Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson

Circle of Shadows.  Imogen Robertson. Pamela Dorman Books. June, 2013. 384 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 9780670026289.

This is the fourth in a series of historical suspense novels by this author and it’s quite unusual.  It involves two sleuths who are British and here attempt to solve their first criminal mystery outside of England, in Germany in 1782.  Harriet Westerman is an intelligent, fearless gal whose past history with murder has left some pain and a bit of shadow about her public image.  Gabriel Crowther is a bit of a recluse who speaks his mind at all times, no matter how offensively it is taken, but he is also bright and an anatomist, fascinated with the scientific properties of the body for criminal analysis and healing as well.  Now they learn that a good friend, Daniel Clode, is accused of murdering Lady Martesen. They immediately leave for the Duchy of Maulberg in German!

First, they discovered that Daniel Clode has been acting like someone who is insane and then they are shocked to find that Lady Martesen was probably killed not by smothering, as originally thought, but by drowning.  But how can someone be drowned and have no sign of water anywhere on the clothing or body?  Westerman and Crowther are surprised by the fairness of the investigation in Maulberg, a place that is rather an enigma since it is ruled by an absolute dictator who allows them room for investigation perhaps with a slightly hidden financial motive.

Meanwhile other characters such as the brilliant mathematician Pegel appear on the scene and discover the presence of a secret group that is equated with the Free Masons but is not anything like them in reality. in fact, the plot that begins to unfold turns out to be one that could change the face of European governments, one country at a time and not in a healthy productive way!

As the murder took place during the annual Shrove Tuesday celebrations, Daniel Clode was like all other celebrants wearing a mask, one that is part of the plot to undo him as he will be executed if found guilty.  But there’s much more to this mystery and the above summary is only a tad of all the clues that are gradually revealed with just the right amount of tension and intrigue, including a notable amount of period description and detail that is very interesting as well as the investigation.

Imogen Robertson is a talented writer who has penned a mystery others have compared to Anne Perry for detail and Tess Gerritsen for forensic evidence. This reviewer couldn’t agree more!  Mystery fans and historical fiction fans will love this novel for sure!  Very well done and highly recommended!


A Trick of the Light by Lois Metzger

A Trick of the Light.  Lois Metzger. Harper Collins. June, 2013. 208 pp. hbk. ISBN #: 978006213308.

Mike Welles seemed like a pretty together teen.  He had good grades, was a good baseball outfielder, had a good friend in Tamio Weissberg, and had an okay home life that now seemed to be slowly unraveling.  Tamio and Mike spent hours seeing what is known as stop- motion animation films and then discussing the techniques involved in making them.  This involved making a small figure, like the well-known and well-loved figure King Kong, and then creating the illusion of movement by moving the figure multiple times over hundreds of frames. It turns out this mirrors or parallels what Mike is about to experience where a voice in his head is at first a minor presence and will soon become the guiding leader of Mike’s thoughts and actions, a process and journey that almost becomes fatal!

Mike’s parents leave him alone because they are involved in their own mid-life crisis and so there’s no one monitoring the gradual change in their son’s eating and exercising habits.  Add to that Tamio becomes a relationship of the past as Mike fixes his attention on two girls in school, one a newcomer who is driven to become a famous ballet dancer and the other one who seems obsessed with healthy eating habits and exercise.  Val and Amber couldn’t be more opposite personalities if they worked at it; when Val places her dancing over Mike, he interprets it as more rejection and links to Amber who feed his growing obsession with attaining the perfect physical body.

It’s rather obvious where this going and yet the author does a fine job of allowing one to sense something is dreadfully wrong but being unable to concretely pin down the looming crisis.  This is a serious story that needs to be told, a seemingly innocuous path into which any teen boy could fall and one that is extremely difficult to offset.  Mike remains a likeable character caught in a web of lies that everyone around him initially misses.  His friends remain supportive and present in spite of Mike’s rejection of each one by one.  The voice in Mike’s head is persistent but presented as not so intense until the very end of the story.  The end of the story isn’t one that is fairy-tale “roses” but one that leaves the reader satisfied and hopeful about Mike’s future.

A Trick of the Light is a credible, all too real story that is fictional and yet bears far too much tragic reality.  A must read for teens and their families and friends, as well as teachers of teens!  Nicely done, Lois Metzger!

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Rockin' Chair: Family Is The Foundation for Everything by Steven Manchester

The Rockin’ Chair: Family Is The Foundation for Everything. Steven Manchester. The Story Plant.  June 2013. 272 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781611880670.

John McCarthy is mourning the upcoming loss of the love of his life, Edie, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is rapidly fading.  No memories but that of her childhood, and even those distorted, she lives in fear and recognizes no one. After she passes away, John calls his only son, Hank, and his three grandchildren home. He knows that the entire family is wounded but he also knows that this familial love is everything and not to be compared with anything else in life.

