Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips

Flap copy from ARC:
"London, 1672. A vicious killer stalks the court of Charles II, inscribing his victims' bodies with mysterious markings. Are the murders the random acts of a madman. Or the consequences of a deeply hidden conspiracy?

Cambridge, 2008. Teaching history at Trinity College is Claire Donovan's dream come true- until one of her colleagues is found dead on the banks of the River Cam. THe only key to the professor's unsolved murder is the seventeenth-century diary kept by his last research subject, Hannah Devlin, physician to the king's mistress. Through the arcane collections of Cambridge's most eminent libraries, Claire and historian Andrew Kent follow the clues Devlin left behind, uncovering secrets of London's dark past and Cambridge's equally murky present, and discovering that events are three hundred years ago may still have consequences today..."

I have mixed feelings about this engaging book that features two Cambridge historians investigating parallel mysteries today and 300 years in the past. The writing is crisp though I did find the use of the present tense for the historical portions rather jarring. Claire and Andrew seem like engaging characters, but the focus of the book is clearly Hannah and Edward in Restoration England.

It was definitely the historical portions of the novel that hooked me as a reader- the characters and Restoration London itself were well-drawn and the mystery was riveting. Though I enjoyed the interactions between Claire and Andrew, the modern day mystery seemed like an afterthought at best, and the solution had a deus-ex-machina quality that I found unappealing.

Regardless, I truly enjoyed the book, and will be looking to read Phillips first installment, "The Rossetti Letter". Strong 4 stars.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Flirting with Forty by Jane Porter

Flap copy from paperback:
"He got the second home and the Porsche. She got the kids and a broken heart. Now Jackie, post-divorce and heading toward the big four-oh, is on vacation in sunny Hawaii and staring down her upcoming birthday- alone. But not for long. She's soon falling for Kai, her gorgeous, much younger surf instructor, and the wild, passionate fling they have becomes the biggest surprise of Jackie's life.

Back home in Seattle, Jackie has to struggle with single parenthood...and memories of Kai. He hasn't forgotten her. Yet thousands of miles of ocean- not to mention an age difference that feels even wider- separate them. And, of course, her friends disapprove. When a choice must be made, can she, will she risk everything for her chance at happiness?"

I won a set of Jane Porter books from a fellow book blogger, and was excited to have some lighter fare to offset some of the heavier novels I've read lately. I confess I saw part of the Lifetime movie based in this book which peaked my interest- I figured the mediocre movie had probably cherry-picked the melodramatic bits of the novel leaving the meat behind for readers. Ultimately though, I was disappointed to discover the book was as mediocre as the movie though perhaps for different reasons.

The premise of the novel is decent, and I definitely appreciated the strong opening where Jackie and her children must wrestle with the seemingly mundane problem of selecting and decorating the family Christmas tree. Porter does an excellent job of highlighting how hard even this simple task is as a single parent; hoisting and lashing a 10 foot tree onto the roof of a car is really a two-adult job.

Unfortunately, the strong opening that made me truly think about the day to day problems of raising two kids alone soon gave way to the stereotypical quest to find a man to resolve these life problems. Though I do agree that many parents focus more on the happiness of their children than on their own, I did get tired of hearing Jackie hammer that point home repeatedly during the narrative.

Jackie and her friends seemed shallow- focused on money and looks and status rather than on anything even vaguely meaningful. Jackie's inner monologue ran on an endless loop; she never really seemed to grow or develop during the course of the novel. I give Porter props for not wrapping up everything neatly at the end (one of my pet peeves with the movie) but still think she missed an opportunity to create multi-dimensional characters that would have given this novel the depth to stand with other works of literary fiction.

I give this one three stars- it would be a decent vacation read.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Darling Jim by Christian Moerk

Flap copy from ARC:
"Three sisters. Three tales. And a secret, dark as night.
When two sisters and their aunt are found dead in their suburban Dublin home, it seems that the secret behind their untimely demise will never be known. But then Niall, a young mailman, finds a mysterious diary in the post office's dead-letter bin. From beyond the grave, Fiona Walsh shares the most tragic love story he's ever heard- and her tale has only just begun.

Niall soon becomes enveloped by the mystery surrounding itinerant story-teller Jim, who traveled through Ireland enrapturing audiences and wooing women with his mythic narratives. The Walsh sisters were not immune to "darling" Jim's powers of seduction, but found themselves in harm's way when they began to undercover his treacherous past. Niall must now continue his dangerous hunt for the truth- and for the vanished third sister- while there's still time.

And in the woods, the wolves from Jim's stories begin to gather."

In this story within a story, postman Niall finds the diary of a young woman at the center of a murder mystery, and begins to reconstruct the torrid tale behind the murder house and a series of missing women in the west of Ireland. As we learn more about the three Walsh sisters, their Aunt Moira, and the diabolical itinerant storyteller Darling Jim, a brooding sense of foreboding develops that sets the tone for the entire novel.

