Monday, July 25, 2016

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery by Deanna Raybourn

A Curious Beginning: A Veronica Speedwell Mystery.  Deanna Raybourn. Penguin Group (USA). July 2016. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451476029.

It’s the late 19th century and Veronica Speedwell has just buried her aunt.  Veronica is not your ordinary woman of the 1800s; she’s an accomplished lepidopterist, a collector of butterflies.  After her aunt’s burial, she returns to her aunt’s home only to find it has been totally ransacked. Before she can register and ponder her questions about this violation, she is rescued by Baron Maximillian von Stauffenbach who claims he knew her parents and that she is in mortal danger.  He accompanies her to stay at the house of his friend, Stoker.  Stoker seems a grouchy, poor and frustrated scientist but his demeanor is challenged by Veronica who is as sharp as a tack, amusingly so to any reader with an appreciation for challenging wittiness.

After settling in and slowly attempting to help Stoker in his job, Veronica and Stoker are shocked to find that the Baron has been murdered.  At first Stoker thinks Veronica is responsible and many accusations and responses make Stoker alarmed enough to realize they must disappear.  This then is the heart of the story – first dealing with the characters they meet in a traveling circus of freaks (term that was then used for people with unique height, weight, appearance, etc.).  The second aspect is the discovery of who were Veronica’s true parents, a fact of which she is totally ignorant since she spent her childhood with two aunts who were constantly moving.  The reader will have no idea until the very end of this novel how this mystery may be solved – or not.

While Stoker and Veronica initially clash like oil and water, they do come to respect and even love each other. Veronica discovers Stoker has his own secrets which gradually come to light and render him less aggressive and brash.  Veronica is bright, sharp-tongued almost to the point of biting, and compassionate individual who knows how to take care of herself and always manages to stay several steps ahead of the proud, domineering Stoker.  The characters they meet are as conniving as their jobs demand in a competitive society where being on top is the only guarantee of success and the reality that one must use whatever means possible to get to that pinnacle. 

A Curious Beginning… is a delightful, old-fashioned mystery and romance sure to please readers everywhere.  An intriguing, multi-layered mystery that is recommended as a fascinating stand-alone novel even though it is connected to other novels by Deanna Raybourn!

War of the Roses: Bloodline by Conn Iggulden

Wars of the Roses: Bloodline.  Conn Iggulden. Penguin Group (USA). July 2016. 432 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780399165382.

In 1461 three men’s heads are mounted on Micklegate Bar’s entry to York Castle: Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury; Richard, Duke of York; and Edmund, the son of Richard, Duke of York.  Queen Margaret of Anjou and her husband, the weak and mentally challenged King Henry VI, have no idea what these murders have elicited from within the hearts and minds of the York clan. 

Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick and his brothers mourn the loss of their father by vowing unceasing vengeance on the Lancaster enemy.  Edward of March, son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, declares himself King and uses his grief to forge a fierce, dauntingly powerful presence in battle and an equal vow to wipe out the Lancaster forces.

This third novel in this memorable series is chiefly characterized by two major battles and strategies of the York and Lancaster contenders to grasp and hold the Crown of England. While characterization is stereotypical, the plots of both sides is superbly presented and engaging (even if the reader is familiar with the course of English history in this time period).

At the first battle of St. Albans, one can hardly believe that a change in strategy completely changes the tide of victory, a choice brought about by brutal winter weather.  The second battle at Townton is as vividly depicted with its own breathtaking surprises.  The realism of these battles is precisely conveyed by Iggulden in a way that makes the reader practically hold one’s breath from the tension and suspense, from the exhaustion and ferocious killing cycles that seem to go on and on endlessly until victory is won by Edward’s Yorkist troops.

In between these battles, one gradually gets entranced by Warwick’s growing jealousy and anger as Edward credits Warwick as “Kingmaker” but not as the power behind the throne.  Edward takes a wife, Elizabeth Woodville, whose family become contenders who would rid the country of Warwick and his family, an especially evil campaign for power. 

Conn Iggulden has again created a spellbinding, intriguing novel about these two rival families who changed the course of English history!  Stunning historical fiction by a seasoned, skilled writer that is highly recommended!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

All The Time In The World: A Novel by Caroline Angell

All The Time In The World: A Novel.  Caroline Angell. Holt, Henry and Company, Inc.. July 2016. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9781627794015.