Hank, however, wants nothing to do with John initially, as all he remembers is a critical, harsh parent who showed very little love and who treated him like a child even when he became a responsible adult.  The wounds are so deep the reader will wonder if even a Herculean effort on John’s part can mend the pain that Hank washes away in beer.  Hank’s eldest son is a war hero but holds a secret that shames him into paralysis.  The next son has lost his love through betrayal and doesn’t know if he can move forward to be the great writer he has dreamed of becoming for years.  And finally, Hank’s daughter is a drug addict and alcoholic who is ashamed of her life and the poor mother she believes herself to be.

The pages fly by in the process of confrontation, grudging small moments of agreement and relishing some few fond memories, and a journey of healing that will melt the hardest of hearts!  For there are things about John that neither his son nor grandchildren know, some to be revealed before his death and some afterwards. 

A new chapter is forged for the McCarthy family, one forged from excruciating pain interwoven with tender scenes of understanding and reconciliation. 

Steven Manchester is master of writing a heart-throbbing family story, one that always satisfies readers because it refuses to descend into a maudlin atmosphere and doesn’t brook foolish talk.  It thrives because it is the crafting of a story that elicits the deepest wishes of head and heart for all readers, indeed for all humanity, a sense of family, a real sense of what “home” could be. The Rockin’ Chair undeniably deserves wide acclaim!

Children of the Jacaranda Tree: A Novel by Sahar Delijani

Children of the Jacaranda Tree. Sahar Delijani. Atria Books. June 2013. 288 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9781476709093.

This is not a pleasurable read but a vitally necessary story.  It’s fiction but the reality is so vivid, the tales it tells just have to be true.  A constant state of increasing tension is riddled with a surrealistic ambience for Ashar, our first character, who is pregnant in jail and gives birth to her daughter Neda there.  But Ashar will not be allowed to keep her daughter after she is done nursing her for three months. Add to that Ashar knows the baby will be taken from her but never knows when and so lives with the agony and fear for far too long, day after day after day!

Omid is a young boy who stares in shock as his parents are arrested and taken away while Omid is eating his breakfast yogurt.  Too young to understand the horrific wrong done as a result of this brutal separation, he learns at a very young age to think, speak and act in a very careful way, knowing all too well that one’s happiest moments can be whisked away in a flash. 

Sheida learns very quickly that her father was executed under the rule of Sadaam Hussein, but she didn’t find it out from her mother.  No, her mother was so traumatized by the father’s arrest, she couldn’t bear to tell her daughter about his death. So the gap between the two grows until the day of truth arrives, and Sheida doesn’t get the horror of it for her mother.  What did he do wrong?  What was the penalty and why? 

No clear revelations fill these pages and pages and pages of torturing questions in and out of jail.  A constant juxtaposition of life and death keep the reader on guard with the same nervousness these people have endured for years and years. Many of these characters will escape this beloved but fearsome place, with the heart remaining behind and feeling guilty about not helping others in dire need.  Independence and emigration come with such a high cost to these decent human beings forced to endure the worst torture and ill treatment mankind can provide. This is a notable work of historical fiction that should be read by all, indeed perhaps even be part of the educational curricula for high school classes.  The reader can well imagine this account in movie form as well.  Kudos to you, Sahir Delijani, for sharing this momentous, dignified work of Iranian history in fictional form.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Hypnotist's Love Story: A Novel by Liane Moriarty

The Hypnotist’s Love Story: A Novel.  Liane Moriarty. Viking Penguin Group (USA). June 2013. 480 pp. pbk. ISBN #: 9780425260937.

Ellen O’Farrell is living a good life, with a successful hypnotherapist career and owning a home she inherited from her grandparents.  So what’s missing? A great love.  She spends a great deal of time reflecting on how it could be that she’s so good at helping others to solve problems but not so great on her own male relationships.  So now she’s ripe for romance when she meets Patrick.  Everything feels so right, even when Patrick tells her that his ex-girlfriend is a stalker who follows him everywhere, leaves him constant text messages and phone messages, and even leaves notes attached to his windshield on the car.  It strikes the reader as dangerous, as a phenomenon that feels like a foreshadowing of a violent end to someone!

So why is it that Ellen doesn’t feel grossly perturbed by all this but instead focuses on the growth of the care she and Patrick now increasingly share?  As the stalking increases, Ellen and Patrick’s life together grows closer.  Patrick meets Ellen’s mother and she meets his family.  Ironically, both sides seem rather obsessed with the previous relationships had before now.  There’s an additional complication with Jack, Patrick’s son by his first wife, Colleen, his first wife who died and whom he loved dearly.  But it was Saskia who took care of Jack like a mother and now she has no connection to him at all.  One wonders where this is all going.

It will take a “rock bottom” scene for these complex connections to sort themselves out, with all sides having to face some significantly painful truths, clear some outstanding misunderstandings, and learn to move forward having memories of these personalities that cannot help but be part of the past but learning they cannot be part of the present and don’t have to determine the future!

It sounds like a simple plot involving three people, but it’s not as it slowly develops from simple outrageousness to an audacious, panoramic map of how many people from our past inhabit our present lives in more than complex ways.  It’s a book about healing the past in order to fully engage and relish now and forever.  Very, very nicely crafted mystery/romance fiction, Ms. Moriarty!