Between the story within a story within a story format, the mystical elements, and the country appropriate language, I feared this novel might crumble beneath the weight, but instead it transported me to a place of suspended disbelief where everything made its own strange sort of sense. I was most impressed that the author managed to draw out the anxiety to a fever pitch and then maintain that level of intensity until the very last pages of the novel.

The writing is crisp, the language spot-on, and the story itself a truly unusual addition to my library. I started reading and simply couldn't put this book down, no matter how much I wanted to at times as the story grew darker and darker. I highly recommend this magnificent book and look forward reading more by this talented writer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Believers by Zoe Heller

Flap Copy from ARC:
"When New York radical lawyer Joel Litvinoff is felled by a stroke, his wife, Audrey, uncovers a secret that forces her to re-examine her ideas about him and their forty-year marriage. Joel's adult children will soon have to come to terms with this unsettling discovery themselves, but for the meantime, they are grappling with their own dilemmas ... "

I was really looking forward to reading this book because I loved Notes on a Scandal, but finishing this book was a chore. My thoughts were pretty aptly summed up over at Streetcorner Library. Despite the quality of Heller's writing, my inability to empathize with any of the characters made it impossible for me to enjoy this book.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Flap copy from ARC:
Meet Flavia de Luce, an aspiring chemist with a passion for poison, a taste for homicide, an obsession with delving into the forbidden past of her taciturn, widowed father...and did we mention she's eleven years old?

It is the summer of 1950 and a series of inexplicable events has struck Bucksaw, the decaying English mansion that Flavia's family calls home. A dead bird is found on the doorstep, a postage stamp bizarrely pinned to its beak. Hours later, Flavia finds a man lying in the cucumber patch and watches him as he takes his dying breath. Then someone steals a slice of Mrs. Mullet's unspeakable custard pie that had been cooling on the kitchen window. Flavia sums it up: 'I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn't. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life...'

As the noose tightens, Flavia decides it is up to her- and her fully equipped Victorian chemical laboratory- to piece together the clues and solve a murder.

What a wonderful, fun and quirky mystery! The opening is strong, and I found myself immediately drawn to the possibly homicidal young protagonist. The book is filled with strange and not always sympathetic characters that draw the reader into Flavia's almost surreal landscape. I thought the plot was well-drawn, and even though I guessed the identity of the villain, I needed to keep reading just to learn more about how Flavia would solve the mystery. An excellent effort that could easily turn into the beginning of a series; I for hope to read more about young Flavia de Luce!

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Household Guide to Dying by Debra Adelaide

Flap copy from ARC:
Delia is a household advice columnist who seems to have all the answers. She is such a fountain of knowledge that she's written a whole book just about laundry, and now that she's dying, she's going to write the book on that as well- the ultimate "Household Guide to Dying". Meanwhile, she'll compile a list for her daughter's future wedding; fill the freezer with homemade stews; and offer her a husband a suggestion for whom to marry when she's gone. One item on her to-do list, however, proves too much even for "Dear Delia", and just as she is coming to terms with the impossibility of the whole mission, an unexpected visitor helps her believe in her life's worth in a way that no list ever could."

This book was an excellent portrayal of one woman's attempt to deal with her oncoming death by mapping it out for other women. As Delia wrestles with the realities of a terminal cancer diagnosis, she tries desperately to keep her family life as normal as possible. When she suddenly leaves her family to drive halfway across the country in search of her past, Delia finds more and less than she had hoped.

This poignant look at Delia's last months was unexpectedly funny in parts- I found myself laughing in spite of myself at certain points. Delia's relationship with her husband and children rang true, her love for them tempered by occasional annoyance and understandable frustration as she grows weaker. When Delia brought home her coffin for her family to decorate, it was both shocking and completely perfect. Though I wasn't certain about the way some of the plotlines came together (can't say more without spoilers), the actual ending of the book more than made up for any earlier faults. Delia's death was handled with amazing sensitivity and actually brought tears to my eyes. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Harlot's Sauce by Patricia Volonakis Davis

Book Description:
"When Patricia, the Italian-American, marries Gregori, the "gorgeous" Greek, she spends almost two decades in a sometimes tragic, sometimes uproarious pursuit of 'Happily-Ever-After'. In a last-ditch effort to make their relationship work, Patricia moves with Gregori to Greece, where he insists he must be in order to be happy. Once there, she discovers that though she might not save her marriage, she just might save herself. "

This wonderful memoir justifies the expression "don't judge a book by it's cover". Though released through a small press, Davis' book is as professionally written (if not formatted) as any I've ever read. Witty and self-deprecrating, Davis takes us through two decades of life as an Italian-American woman married to a Greek for all the wrong reasons. Though her naivete is sometimes painful, Davis is ruthlessly honest about the mistakes she made and why she made them. Readers will admire her determination to make her marriage work- she did after all move halfway around the world to try to find happiness for her family!