Charlotte is a musician who is currently unemployed and wondering what she’s to do with her degrees and talents in music.  She has a sometimes on and sometimes off boyfriend who is also a composer but for now she’s taken a job as a babysitter of the two McLean boys, Matty and George, in the upper East Side of Manhattan.  She has no intention of making this a permanent job but she, like the reader, is quickly enamored of these two funny and caring little boys.  Their parents, Scotty and Gretchen, are also unusual people who treat Charlotte as more than an employee, indeed a family member.  The two boys are typical boys who keep this tale from seeming too good to be true.

The normal day-to-day events come to a devastating halt when Gretchen dies and the remainder of the story becomes very complex as each character attempts to deal with this searing loss.  Charlotte knows she is only an employee but also knows she is such an integral part of this broken family that she cannot just walk away from them, adding another traumatic loss to the experiences of these lost little boys and their father.  Some other characters, like Scotty’s brother, add to the humorous, edgy and sexy textures woven into this memorable story.

Caroline Angell has written a beautiful novel about loss and love that shows exceptional skill in exploring the multi-layered reactions to a family’s coping skills. No, it’s not depressing because the scenes are presented with remarkable sensitivity that also includes irony, laughter, and other “normal” scenes because life does go on in spite of the most grievous pain accompany loss. It’s also made even more fascinating as it weaves back and forth between the present, past and future. The reader never knows what to expect and this skillful presentation of time adds to the connected elements that weave together to form one unique story.

Very nicely done, Caroline Angell – highly recommended contemporary fiction!

The Hemingway Thief by Shaun Harris

The Hemingway Thief.  Shaun Harris. Prometheus Books. July 2016. 240 pp.  ISBN#: 9781633881754.

Henry “Coop” Cooper despaired of ever writing a best-selling novel until he turned to writing torrid romance novels under a pseudonym.  They instantly become best sellers, yet Coop is disgraced by this popularity. 
Taking a break, he travels to Mexico where he meets a calculating drunk, Ebbie Milch, who is running from enemies because he possesses a stolen manuscript and other papers of Ernest Hemingway.  Years ago, Hemingway’s wife, Pauline, was supposed to bring a suitcase of all Papa Hemingway’s writings to him when the suitcase holding these gems was stolen.  Hemingway, we know from history, never got over that loss, especially because it occurred before he became famous.  Now, the papers are worth thousands of dollars, if the manuscripts and papers Milch has are the “real deal.”

However, that simple plot isn’t really the essence of Harris’ novel.  To Milch, who manages to drag Coop everywhere in his mad schemes, these papers have a familial connection.  Now, joined with an ex-DEA agent, this trio travels across Mexico, coming close to being killed several times but escaping from those hair-raising moments with a type of slap-stick comedic routine at each disastrous challenge.  It’s even suggested that Hemingway may have been involved in the “theft,” maybe.

Harris offers the reader a window in which to see Hemingway’s brief disastrous participation in WWI and his desire ever-afterward to be a part of war.  The Hemingway novels are clearly a series of dramas of the writer’s observations but really acting out of vicarious battles, romances and dramas.

The Hemingway Thief is a compelling read where the reader must deduce what is real and what is comedic fraud.  High drama mixed with comedic satire makes for a genuinely intriguing read!  Nicely envisioned historical fiction!

Now and Then Friends: A Hartley-By-The-Sea Novel by Kate Hewitt

Now and Then Friends: A Hartley-By-The-Sea Novel.  Kate Hewitt.  Penguin Publishing Group.  July 2016. 368 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451475596.

Life hasn’t turn out the way Rachel Campbell or Claire West expected.  They were both best friends when they were in elementary school many years ago.  Now, they meet anew when Claire West returns to Hartley-By-The-Sea and the awkwardness between the two is obvious to everyone else in the small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business.  But no one knows what the problem between these two characters is and the two women really can’t put their finger on the problem either.  Suffice to say that both women are “empty and a tad angry” inside. 

Rachel’s Mom broke her back years ago and is an invalid; thus, Rachel must care for her family as her father has been gone for years as well.  She cleans houses to make a small living and it’s obvious hers is a hard life.  Claire West, on the other hands, grew up as a rich girl who could have anything she wanted.  But now she’s returned, she has to honestly admit her life has been one big “show” run by her family and then fiancĂ©.  Now she’s seeking something new but excessively timid as she’s never learned to function alone.  While this sounds like a dour story, it isn’t that bad at all.  There are enough snarky comments to add some humor to Rachel and Claire’s situations. 

