A Place Called Hope by Philip Gulley

Sam Gardiner is a Quaker preacher.  He's timid, he's perfectly content to spend the rest of his life pastoring a meeting in his hometown of Harmony.  When he inadvertently attends and prays for a newlywed couple as a favor for the sick Unitarian pastor, he creates an uproar as it is revealed that the couple is lesbian.

As the furor builds, Sam retreats to lick his wounds.  Now that their two sons have graduated from high school and left the nest, his wife Barbara takes a job as the assistant librarian in the town, and is not in the mood to let Sam feel sorry for himself.  Nevertheless Sam quits and finds that no other Quaker congregation will have him.  Suddenly the Gardiners are at a crossroads in their lives. 

When the Quakers in Hope (about 2 hrs away) offer a position to Sam, he jumps and Barbara tags along to investigate the chance to start anew.  The congregation is tiny, the physical facilities are gorgeous and in spite of some trepidations, the couple decides to move on.  At this point, the author begins pulling more rabbits out of the hat, and the story spins off into fairyland.

This is a sweet non-pretentious book with a "happily ever after" feeling, in spite of the wimpy main character, and the delightful feistiness of his wife.  It's a perfect read for an afternoon when the breeze is blowing, or the snow is falling, or the fog is rolling in: in short, when nothing will do but curling up with a cup of tea, a snuggly pet, and a non-controversial and heart-warming story.  My copy included the first chapter of the next book in the series, and for fans of the Jan Karon "Fr. Tim" series, this one will be quite welcome.

Title: A Place Called Hope
Author: Philip Gulley
Publisher:  Center Street (2014), e-galley 256 pages 
Genre: Christian fiction
Subject: perils of pastoring
Setting: fictious midwest towns
Source: egalley from the publisher via Net Galley
Why did I read this book now? The cover attracted me!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Review: Stranger Room by Frederick Ramsay

This is another series where I've been catching up. I read my first Ike Schwartz murder mystery last year as a freebie on my Kindle, and when I had a chance to grab another from the library, I did so. I've not been reading these in order. There's enough back fill in the four that I've read that the reader doesn't feel the need to go back to number one and go in order.

This one is an especially good mystery. Here's what the publisher tells us:
Elderly Jonathan Lydell III is proud of his family history and his house, which he is committed to restoring to its antebellum configuration, complete with a stranger room. Found in many family homes in the 1800s, an attached room with its own entrance, separately locked and kept for use by unknown travelers, it was intended to protect the family from unsavory guests. Nearly 150 years ago, an inexplicable murder took place in the locked stranger room of the Lydell house. The murderer was never caught. But when a new, identical murder is committed in the same room, not even sheriff Ike Schwartz and FBI agent Karl Hedrick can explain it. Why would history repeat itself? What could explain these identical murders? Could the Lydell family history hold the key?
I had never heard of a Stranger Room before, but it makes for a very engrossing mystery read.  The  main character, Ike Schwartz is not only the town sheriff but a retired CIA ageny who keeps having pieces of his previous life reinserted into his "retirement." His significant other is the local college president. They haven't quite figured out their relationship yet - in large part due to the constant back and forth of Ike's roles.  It's a fun series, well-written, and I plan to read more of them.  There are three more stacked on my e-reader, so look for more comments in the future.

Title: The Stranger Room
Author: Frederick Ramsay
Publisher: Blackstone Audio Books (2008)
Narrator: Lloyd James
Genre: Mystery police procedural
Subject: Ancient mystery mirrored in current
Setting:  Western  Virginia
Series: Ike Schwartz
Source: Public library audio download

Monday, August 18, 2014

A new one from Colleen McCullough

Years ago I read The Thorn Birds and fell in love with the book, the characters, and the setting. So I was excited to get a review copy of what I hoped would be another big bold family saga set in the big bold continent down under.  What a disappointment. I expected much more from this author.