As an Irish-American, I could appreciate many of the facets of growing up a "Hyphen" (especially the Catholic guilt!), and think this memoir will speak to anyone who appreciated My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to pass it along to friends. My only quibble is that the ending felt rushed after all the buildup- I would have liked an additional chapter to cover "where is she now". All in all a highly recommended 4 stars.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Someday My Prince Will Come by Jerramy Fine

Book Description:
"Jerramy Fine wants to be a princess. At age 6, she announces that she is going to meet and marry the Queen of England’s grandson and even as she gets older, not once does she change her mind! But growing up with hippie parents in the middle of a rodeo-loving farm town makes finding her prince a bigger challenge than Jerramy ever bargained for. How can she prepare to lead a royal life when she’s surrounded by nothing but tofu and tractors?

Jerramy spends her lonely childhood writing love-letters to Buckingham Palace, and years later, when her sense of destiny finally brings her to London, she dives head first into a whirlwind of champagne-fuelled society parties in search of her royal soul mate. She drinks way too many martinis and kisses far too many Hugh Grant look-a-likes, but life in England is not the Disney fairytale she hoped it would be. Her flatmates are lunatics, London is expensive, and British boys (despite their cute accents) are infuriating. Sure, she’s rubbing shoulders with Princess Anne, Earl Spencer and the Duchess of York – but will she ever meet her prince?"

I actually enjoyed this book more than I anticipated- the author's wry humor kept it from being too over the top despite her focus on becoming a princess. Though I do question the wisdom of pursuing a dream to marry royalty from age 6 to 26, I can't argue against the power of tenacity that Fine so ably demonstrates. Sure, it might have been better to focus the energy and intellect on saving the world rather than on perfect Peter Phillips, but in the end, you can't argue with results!

I did feel a lot of sympathy for Jerramy growing up in a slightly wacky household, and also for her hippie parents forced to deal with a child who believed she'd been switched at birth. The author's descriptions of both dorm and flat life in London were bang on, and made me crack more than one sympathetic smile. In the end, it was Fine's humor and voice that carried this book, that and the unlikely fact that the book was a memoir rather than the latest Bridget Jones wannabe. All in all, an enjoyable read that I'll recommend to friends.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

Book description:
"Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin needs to spend her summer doing research for her doctoral dissertation. But when her mother asks her to handle the sale of Connie's grandmother's abandoned home near Salem, she can't refuse. As she is drawn deeper into the mysteries of the family house, Connie discovers an ancient key within a seventeenth-century Bible. The key contains a yellowing fragment of parchment with a name written upon it: Deliverance Dane. This discovery launches Connie on a quest--to find out who this woman was and to unearth a rare artifact of singular power: a physick book, its pages a secret repository for lost knowledge.

As the pieces of Deliverance's harrowing story begin to fall into place, Connie is haunted by visions of the long-ago witch trials, and she begins to fear that she is more tied to Salem's dark past then she could have ever imagined."

This novel was absolutely wonderful- I read it in two days because I just couldn't put it down when I was home. The stories of a modern-day PhD candidate and the 17th century cunning woman she is researching are blended seamlessly in this excellent first novel. I've read many books (both fiction and nonfiction) about the Salem witch trials, but haven't enjoyed once so much since I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond some 25 years ago.

This novel is well-written and well-crafted- a real delight to read. The relationships between the various women in the book speaks to the universality of mother-daughter bonds, and the struggle many women face (both in the past and in the present) to shape and adapt to the world in which we live.

I highly recommend this stellar effort, and hope that Katherine Howe continues writing; I'll be on the lookout for future works by this excellent writer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Deadlock by Iris Johansen

Flap copy from ARC:
"Emily Hudson is an artifacts expert for the U.N. who travels to war torn countries attempting to save their priceless treasures from destruction. Her best friend and partner, Joel Levy, is always at her side—until one day, her entire crew comes under attack. Joel and Emily are held hostage by a ruthless and evil captor who is determined to find the missing link to a legendary treasure. For weeks they struggle to survive against terrifying odds.

John Garrett has worked for the CIA, MI6, and whoever else was willing to pay for his servicesneeded his services. Now, the CIA comes calling and desperate. The mission: save Emily Hudson and Joel Levy. But their may be more to this job than they let him know..."

I've been reading Iris Johansen since she was writing pure romance, and have enjoyed her moves to suspenseful romance, romantic suspense, and now pure thriller. That said, I felt like this book was just average. The mystery plot seemed needlessly complicated (as are most things that involve Rasputin and the Romanovs) which left little time to develop the many characters featured in the novel. Only Emily really seemed fully fleshed- the others were all caricatures rather than characters.

This would make a good beach read, but is likely to disappoint readers looking for Johansen's signature heat; the focus here is definitely on the mystery rather than on the relationships. The book was well-written to be sure, but never really delved into the motivations of the characters or provided much of an explanation for the ever-growing body count. All in all, not Johansen's best work by a long shot.