Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Forgotten Soldier: A Pike Logan Thriller by Brad Taylor

The Forgotten Soldier – A Pike Logan Thriller.  Brad Taylor. Penguin Group (USA). December 2015. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525954910.

In a heavy-duty fight in Afghanistan, Guy George’s brother, Sgt. First Class Timothy George, is killed. It turns out that Guy’s brother was searching out terrorists but did not anticipate that they would get to him first or why.  Guy receives the material remains of his brother and his entire perspective changes when he finds the pictures of four of the men who were the objects of his brother’s search.  Guy realizes these were the men who directly or indirectly are responsible for his brother’s death, and Guy’s rage is palpable even to the reader. 

Guy belongs to a Task Force that is off the record but approved by a Committee of upper echelon government players, including the President.  The Task Force includes Pike Logan, a friend and brother, no not by blood but by the bonds formed to protect and honor each member of the Team. After talking it over with his Team, Guy realizes that his brother is just another casualty and the American government couldn’t care less. Indeed at a meeting of this Committee, the players on Guy’s Team realize a very harsh reality, several realities in fact.

Greece is collapsing and the rescue of the Euro is paramount to worrying about a fallen soldier!  In fact, there are political machinations occurring, including betrayal by an American Senator.  No spoilers here but no one anticipates that Guy is about to go rogue and an Arab business owner, needed and used but not connected to Arab royalty, tied to his government will go to any length to guarantee their mission which is far from innocent. Will he succeed or be denounced and perhaps assassinated himself should he meet failure. The threats and dangers are vividly obvious!

Into the mix come Guy’s teammates who are trying to stop him and at the same time halt two other missions that may become globally destructive very, very soon.  The pace in this complex plot is relentless, the violence is mind-blowing in its ferocity, and the world of terrorism and assassination is starkly depicted in this all-too-real scenario. The hunter become the hunted and vice versa. 

Get ready for a great read that will keep you up hours past your bedtime and compel you to seek out the other novels of this very talented, skilled writer.  Nicely done, indeed, Brad Taylor and highly recommended novel!

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Song of Hartgrove Hall: A Novel by Natasha Solomons

The Song of Hartgrove Hall: A Novel.  Natasha Solomons. Penguin Random House, LLC. December 2015. 400 pp.  ISBN#: 9780147517593.

Harry Fox-Talbot spends most of his time reliving the years since 1946 when he first met the love of his life, the love who has died a year ago and whom Fox finds it extraordinarily difficult to live without.  Fox’s passion is music but since Edie died he has no incentive to compose, play or even poorly sing anything.  In fact Fox is obviously deeply depressed and stuck in his grieving.

This looming melancholy for the reader ends as Fox shares his memories.  In 1946 their home at Hartgrove Hall, was falling apart and was in such deep financial straits that initially the family decided it must be sold.  However, Fox and his brothers decide they will unite to restore Hartgrove Hall and the accompanying farm to its original splendor.  Into this almost impossibly challenging situation comes Edie, a famous wartime singer.  Fox instantly falls in love with her but her romance seems to grow for Jack.  But Fox is quite oblivious for whom Edie’s attentions are really pining.  Thus he escapes Hartgrove Hall, abandoning his brothers’ project and telling himself that sending money is an equivalent way of helping them to restore their home.  While away he pursues his passion of composing and having orchestras perform the folk tradition oral stories common to the English countryside. For loving your brother’s fiancé is definitely forbidden. Later that reality will change to a need for forgiveness, but the real question is who was responsible for breaking Jack’s heart?

As a mourning widower, Fox has a new project when he discovers that his grandson, Robin, is a four year-old prodigy musical genius.  He can sit down and play absolutely anything on a piano without looking at musical notation.  As the narrator describes these astonishing scenes, the reader can almost hear the music to the point where one is mesmerized by the talent and personality of this young boy and how Fox nurtures it, albeit through many challenging and dire situations.  For Fox is helping Robin to become a decent human being and not just a spoiled brat prodigy.
Fox also takes us back to the intricacies of his development as a composer and the genius behind those who conduct and present those works of beautiful musical art.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall is one of the best novels this reviewer has read.  It highlights both the greatness and smallness of human beings, also introducing the reader to the difficult and glorious moments of composers and musicians, as well as singers.

Highly recommended historical fiction that is absolutely delightful reading!

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great by Stephanie Thornton

The Conqueror’s Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great.  Stephanie Thornton. Penguin Group (USA). December 2015. 512 pp.  ISBN#: 97800451472007.

What do we truly know about the man, Alexander the Great, who is known as the Macedonian soldier in Greece in the year 330 B.C who evolved into the hero who would “conquer the world?”  Although readers will discover different answers to this question, including the reality of his immense ego, his sexual proclivities, his tendency to over-the-top cruelty within this novel, the vivid depiction of his life is presented by the diverse woman he encountered. This is the unique, powerful and poignant essence of this remarkable novel!