I come from a family of four girls.  I understand sisters and the relationship formed by four related but distinct women. In this novel, two sets of twin sisters make their way through the cultural upheaval of post World War I and the Great Depression.  But the story of each sister, while well developed, does not a novel make.  Each sister is an individual, well defined, with definite motivation and ambitions.  Each individual story works.   But, there is no real plot, there is a constant feeling of "where is this going?" and even at the end, the reader is left with a feeling of "what on earth did I just achieve by plowing through this?"  Their is no cohesion except for the fact that they are sisters.  SO???

The writing is certainly not up to the standards of a great  or even very good novel. It's poorly edited, the sentence structure is often fractured and difficult to read.

Overall, it's an interesting book that pulls the reader from the beginning to find out what happens to each sister, but which becomes a slower read about halfway through. A good beach read but nothing to rush right out for.

Title: Bittersweet
Author: Colleen McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2014), Hardcover, 384 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: women's roles in the early 20th century
Setting: Australia
Source: egalley from the publisher through Edelweiss

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We have a Winner!!

Tutu has been quite remiss in her blogging lately. I've been having so much fun reading and traveling, that writing about any of it has slipped on the time table. Today we'll jump start things by announcing that

Anita is the winner of a copy of 

I have notified her by email and will send out a copy as soon as she sends me her mailing address.  Thanks to all you loyal readers for your patience and support.   Keep stopping by for more reviews and a look at our recent trip to Quèbec City. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: The All Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg

Southern Fiction is one of my favorite genres - especially when it's well written, when the author is steeped in the culture, when it's summer time for me and I can imagine myself in the languid palm-tree filled South while I read it. The publisher enticed me:
Spanning decades, generations, and America in the 1940s and today, this is a fun-loving mystery about an Alabama woman today, and five women who in 1943 worked in a Phillips 66 gas station, during the WWII years. Mrs. Sookie Poole of Point Clear, Alabama, has just married off the last of her three daughters and is looking forward to relaxing and perhaps traveling with her husband, Earle. The only thing left to contend with now is her mother, the formidable and imposing Lenore Simmons Krackenberry, never an easy task. Lenore may be a lot of fun for other people, but is, for the most part, an overbearing presence for her daughter. Then one day, quite by accident, Sookie discovers a shocking secret about her mother's past that knocks her for a loop and suddenly calls into question everything she ever thought she knew about herself, her family, and her future.
In this surprising novel, Fannie Flagg once again delivers a story with believable characters who bring us an inside look at the meaning of being a "lady" in the person of Sookie Poole of Point Clear Alabama, who must deal with the mother of all mothers, Lennore Simmons Krackenberry.  It is Lenore's mission in life to ensure that women know how to dress, drink, talk, work (as in supervise the help), dine out, and raise her grandchildren so that civilization can be saved from going to you-know-where in a handbasket.

This whole premise could have easily become a very corny caricature of  Southern women.  Instead, Flagg turns this into a mini-mystery and a wonderful exposè of a chapter in US history during World War II concerning the WASPS, women pilots who ferried military planes around the world to free up male fighter pilots for the war effort.   These are some spunky women.  These are heroines.  Their quirky, laugh-out-loud predicaments may have some readers shaking their heads in dis-belief, but for those of us who were raised by southern ladies, and who served in the military, this one rings true, rings fun, and rings proud.   A delightful way to spend some summer time reading.

Title: The All Girl Filling Station's Last Reunion
Author:  Fannie Flagg
Publisher: Random House (2013),  Hardcover, 368 pages
Genre:  Southern fiction; historical fiction
Subject:  Women in military service in WWII
Setting:  Alabama, California
Source:  Public Library

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Series update - Blueberry Muffin Murder by Joanne Fluke

"They" say hope springs eternal. And when you're talking about Hannah Swenson, owner of the Cookie Jar Bakery in Lake Eden Minnesota, the hope is usually on the part of the reader.  Will she choose Mike the cop or Norman the dentist?   Will she actually be able to get through a whole volume without being entwined in a murder investigation?  Or without becoming a possible murder target herself?  Will these books ever change the formula, or ever resolve the slight (very slight) sexual tension between Hannah and her two beaux?