Obviously, from the title, these two women might have a chance as good friends again, but first they have to get over their bitterness, fear and animosity toward anyone who reaches out to them with compassion.  One can see how these chronic attitudes can wear on other characters, but the chemistry between the two women just might thaw enough to make a different future.  Ironically, even though there are brief, bleak scenes, there’s a magic in this story that keeps the reader hoping for something better than what these two women have at the beginning of this novel. 
Life is as hard as one makes it.  Those who know Rachel and Claire also know that still waters run deep and turbulent, and the reader gets to see the unwinding of some rather nasty background junk.  Stuff sometimes only friends can unfreeze.  Very nicely written and recommended contemporary fiction!

The Secret Language of Stones: Daughters of La Lune (Book 2)

The Secret Language of Stones – Daughters of La Lune (Book 2).  M. J. Rose. Simon & Schuster.  July 2016. 320 pp.  ISBN#: 9781476778112.

Opaline Duplessi has run away to Paris with a Russian expatriate.  She makes jewelry but not just any common jewelry.  One could call it memento jewelry that will be bought by grieving mothers, wives, sisters, lovers, and/or friends of those who have perished during the horrific First World War.  She also makes watches that can be worn on the battlefield and easily used, unlike the more popular watches with covers worn by nonmilitary men. Within each beautiful jewel piece, Opaline inserts a lock of hair or another minuscule personal item.  Her skill is called lithomancy, an illegal practice involving contacting the dead.  When she is done choosing precious gemstones and working her magic, the stones emanate energy that enables her to communicate with the dead soldier and listen for the message to be spoken to the loved one of the dead person.  Opaline is just learning to use her gift but is clearly frightened beyond words at how this power overcomes her, even to the point of being ill.  She fears going insane and therefore seeks help to manage her gift or curse, depending on how it is experienced!

This, however, is just the basic gist of Opaline’s skill and the story to come is a wonder indeed!  A young mother comes to Opaline and questions her about how she acquired this skill and how she uses it.  Opaline begins to fashion a new jewel for this mother but before she can deliver any message she is haunted by the dead son and actually develops a relationship unlike any one any reader has encountered.  This then is the story which eventually turns into a mystery involving the family of the lately assassinated Tsar of Russia.

M. J. Rose is unlike any other writer this reviewer has ever read.  She has researched her fascinating subject and presents it uniquely in a mesmerizing fashion each reader will never forget.  The occult is depicted in a balanced manner that rejects any quick judgment and seeks only to find the truth with a purpose. Her descriptions of shapes, colors and sizes of different jewels and their arrangement are artfully presented as well. The Secret Language of Stones is the second book in the Daughters of La Lune series but stands as a solo novel just fine.  This is a must read that readers won’t be able to put down, crafted cleverly and skillfully by this very talented writer.  Highly recommended!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Dancing With The Tiger by Lili Wright

Dancing With The Tiger.  Lili Wright. Penguin Group (USA). July 2016. 464 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399175176.

An addicted character, “Looter,” finds an Aztec funeral mask and knows it’s very valuable.  He, however, has no interest in its cultural or artistic value but instead sees it as a cash cow for his insatiable addiction.  That mask is believed to be the funeral mask of Moctezuma II or Montezuma as he is more popularly known.  Anna, a fact checker, is highly qualified as an art collector, having begun to learn this field at the knees of her father, a failed art collector.  Both are humiliated at having their facts proved to be false in a book written by Anna, a humiliation that publicly spread and destroyed any credibility the father-son had in the art world’s tough, competitive field.  A drug lord and a gardener turned hitman also vie for possession of this mask and will do whatever is necessary to obtain it. 

Anna is the only character whose complex nature is gradually delineated in this novel that reads more like surrealistic segments.  She also seems to be the only one interested in the life behind this mask.  As the mask moves from the characters who steal it from each other, we learn that it possesses a mystical power that transforms the personality of those who attempt to wear it.  It’s mystery is the question it poses when worn: Does it bring out the true personality of the wearer or is it the supernatural power behind the original owner’s death mask, Montezuma? 

The other aspect of this long, drawn-out plot involves the beautiful descriptions of Mexican culture, setting, and artistic history that is juxtaposed with the poverty, greed, and despairing lifestyle of contemporary Mexicans.  Anna seems to be the only character truly in touch with the more noble aspects of Mexican history and art.  One can empathize with her intelligence and frustration at how she could have missed the errors throughout her book and her desire to set it aright with a new book about this phenomenal new find of a funerary mask from ancient Mexico.

Who is the Tiger?  Readers will discover the symbolic and pragmatic nature of the title throughout the complex plot that is worthwhile to persevere in following despite the meandering back and forth accounts interspersed throughout the story.  Interesting read with elements of mystery, adventure, paranormal, history, crime, romance, and art – something for everyone!