Meet Thessalonike, Alexander’s sister, who wants to travel on campaign.  Her fascination with warfare is evident in the way she obsesses about becoming equal to any of Alexander’s soldiers.  Her Amazon-like sister, Cynnane, finally agrees to train her and succeeds as will be proven in later scenes.  Then there is Drypetis, the daughter of King Darius, who would love to be an engineer rather than someone’s wife.  There’s something noble and dignified in her bearing that demands respect and leads others to bypass her outrageously offensive quips to everyone she meets.  That may soften one iota, however, when she learns to love someone very close to Alexander.  Move on to Roxana, the daughter of a nobleman who beats her at every opportunity. She is determined to marry and possess Alexander.  Her goal eventually becomes maliciously misdirected in scenes that the reader could never have imagined, with dire consequences for everyone in this novel.

Alexander’s general, best friend since childhood, and lover, Hephaestion, is a captivating character who seems the only person who can elicit Alexander’s better self, even sometimes calming him before he can do something that Alexander’s soldiers will not forgive and forget.  He also falls in love with Drypetis but is constantly frustrated that she fails to realize his care and instead regales him with verbal abuse and questions.

Multiple scenes of battles in which Alexander’s genius wins the day are juxtaposed with other stories about tenderness, abominable cruelty, depravity, betrayal, and noble efforts at rebuilding conquered cities abound.  Some minor characters collaborate to effect major changes in both people and places.

This reviewer has the highest respect for Stephanie Thornton, who has graced us with novels about Theodora of Byzantium, the woman in the world of Genghis Khan and his family, and now the woman in Alexander the Great’s world.  The Conqueror’s Wife… is superb historical fiction written by a highly skilled historian/writer who knows her subjects well and excels at presenting intricate and intimate details, personalities, passions and conflicts.  Highly, highly recommended historical fiction meriting numerous accolades!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Guise of Another by Allen Eskens

The Guise of Another.  Allen Eskens. Prometheus Books. October 2015. 269 pp.  ISBN#: 9781633880764.

Nothing is more embarrassing than being an excellent detective respected by your peers in Minnesota and now shunned.  Alexander Rupert hears kind words from his former peers but the conversation is always laced with the shadow of his awaiting a corruption hearing.  Now he’s working in the Fraud Division and at least he now has a case to sink his teeth into, one to distract him from the tension regarding the charges against him and wondering what his future holds – or doesn’t hold.

Even worse is the fact that his wife treats him like a stranger now, cold and avoiding him on a daily basis.  Is she fooling around with another man?  Rupert fears the worst which makes him even more forlorn. What ever happened to unconditional love and support? At first he spends his days replaying the past, both about the job and his wife. But now he’s got a chance to prove himself and he proceeds, as he always does, with everything he has in his powers and skills.

This then is the story of searching for who stole the identity of James Proctor and then wound up dead.  To say more would be to spoil one tension-riddled story that involves a hit man who seems to have killing in his genetic makeup.  It will be Rupert’s brother who is truly there for the search and then the grand finale of this mystery!

Criminal fiction is often predictable and stereotypical – not so here.  Allen Eskens knows exactly when to lay on the mystery and when to insert scenes of careful thought and planning.  Well done, Allen Eskens – great read for those who love mysteries, adventure and crime stories with a punch!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Dorothy Parker Drank Here: A Novel by Ellen Meister

Dorothy Parker Drank Here: A Novel.  Ellen Meister. Penguin Group (USA). February 2015. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9780399166877.

One finds a very special book in the Algonquin Hotel in Manhattan in 2007.  The signatures of famous writers and artists are listed and those who sign it get to stick around their earthly life, in Spirit that is, as long as they wish until they yield to the “white light” awaiting their final entry and promising peace and love with those who have gone before them.  It’s hard to resist that light for most of those entered on that list, but Dorothy Parker has no problem with that.  She’s fiercely focused to stick around forever.  When the book is closed, no one can see her; when the book is open, she can be seen and even felt by the observer. Her signature in the book guarantees her permanent residence at the famous hotel and free drinks in the bargain.  Now, she’s on a mission!

Norah Wolfe is an assistant producer for a declining, actually failing, TV show, thinks if she can get an interview with Ted Shriver, a 1970s famous author who is now a recluse, the TV show will be saved.  Ted Shriver, however, is dying of a brain tumor and still punishing himself for his behavior that led his ex-wife to insert plagiarized paragraphs into Shriver’s last published novel, which all but destroyed his literary fame.  He knows Audrey Shriver did the dastardly deed out of pure, unadulterated hate because of his adultery but he refuses to make that information public.

This then is the plot line – to get Ted to expose Audrey in public, on air in Norah’s show.  He’s not buying.  It also turns out he could save himself with some risky brain surgery but he’s not buying that either. 

While the plot is simple, what really makes this novel funny and special are the multiple scenes with fanciful, ironic, and spirited dialogue between Dorothy, Ted, Norah, and later Audrey and her friend.  Dorothy’s sense of humor is droll but comic.  She’s a better investigator than Norah and Dorothy has a keen perception of what to say and do at just the right moment.  The outcome, however, is far from what is expected.  Intriguing indeed!