This is actually the third book in this very popular series that has been around since 2001.  Blueberry Muffin was originally published in 2002.  It was available as a public library e-book download, and it was a convenient way to test an app on my new tablet.

If you enjoy lots of sweets with your cozy reading, if you like goodie goodie people with no true villains, if you like being able to read along without engaging very many brain cells, while at the same time, not having to scream about poor sentence structure, unconnected plot elements, or slightly developed characters this series is for you.   There are actually about 18 of these sweet-tooth specials, complete with well documented recipes for all the treats mentioned.   I read about one every 20-30 months.  That's more than enough brain candy for me.   They're fun, but a steady diet is not what I can handle.

Title: The Blueberry Muffin Murder
Author: Joanne Fluke
Publisher: Kensington (2011), Mass Market Paperback, 320 pages
Genre: cozy mystery
Subject: cookies, murder,
Setting: Lake Eden Minnesota
Series: Hannah Swenson mystery
Source: public library e-book download

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: Just One Evil Act by Elizabeth George

I wish I could start this off by saying "Here's another favorite author and favorite series."  Alas.........

I really want to say that the title refers to the story of an evil act, but the book is replete with evil acts, evil intentions, and unethical choices.

However......the true evil act is the editor's lack of cleaning up a mess and foisting this 700+page monstrosity on the series' fans.

In some ways, it's vintage Elizabeth George, but mostly it's overblown, way too long, insulting to readers. Periodically, authors will take well-known and well-developed characters and  move them to a new and "out of the comfort zone" setting. That keeps a series fresh, and adds a new perspective to the character. In this case, the crime scene and investigation moved to Italy, where Italian police procedure is quite different from that normally expected in New Scotland Yard.  If the author had helped clarify what crime was being investigated by whom and why, we might have been more disposed to follow along.

As it is, a non-crime occurs when Barbara's next door neighbor, little Hadiyyah Azhar is taken by her mother to Italy without the father's knowledge or permission.  Let's remember that Daddy is not on the birth certificate, is not married to mommy, and in fact not only has this paragon of fatherly virtue (as far as Havers is concerned) never divorced his first wife, he's had no contact with her OR hisTWO OTHER CHILDREN in over a year.  Barbara Havers is stuck in London, working for a new boss (not Lynley) and is frantic to get to Italy to "help".

At least in the beginning, we get vintage Havers - impulsive, slovenly, damn-the-torpedoes, misguided, and in this book, totally blinded to her own motivation. Thomas Lynley is nearly an afterthought throughout this book.  If he hadn't spoken Italian, he'd have almost no part in the story, except to be starting what appears to be a new romance with a roller-derby veterinarian.

The plot is contrived, the dialogue is stilted and very difficult to follow since the author has entire paragraphs of words spoken in Italian WITH NO TRANSLATION. This is a language I can usually follow along thanks to my grandmother, but the excessive use of Italian was way over the top.  I found myself constantly going to translation tools because I wasn't comfortable enough with my assumptions to feel sure I understood what was happening, and whether it was important or not.   (And if it wasn't important, it sure didn't need to be in a book that was over 700 pages long).  I guess we're supposed to feel the frustration Havers feels at not being able to understand the language, but all I felt was frustration that the story was being hijacked by the author's showing off her supposed knowledge of the language, and dragging us along for about 200 pages too much.

There are so many plot lines and sub-plots that I got dizzy trying to keep up.  Is it kidnapping?  Is it a custody fight?  Later is it murder?  And who's working the case?  And who's responsible? 

The book is even worse in audio.....usually one of my favorite formats.   I had the large heavy and awkward print version that was driving me crazy and decided to download the audio to see if Davina Porter - normally one of my favorite narrators -could help make more sense of this mess.  That was a horrible mistake.  Ms. Porter's very clear, clipped and normally understandable British accent does not do well at all with was absolutely painful to hear.  I constantly had to stop the audio to go to the print to see what on earth she thought she was saying in Italian.

There is so much not to like about this book....the choices all the characters make,the stereotyped sleaziness of the characters, the convoluted plot(s), the implausible and almost incredible (meaning NOT credible) ending - one of those "Oh, I guess I need to wrap this up because I have a deadline and it is getting a tad bit long."   In addition, this really should have been at least two, and probably three books.   Maybe that's a good thing if you're a fan.  You can purchase an entire trilogy for the price of one book.  Anyway if you're interested, here's the publisher's blurb about the story:
 Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers is at a loss: The daughter of her friend Taymullah Azhar has been taken by her mother, and Barbara can’t really help—Azhar had never married Angelina, and his name isn’t on Hadiyyah’s, their daughter’s, birth certificate. He has no legal claim. Azhar and Barbara hire a private detective, but the trail goes cold.

Azhar is just beginning to accept his soul-crushing loss when Angelina reappears with shocking news: Hadiyyah is missing, kidnapped from an Italian marketplace. The Italian police are investigating, and the Yard won’t get involved, until Barbara takes matters into her own hands. As she attempts to navigate the complicated waters of doing anything for the case against her superior’s orders, her partner, Inspector Thomas Lynley, is dispatched to Italy as the liaison between the Italian police and Hadiyyah’s distraught parents.

In time, both Barbara and Lynley discover that the case is far more complex than just a kidnapping, revealing secrets about Angelina; her new lover, Lorenzo; and even Azhar—secrets Barbara may not be willing to accept. With both her job and the life of a little girl on the line, Barbara must decide what matters most and how far she’s willing to go to protect it.
I still like this series and these characters.  Let's just hope that Ms. George can get them back to London, and can tighten up her propensity to verbosity and give us some more good solid detective work without all the extraneous HUH?  And without going over about 500 pages!

Title: Just One Evil Act
Author: Elizabeth George
Publisher: Dutton Adult (2013), Edition: 0, Hardcover, 736 pages
Audio format:  Penguin Audio; Unabridged edition (October 15, 2013) 28 hrs downloaded
Genre: mystery,
Subject: international parental kidnapping
Setting: London; Tuscany Italy
Series: Inspector Lynley detective mysteries
Source: ARC from publisher, & Audible download 
Why did I read this book now?  I try to keep current with this series.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Cozy Summer Read - Dead and Berried by Karen MacInerney

Last month I reviewed A Brush with Death  one of the later volumes in this Gray Whale Inn Mysteries series. I was doing a test of my tablet download capabilities and saw this earlier one available and said "why not?" It's Maine, it's a cozy mystery, and the foggy summer day was perfect for the read.

Like most cozy mysteries, this one relies on a lovely setting - Cranberry Island off the coast of Down East Maine, a likeable protagonist (and sometime amateur detective) innkeeper Natalie Barnes, a local law enforcement officer (in this case a romantic interest of the innkeeper's), and villainous villains who are threatening to convert the idyllic village into a high-scale resort.  There's the obligatory murder and Natalie feels honor-bound to
help identify and capture the perpetrator, while dealing with needed repairs to the Inn, a reappearing and less than welcome ex-fiance, and a cooling friendship with her previous best bud.

As seems to be almost de rigeur these days for New England mysteries anyway, the story includes several delicious sounding recipes. Both the ingredients for the goodies and for the mystery are bound to make this a treat for cozy lovers who want to spend a day in Maine, even if it's only in the pages of a book.