Dorothy Parker Drank Here: A Novel is a grand read created by a clever, talented writer, Ellen Meister, whose novel is, again, a reader’s delight!  Great read!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Craigsmuir Affair by Jen Black

The Craigsmuir Affair.  Jen Black. Orchard Hill Books. July 2015. 259 pp.  ASIN#: B00XXOB7FC.

Daisy is an 18 year-old woman who lives in the aristocratic world of Victorian England.  She dreams of entering art school and developing her already adept skills, but this is a dream clearly frowned upon by almost everyone in her society.  It’s one thing to dabble in painting and drawing, quite another for a woman to have a career outside of being a wife, mother, teacher or governess.  Her dream is challenged by the appearance of Adam Grey, a successful mine owner, who has scrabbled his way upward after being desperately poor as a result of the failed family business.  Initially, he seems like a cold, calculating, even brash young man but he is almost immediately smitten by this out-spoken yet sensitive woman, Daisy. 

Into the mix a series of art and money thefts occurs.  The thief is not evident because so many members of the upper class are always visiting each other for days on end.  When Daisy is invited to paint an entire wall at the home of one of these aristocrats, danger explodes.  An accident in a newfangled elevator, a fall, and more are added to the intense stress.  Adam has taken on the job of detective, as he has nothing to do at the moment, to discover the thief and then the attacker of Daisy. 

Adam and Daisy, however, are definitely attracted to each other and yet their meetings socially and privately crackle with misunderstanding and snapping conversations.  Daisy, however, in spite of being cast in a manner far from her real personality, holds firm to her dream for the future and her dignity when insulted by many.  Her strength is challenged further when a powerful man, Maitland, accosts Daisy several times with clear intentions of sexually possessing her while in his disgustingly perpetually alcoholic state.

This reviewer posted a review of Jen Black’s first novel many years ago and is happy to say that the writing style and plot complexity have significantly grown in this latest novel.  Readers will relish the evolving love affair and the mystery radiating through every page of this pleasing Victorian novel.  Very nicely crafted, Jen Black!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Put a Ring On It by Beth Kendrick

Put A Ring On It.  Beth Kendrick. Penguin Group (USA). November 2015. 320 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474186.

Brighton Smith has just had the shock of her life.  Her fiancé arrives to pick her up and take her to work and demands his ring back.  In seconds, after a fight over zipper merges and some flying comments about his inability to pass the bar exam for a legal career, Brighton is no longer engaged.  She’s so upset she leaves work and takes off to visit a friend, Kira, in a town that has breakups as its central theme.  Crazy?  Sure is but it’s an intensely funny kind of crazy!

Brighton then finds out that her ex-fiance just got married, five minutes after meeting someone else, a woman named Genevieve.  So after having several champagnes and venting to the sexiest-looking guy, Jake Sorenson and she fly off to Nevada to be married in a drive-by wedding chapel.

Is this really Brighton the actuary who has plans for every occurrence in her life, who researches every situation one could possibly imagine? So not only is she married, but she’s also working at a jeweler’s shop which is something her family taught her years ago.  Turns out she’s very talented and knowledgeable about this field and she really cares about it, more so than her former actuary job at which she was also an ace.

The marriage apparently is for a thirty day trial period and here the fun continues – that is until Jake’s first wife shows up and a dog, Rory, becomes part of the challenging scenarios.

Put a Ring on It is hardly credible but it’s a cute read for those who want a hot romance story with a fairy tale ending.  The jewelry design/fix-it addition is interesting, especially the notion of a poison-ring.  Okay, fun story!

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Place We Knew Well: A Novel by Carol McCarthy

A Place We Knew Well: A Novel.  Carol McCarthy. Random House Publishing Group. September 2015.  272 pp.  ISBN#: 9780804176545.

Wes Avery is the owner of a Texaco gas station, happily married to Sarah and father to Charlotte.  Life has been moving along nicely, when Wes and his neighbors notice fighter jets flying overhead in massive groups along one of Florida’s busiest highways.  The military air traffic is much busier than normally occurs and then President John F. Kennedy announces that Cuba has nuclear missiles provided by Russia.  He is demanding their removal.  Avery’s assistant is a Cuban exile who is very upset by the ramped-up crisis situation as his mother is in the precise area where these missiles are located.

Charlotte is a typical teenager obsessed with friends and an upcoming dance for which she has no date.  When she accepts an offer from Avery’s assistant, her mother Sarah is completely undone.  She becomes obsessed with their home-made air raid shelter and is clearly mentally unraveling.

Here is the simple yet complex plot evolving in miniscule stages.  Russian ships approach Cuba with more nuclear arms.  Attempts are being made to negotiate a treaty with Turkey involved, promising equal removal of military arms that could destroy the world in seconds. 

The Avery family has its own secret that will threaten to be as devastating.  Avery’s former military experience knows more than the average Floridian that the increasing military build-up in Florida presages war-status action. 

By the time the chaos comes to the very brink of attack, the Avery family has completely come undone. 

A Place We Knew Well is a realistic account of the Cuban crisis that swept across America and Europe that is perfectly plotted, revealing the doubt, fear, anxiety, and psychic inability to cope that occurred in a very short time.  It was the first time that the existence of nuclear arms went beyond a contest of “Who’s got more toys?” to “This is for real, folks.” 

Nicely crafted fiction about all-too-real turmoil in American history, Carol McCarthy!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc by Jennifer Kincheloe.

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.  Jennifer Kincheloe. Prometheus Books. November 2015. 375 pp.  ISBN#: 9781633880801.

In 2015 Los Angeles one can be as outrageous as one wants and everyone usually takes it all in stride.  However, in 1907 Los Angeles, a woman was allowed to marry, raise children and help out in local charities.  If that’s your cup of tea, read no further.  But if you’ve got a bit of an imp loving to try new things and be a little crazy, then you’re going to find Anna Blanc lives what you may dream.  In the beginning of her story, we see her eloping with a young man who says between having a lot of money and her spunk, he’ll be a happy man and they’ll be a happy couple.  Right?  Not quite!

After this debacle ends, rich Daddy pretty much imprisons Anna and hires a series of chaperones to monitor Anna’s every move when she leaves home.  But Anna is no wimp and finally makes a deal with one of those chaperones to exchange clothes and jewelry for six days. So what does Anna really want to do that she needs to do in secret?  Actually Anna is not only vain and a shopaholic but also has dreams of making a difference.  She wants to be like a friend who works in social service at a police station in L.A. but very, very few positions like this are open to the likes of Anna Blanc.  Turns out that she’s in the right place at the right time, especially after getting arrested for marching in a suffragette parade and smoking a cigarette in public.

No spoilers here – Anna is going to become involved in investigating the deaths of several young girls who have been coerced into prostitution out of terrible poverty.  At first she’s viewed as a bothersome liberal but little by little as she proceeds with ruthless determination she becomes a highly respected member of the police force.  In between those purposeful activities, however, Anna collects fiancés but must wait for quite a while before she finds the one she can truly love, admire, and respect, someone who has got Anna’s back in a secret but protective role. 

The Secret Life of Anna Blanc seems very, very contrived but this novel is actually a delight coupled with some witty social satire, as well as good sleuth work.  Unusual, crafty and a very pleasant read, Jennifer Kincheloe

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

White Collar Girl: A Novel by Renee Rosen

White Collar Girl: A Novel.  Renee Rosen. Penguin Group (USA). November 2015. 448 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474971.

Jordan Walsh comes from a family of notable journalists but their interest in the business has died with the loss of their son and Jordan’s brother who died in a hit and run accident.  Their family has truly been broken by this loss; no one speaks about thoughts or feelings about Jordan’s brother and Jordan is practically invisible as far as attention goes.  Now she’s finally getting a break and about to start a job as a journalist who writes about women’s issues in a column known as “White Collar Girl.”  But Jordan has far greater aspirations than writing about how to dress, apply makeup, find a husband, etc.  She wants to write solid investigative news and is willing to do anything to make that happen. But little is Jordan prepared for the consequences of her choices, both professionally and personally.

Jordan begins to be fed information on political corruption for medical insurance fraud but instead of receiving accolades her notes are given to a male to write the copy on the story.  The next time she scoops a huge story about more corruption that causes a severe accident, she plays it differently.  Little by little we read about tension-riddled, dangerous events and situations in which Jordan becomes the investigator and the one who writes the story.  The Chicago political machine run by Mayor Richard J. Daly and other supporters is rife with crooked politics.  And some who consider Jordan friend are really the opposite which she will discover with intensely emotional chagrin.

Romance unexpectedly arises for Jordan but is challenged by competition and familial problems of a fellow journalist working for a rival newspaper.  Another friend who attempts to woo Jordan winds up in a precarious situation which he believes Jordan arranged; indeed she is accused of choosing betrayal and success in her job over a growing friendship and possibly more.

Toward the end of the story, Jordan begins to investigate a story that might have to do with the death of her brother.  By now her reputation precedes her and so few are ready to whisper secrets that may be catastrophic for professional and personal lives around the office.

White Collar Girl is well-plotted historical fiction (1950s Chicago) that is thrilling to read in Rosen’s easy and well-researched story.  The dangers seem vivid and the personal plights seem no less enjoyable, albeit somewhat contrived.  The reader gets to know Jordan so well that one feels her joys and pain and is rooting for her through every challenge.  It’s a rough road women traveled to obtain equal standing in journalism, as well as other careers, and Rosen depicts what it was in the early days of the struggle for equal treatment at work and respect.  Her writing gets better and better!  Wonderful story and highly recommended read!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Through the Narrows - Tomahawk and Saber - Volume 2 - by Nathanael Green and Evan Ronan

Through the Narrows – Tomahawk and Saber (Volume 2).  Nathanael Green and Evan Ronan. Calhoun Publishing. October 215. 226 pp.  ISBN#: 9780996495813.