Title: Dead and Berried
Author: Karen MacInerney
Publisher:Woodbury, Minn. : Midnight Ink, 2007, ebook.  
Genre: cozy mystery
Setting: Cranberry Island Maine
Series: Gray Whale Inn Mysteries
Source: Public Library ebook download

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: The Long Way Home by Louise Penny

It's so hard to write about Armand Gamache stories without giving the plot away, and that is, in my humble opionion, the worst sin a reviewer can commit.  Every time I review a Louise Penny book, I find myself saying things like "It's quintessential Louise" or "Just when I thought she couldn't get better, she does" or other blathery, toady, almost syncophantic  wind-blown compliments that are almost insulting they're so inflated.


I was fortunate enough to get my hands on an ARC earlier this summer, and waited to read it until I'd finished a re-read (this time in audio) of the previous nine books in the series, and lurked along in the on-line discussions.   Quel fun!

So after I'd read The Long Way Home, I put it aside for a couple weeks to let the experience sink in and try to figure out how to explain why these are so special.  At least I can start by sharing what the publisher has given us as a hint:
Happily retired in the village of Three Pines, Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Québec, has found a peace he’d only imagined possible. On warm summer mornings he sits on a bench holding a small book, The Balm in Gilead, in his large hands. “There is a balm in Gilead,” his neighbor Clara Morrow reads from the dust jacket, “to make the wounded whole.”

While Gamache doesn’t talk about his wounds and his balm, Clara tells him about hers. Peter, her artist husband, has failed to come home. Failed to show up as promised on the first anniversary of their separation. She wants Gamache’s help to find him. Having finally found sanctuary, Gamache feels a near revulsion at the thought of leaving Three Pines. “There’s power enough in Heaven,” he finishes the quote as he contemplates the quiet village, “to cure a sin-sick soul.” And then he gets up. And joins her.

Together with his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna Landers, they journey deeper and deeper into Québec. And deeper and deeper into the soul of Peter Morrow. A man so desperate to recapture his fame as an artist, he would sell that soul. And may have. The journey takes them further and further from Three Pines, to the very mouth of the great St. Lawrence river.  To an area so desolate, so damned, the first mariners called it the land God gave to Cain. And there they discover the terrible damage done by a sin-sick soul.    
All through the series,  I've never liked the character of Peter, so I wasn't sure I was going to have much sympathy for him or the people trying to find him.   When I sang in the choir several years ago, our choir director tried and tried and tried to get us to master the hymn "There is a Balm in Gilead" to the point that I HATED that hymn.  And to put frosting on the proverbial cake, I had a pretty negative recollection of trying to get through Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer winner Gilead when our book club read it several years ago.

If this current book hadn't been written by Louise Penny, and hadn't been about my all-time favorite mystery personality, I probably wouldn't have wanted to read it.  I wouldn't have wanted to see Armand's well-deserved retirement "ruined".   I wouldn't have wanted to find myself caring whether Peter was found and/or saved.  I just wanted everything to stay in "Three Pines Fairyland".  Fairyland it isn't.  Life it is.  The characters who have become so familiar to us continue to expand, to mature, and draw us into their lives.  Ruth Zardo, another of my favorite characters finally allows a tiny crack in her armor to let us in, so those of us who have loved her all along can at last begin to see why.

In the end, the only thing I can say is that once again, Louise Penny does not disappoint.  She steals our heart, she takes our breath away, she causes us to lose a huge chunk of time since once we embark on this adventure, we neglect everything and everyone else in our lives.  I can't wait for the publication date August 26 because I've already pre-ordered a hard back copy (something I rarely do), and the audio to go with it.  In the meantime, Bob and I are truly looking forward to being able to meet her in person in two days when she comes to Portland for the launch of the paperback of #9 How the Light Gets in.

If you're not yet a fan, and think you don't like mysteries, give these a try. I don't think you'll be disappointed.
Many thanks to Minotaur Publishers for making the ARC available.

Title: The Long Way Home
Author: Louise Penny
Publisher: Minotaur Books (2014), ARC e-galley, 384 pages
Genre: Mystery
Subject: Missing persons
Setting: Quebec and environs, village of Three Pines
Series: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache
Source: ARC from publisher
Why did I read this book now?  I couldn't wait another minute!!