Hugh Pike and Wolf Tongue are again working together on a task that seems to be riddled with mystery and betrayal.  Wolf Tongue is silently mourning the degradation of his Sussquehannock tribe, which has lost many to disease and most of the stronger men and women to union with other tribes.  However, now the tribe is being accused of attacking and murdering residents of Millers Town.  Pike’s superior, the General who seems to despise him and refuses to promote him even after years of commendable service, has ordered him to investigate the Millers Town debacle and report back in three days, an almost impossible task for sure.
When Pike and Wolf Tongue arrive at Millers Town, they are far from welcome and suspicion about their presence is fiercely spoken.  They meet the man who reported the Indian raids, a suspicious character named Dobs and a French woman who knows a great deal but says little initially. As a war with the French is clearly looming, her words are deemed questionable. 

An almost immediate attack by the Indians, composed of members of various tribes, including an enemy of Wolf Tongue, occurs and reveals the cause of their anger.  Pike is given an ultimatum to solve the cause or watch the massacre of the Millers Town residents.  As he’s clearly outnumbered, he realizes he must solve the mystery.
Through the Narrows is the second volume of this Colonial American series.  While the characters and scenes are somewhat loosely constructed as far as actual reality of the Pennsylvania conditions, they do reflect the problems and terrors that truly did exist as colonialists faced divided Indian tribes and the ever-present conflicts caused by the perpetual warlike state existing between France and England, with the Americans caught in the middle.  While colonial characters are rather stereotypical, he presentation of several points of view with respect to the native Indians is remarkable and interesting.

For those who love adventure, a mystery, and an interest in early American history, this series by Green and Ronan is a fascinating, intense and tension-packed story. Nicely crafted!

The Palest Ink by Kat Bratt

The Palest Ink.  Kay Bratt. Lake Union Publishing. October 2015. 416 pp.  ISBN#: 9781503946169.

Mao Tse-Tung is at a crossroads in China in the year 1966.  His original plan to increase agricultural output has been a disaster and stories about brutality, starvation and disease travel like lightning despite efforts to curtail dissension and negativity.  Three young Chinese students, Benfu, Pony Boy and Wen, are divided in their loyalty to Mao.  However, little by little, a transformation occurs in their devotion, an evolution in which they believe they must publish the abuses and brutalities being committed by Mao’s notorious Red Guard, a group of supporters who become Mao’s arm of accusation and compliance.  The latter discover they have power and they carry out that formidable opportunity with terror and death.  Benfu, Pony Bok and Wen carry out a plan to reveal this travesty of progress but the consequences will be phenomenal and costly.

Benfu is a talented violin player who comes from a distinguished family.  His mother is constantly monitoring his every move and her demands are almost paranoid in her efforts to preserve and guard the “family honor” and social status they have worked so hard to possess.  Benfu is becoming a man and so finds his mother’s efforts to control him unbearable.  His only consolation is the time he spends with his best friend, Pony Boy.

Tragedy worsens Pony Boy’s status as a poor young man.  When his father becomes ill, Pony Boy must work long, long hours just to allow his family to retain their home and have meager meals to survive.  Pony Boy after turning from an ardent Communist realizes Mao is repressing and brutalizing his people during the period when all high status Chinese people are being purged and reeducated.  Pony Boy and Benfu plan a publication that will expose all that is wrong with Mao’s plans and actual realities. 

Benfu and Pony Boy will fall in love with women they respect, independent, strong-minded women who are willing to testify to the travesties of justice now rampant throughout China.  Benfu is sent to escape to the country to escape the Red Guard’s investigations into wealthy families but that country journey is one of working on a collective farm in which self-criticism and judgment by others is a constant threat to life and limb.  Pony Boy continues their efforts while Benfu works and suffers.  Eventually their reunion will spark a final challenge that is breathtaking in its fierce challenge and involve some other very special characters.

The Palest Ink is a potent, beautiful story about resistance and loyalty to friend, family and foe the reader will find hard to forget.  Its insistence that the written word surpasses all memories proves significantly true about this particular, significant historical period.  The mission of serving as a witness to history is valuable beyond words and so succeeds beyond expectations.  Very nicely crafted, Kay Bratt!

Theodora: Actress, Empress and Saint by David Potter.

Theodora: Actress, Empress and Saint.  David Potter. Oxford University Press. November 2015.  288 pp.  ISBN#: 9780199740765.

Theodora, Empress and Great Love of Emperor Justinian in the early 500s, came from a family of circus performers which meant being actors and actresses.  She would later fall in love, follow this lover and later be abandoned by him.  Later as a secret agent she meets Justinian and they marry.  At first Theodora doesn’t realize she is marrying the heir to the throne but in true feisty style Theodora adjusts to the change and proves to be a very wise ruler, often controlling the kingdom while Justinian was obsessed with creating a new code of laws that would last forever. 

David Potter tells the story of Theodora by recounting the writings of historians famous in her lifetime.  This makes for some very ironic, suspicious and avid reading as the reader faces many accounts that were probably not true but which reveal a modicum of the truth amid the exaggerations and outright falsities. 

Procopius was one such writer who speculates that Theodora opened a home for former prostitutes because she was one in her younger years.  His accounts seem to place an unduly large amount of space denigrating her and at times reveal prurient texts and scenes that perhaps say more about him than the object of his writing.  Yes, she later opened a home for former prostitutes who would be able to learn a career that would not place them in so much danger.  Another writer treats her with exaggerated respect and his treatment almost seems like a biography of a different, wholly loved and honored historical ruler.

A large part of the book is concerned with the Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian factions concerned with interpreting the nature of Jesus Christ as fully divine or partly divine and partly human.  One can underestimate the rivalry between these two groups but in reality it was as intense as the Green, Blue and other factions which affected politics, religion and culture in Theodora’s younger years. Theodora had a great deal to do with lessening the conflicts and potential violence always waiting to explode. 

Although this is a biography of Theodora, it is also an explication of the culture and history of the Byzantine era.  The author introduces the reader to the layout of the city, the structure of the games so important to Byzantine citizens, the entertainment offered through the denigrated actors and actresses, the yearning of the poor to escape their rigidly set social structure, the faith that ruled the country and empire, and Theodora’s role in all of the aforementioned subjects as well as the chaos that was to emerge during her rule.

Honoring her and Justinian in the icons or mosaics of Byzantium seems right after reading this book in which fact and fiction reveal a dynamic, intelligent, and very smart woman who is featured as an honored saint to this day.  Well-researched, fascinating look at a remarkable woman!

Hidden: First in a New Mystery Series by Karen E. Olsen

Hidden: First in a New Mystery Series.  Karen E. Olsen. Severn House Publishers. November 2015. 224 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727885326.

Nicole Jones has been hiding on Block Island, off the New England Coast.  She runs a bike touring business during the tourist season and has only two good friends, a slightly older man, Steve McQueen, and friends who run a spa and sponsor Nicole’s paintings in a local gallery.  Life is good and Nicole’s no longer always looking over her shoulder.  Perhaps she was too comfortable but that’s all about to end!

Zeke Chapman and Nicole crash into each other.  At first the reader thinks it’s pure coincidence but it’s really not that simple.  Zeke first of all has assumed the name of an FBI agent.  His presence is as exciting to Nicole as it was when they were lovers in Paris, France.  For both of them are professional hackers.  Years ago they did something years ago that involved stealing a huge amount of cash and leaving behind someone who wasn’t supposed to die but did. As the story progresses we learn that Zeke has a job for Nicole to do, but after a while we’re not sure if Zeke is truly friend or foe.  The confusing but terrifying scenes raise the tension level a hundred-fold for sure.

Nicole doesn’t want to tell anybody her secrets but eventually winds up doing so as the friends she has made on the island truly care about her and don’t want to see her in this perilous condition.  Others arrive who were totally unexpected and it turns out that Nicole left a clue for certain persons to find her; whether it was an accident or just plain stupidity doesn’t really matter as she’s now in very serious trouble, with both her enemies and her friends.

Hidden… is the first in a new series that will thrill those who love mysteries, thrillers or adventure novels.  It’s a complex yet simple plot at the same time that is all too credible in this day and age when hacking is developing into an international problem that can shake the financial world of companies, individuals and even the government.  Reading it makes one realize no one’s bank account is really safe and the power behind hackers is more of a near threat than perhaps we previously thought.  Nicely done, Karen E. Olsen!

Heirs and Assigns by Marjorie Eccles

Heirs and Assigns: A New British Country House Murder Mystery Series (Herbert Reardon Historical Mysteries). Marjorie Eccles. Severn House. November 2015. 224 pp.  ISBN#: 9780727885286.

Penrose Llewellyn has called his clan together for his 60th birthday in November 1928.  Since he’s recently suffered from a heart ailment, everyone in his family feels obligated to attend.  From the very beginning, the reader realizes this is a family not quite happy to be together.  Pen seems like a loving relative, but there’s an edge to his relationship with his brothers, Theo and Huwie, the latter who has been absent for years.  Theo is a successful lawyer and a rare book collector of books about music.  He and his haughty wife Claudia live well above their means but Theo is close to Pen and may be looking to inherit some wealth that is sorely needed.  Huwie seems like the black sheep of the family and others indicate he’s not to be trusted. The females in the family each have a bit of the wild side in them and clearly don’t get along, even the mother and daughter in the tale. There’s a close family doctor and some others who would like to marry into the clan but don’t seem able to accomplish their desires.

Imagine then the shock when Pen holds a family dinner before the big event and announces he will marry his garden designer, Anna.  The expectations for the family are now obviously diminished but even more so when Pen is found dead the next morning after the exciting family dinner. 

Herbert Reardon, a detective, is called into the case immediately.  He’s a shrewd character, physically scarred from the Great War, but no less loved by his sensible, liberal wife Ellen.  He sets about his investigation with the help of an assistant and becomes intrigued by the town’s antique bookseller from whom both Pen and Theo bought books for investment and love of old books.  The novel moves on rapidly with fascinating twists and turns and is totally unpredictable as who committed the dastardly deed.  Two other murders, one human and one canine, add to the mystery’s complexity.

Heirs and Assigns is a super historical mystery that is evenly paced, well-plotted, and contains just enough clues to sweep the reader to its very surprising end. It also adds some minor information about treatment of veterans from the War and those who refused to fight in the war, as well as the women’s reform movement for equality in that time.  Descriptions of the homes, shops, cooking, etc. abound realistically, including the great love for tea and some classic British meals.  Highly recommended for those who love a good mystery and a touch of Downton Abbey in between the puzzling and satisfying investigations.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Christmas Bells: A Novel by Jennifer Chiaverini

Christmas Bells: A Novel.  Jennifer Chiaverini. Penguin Group (USA). October 27, 2015. 336 pp.  ISBN#: 9780525955245.

“I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old familiar carols play/ And wild and sweet/ The words repeat/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”  This is the famous chorus of the poem/song written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  The story begins in the pre-Civil War year of 1860 when we are introduced to the Longfellow family, an almost ideal family who deeply cared for each other and thoroughly enjoyed their Boston, Massachusetts environment.  Harsh, then, is the extinguishing of the joyful flame when Henry’s wife, Fannie, dies in an accidental fire.  Longfellow is extremely overcome at the loss of his beloved wife and the thrill of Revolutionary times is also being squelched by the decisions made by Southern states to secede from the Union.  The issue of slavery and its economic realities has become the divisive factor calling for the split of a barely one hundred year old united nation. Longfellow’s family will be called to also sacrifice much during the duration of the war, perfectly summarized in Longfellow’s entire poem, “Christmas Bells.”

Travel in time another hundred years and we are watching how a devoted and talented music teacher, Sophia, is devastated with the news that her job has been eliminated because of financial budget cuts.  She’s also the conductor and director of a local church choir that is preparing to perform Longfellow’s poem as part of the annual Christmas celebration.  Her accompanist, Lucas, loves her but is afraid to honestly broach the subject with her. 

At the same time another family suffers because they have not heard from their husband and father who is serving in the National Guard in Afghanistan.  He used to call regularly but all of a sudden those calls stop.  Some other conflicts arise from here, later to be challenged by a Catholic nun with remarkable intuitive powers – or are they divine? 

There is so much more than can be described herein that makes this story real with all of the pain and grace-filled happiness that normal life challenges bring, even in the beloved season known as Christmas!  Jennifer Chiaverini crafts stories that convey an easy style intertwined with real, harsh challenges that don’t crush the reader with the elicited tension riddling so many scenes.  This reader is always delighted to read another Chiaverini novel and highly recommends this excellent work of historical fiction!!!! Perfect for any season!!!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Give Us This Day: A Brooke Burrell Thriller by Tom Avitabile

Give Us This Day – A Brooke Burrell Thriller. Tom Avitabile. The Story Plant. October 2015. 350 pp.  ISBN#: 9781611882095.

Brooke Burrell is tired and would like to step away from her FBI Director role and retire to Hawaii with her husband Mush.  But she also still has the fire in her belly and is now quickly drawn into a devious plan in which certain high finance leaders are funneling money into terrorist pockets for use in an act of terrorism as yet unknown.  What initially comes to light is that there’s a leak somewhere in the group trying to find out how the Prescott firm is involved in the financial side.  Even Brooke is subject to temptation but chooses otherwise. She seems to be one of the few who realize how many deaths could result from the successful transfer of monies to these fundamentalist Islamic groups. 

Meanwhile violet acts are occurring at an increasingly alarming rate.  An art gallery explodes to the point where there’s nothing left to analyze inside the non-existent building.  Several women who are involved in passing funds are now romantically involved with some very, very dangerous people.  Even some of the criminals involved in this carefully planned act of terrorism are being watched carefully as they aren’t deemed as religiously committed as they should be.

Now the countdown toward disaster is moving forward far too quickly but the terrorists have been sloppy and left behind evidence that only someone of Brooke’s high caliber intelligence is able to find.  The search is fraught with danger and even ambivalent support from her Washington boss who suffers from a case of paranoia about Brooke and the President who holds the power to decide everyone’s future. 

As the reader is now fast and furiously turning the pages, the violence accelerates and many will die before Brooke’s discoveries bear fruit.  One extreme act will kill far too many of Brooke’s team but her action will prevent something ten times worse from occurring.

Give Us This Day… is an awesome thriller that will please lovers of that genre and particularly of Tom Avitabile who never fails to provide powerful, realistic scenarios reminiscent of the best spy or thriller novels.  Highly recommended reading that again would also make for a captivating movie!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Italian Wife: A Novel by Kate Furnivall

The Italian Wife: A Novel.  Kate Furnivall. Penguin Group (USA). October 2015. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780425281383.

Isabella Berotti is enjoying a coffee in a shop in Bellina, Italy in 1932.  The massive building across the street is one that she actually helped design.  She’s proud of her work and her marriage.  That work came after a terrible time when her husband Luigi was killed by a sniper and she was devastatingly shot in the back.  Ten years of surgeries and pain, as well as attempting to build a new life for herself as an architect, have culminated in her job planning the construction of buildings in Mussolini’s latest project.  Mussolini is determined to make this city of Bellina the greatest city in Italy, indeed in the world! But disaster begins to wreak its designs, which Isabella realizes will only get worse if the tyrant has his way! Now immediately after a young woman asks Isabella to watch her daughter and quickly states she knows who killed Isabella’s husband, the woman crosses the street, climbs to the top of the tower, and jumps off the building.  Isabella, like all observers around the building, is stunned beyond words and then realizes she has a little girl who no longer has a mother!

The remainder of the novel is a journey to find out who this woman was, how she knew about Isabella’s husband and what is happening in this city in which nosing around brings brutal repercussions!  Isabella meets a young photographer, Roberto Falco, who is an uncommonly caring individual.  He introduces her to a world of migrant workers who are brought into the city to farm and work on its new buildings but who also face interrogations and brutality from Mussolini’s police and guards.  It turns out that Isabella’s husband, who was a “Blackshirt” was much more than the person she thought she knew and loved.  The child Rosa has already lived a life with more drama, cruelty, and fear than any adult over an entire lifetime.  She’s a beautiful but scarred individual who responds to Isabella’s kindness, even after she is taken away from Isabella, her only hope for a different future.

The Italian Wife… is a novel filled with tension-ridden scenes and some lovely descriptions of architecture and country life.  The story is based on facts about Mussolini’s rule and desire to impress the world with his revolutionary attitudes about how a city should be constructed and ruled! This is historical fiction at its best and Kate Furnivall is a talented writer who has captured the essence of Italy and its citizens in the midst of changing, turbulent times!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Stones in the Road by E. B. Moore

Stones in the Road.  E. B. Moore. Penguin Group (USA). October 2015. 384 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451469991.

A young Amish man, Joshua, lives with his family in 1867 Pennsylvania.  His father is a well-respected Deacon in the Amish community, but his father’s hatred comes out clearly when he has been drinking, a frequent evening activity that proves to be life-threatening for Joshua.  On one similar night, his father drags Joshua to a barn and sets about to kill him, not just beat him; but accidental movements occur and a fire is set that all but destroys the barn and leaves the father, Abraham, a physically and mentally scarred man. He’s a broken man who cannot utter what he was really trying to do that night.

Joshua runs away a second time.  He had been away once and had enough of life with “the English” that he wanted no more.  Now, however, he has no choice.  He has suffered burns himself in the fire and receives merciful treatment from unexpected characters.  His mother, Miriam, refuses to believe he died in the fire and searches the lands around their farm for days and days.  She’s a complex character who loves Abraham for the past moments of tenderness they have shared but who also knows his uglier side.  The stance she now takes with this wounded man and now being forced to manage their farm is evidence of the formidably strong and enduring woman she is. 

This then is the tale of these three main characters and those with whom they interact in their journey until mother and son might be reunited. It’s also a marvelous look into post-Civil War life from Pennsylvania all the way to Colorado and beyond.  The characters are gritty survivors of those who journey and live in western lands, those who prefer to be friendly and supportive because they believe in the love that binds American lives and those who would hurt and kill in a moment because of fear and anger at the sacrifices mandatory for those who would tame the difficult land and work for prosperity.

Stones in the Road is fine historical fiction about western life as well as a novel that gently depicts the life of Plains Amish people as well as their beliefs.  Very nicely done, E. B. Moore!  A notable, worthy follow-up to Moore’s facinating previous novel, An Unseemly Wife

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Splendor of Ordinary Days: A Novel of Watervalley by Jeff High

The Splendor of Ordinary Days: A Novel of Watervalley.  Jeff High. Penguin Group (USA). October 2015. 432 pp.  ISBN#: 9780451474100.

Luke Bradford, in this third Watervalley novel, has become more attached to the rustic beauty and pleasant, interesting people of Watervalley, Tennessee.  Part of it is the satisfaction he experiences with his medical practice and the stronger part is definitely his budding romance with Christine Chambers.  However, there’s always something brewing in the town that starts out small and grows with distressing power and the latest quandary is what keeps Luke from giving his whole heart to the town and the decision to permanently stay.

The latest conflict involves a phone call one night that there’s a fire close to the Mennonite community nearby.  Once the first responders arrive, they stop as they realize they will not be needed, for the Mennonite have their own fire brigade and reject any outside involvement.  The only man who has plenty of experience with the Mennonites is Luther Whitmore but what that is seems completely unknown to the townspeople.  When Luther, editor of the town newspaper, pens an irate editorial in the paper, though posed as a news story, the residents fail to see a connection and instead start conversations that put veterans to the forefront.  The town is proud of all the men who died in past wars over the last hundred years and so everyone accepts Luther’s irate words as gospel truth.
The secrets around this problem will gradually be revealed, as well as an effort to honor military veterans in the town with a memorial.  Luke, however, has an uncanny ability to warm up conversations and several characters in the book wind up eventually sharing their military and secular secrets, in this novel yielding forgiveness, repentance and healing that can only benefit Watervalley.

Luke and Christine will battle their own personal challenge, the first to test their deep love and personalities.

The Splendor of Ordinary Days… is a wonderful read with muted conflicts but high energy when it comes to being protective and caring toward each resident of the valley.  The descriptions of animals and setting, as well, are gently presented and make the reader feel he or she is also a resident, fully satisfied and loving one’s surroundings and neighbors.  Nicely crafted, Jeff High, again!  Recommended to all and the earlier novels in this series as well!