Monday, October 21, 2013

Miss Molly Robbins Designs a Seduction by Jayne Fresina

Carver Danforthe, Earl of Everscham, has a reputation of being a wild rogue—not for indulging the ambitions of his sister’s maid. But Molly Robbins’ unique dress designs have caught the eye of society's elite, and if it means her own dress shop, Molly will make a deal with the devil himself—or his proxy, the notoriously naughty earl. But becoming his mistress is not a part of their arrangement. It's right there in the contract’s small print: No Tomfoolery. Until he proposes a scandalous new addendum to their contract...

This lovely romance features as feisty and enjoyable a heroine as anyone could desire- Molly Robbins is a former ladies' maid with moxie, one who left her prospective groom at the altar to branch out on her own as a dressmaker to the ton. She is inspired to make this move by the drunken promise of her former employer to lend her the money to set up the business. Watching Molly find her feet in both business and love is wonderful, and the reader cannot help but wish her happiness. As a hero, the Earl of Everscham is less successful at times, especially when his selfish desires to get his way jeopardize everything Molly has worked to build. That said, it is good to watch him grow more responsible as Molly works her magic, and they do make a lovely couple in the end. Though two members of the same aristocratic family falling for commoners does stretch the imagination, overall this is a delightful read and I'll be on the lookout for more offerings from this author.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

An Untitled Lady by Nicky Penttila

Shocking family news forces Madeline Wetherby to abandon her plans to marry an earl and settle for upstart Manchester merchant Nash Quinn. When she discovers that her birth father is one of the weavers her husband is putting out of work—and a radical leader—Maddie must decide which family she truly desires, the man of her heart or the people of her blood.

An earl’s second son, Nash chose a life of Trade over Society. When protest marches spread across Lancashire, the pressure on him grows. If he can’t make both workers and manufacturers see reason he stands to lose everything: his business, his town, and his marriage.

As Manchester simmers under the summer sun, the choices grow more stark for Maddie and Nash: Family or justice. Love or money. Life or death.

Set in Manchester rather than London, and focused on the emerging merchant class and the problems of industrialization rather than the endless round of balls and entertainments for the ton, this historical romance was a refreshing change of pace in many ways. Maddie, haunted by a past she cannot remember, is a wonderful heroine. Her desperation to carve our a place for herself and to secure someone's love was heartbreaking, especially as the reader can see more clearly than can Maddie that the various people she wants to accept her are too self-interested to do so. Nash is a less successful hero as he too often ignores Maddie's very real need for support and comfort in favor of his commercial interests. The choice he forces upon her is almost the end for Maddie, and made it very difficult for me to like him.

I felt more could have been made of Nash's family- why did he and Deacon have so contentious a relationship with their father? What were his mother's real thoughts on any of it? Why did Nash run away at such a young age, and why didn't his family go after him? These lingering questions aside, the book was interesting, especially the information about the Peterloo Massacre and the insights into the problems of the working class during a time of industrial change in England. All in all, a quite engaging read.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Loving the Earl by Sharon Cullen

Having vowed never to wed again, widowed viscountess Claire Hartford is about to do the unthinkable: travel unaccompanied across the continent in search of a lover. Her adventure begins sooner than expected, when she meets a magnificent cloaked stranger on her ship’s gangplank. He is Lord Blythe, a man whispered about in London’s ballrooms and drawing rooms, a scandalous rogue hell-bent on seduction. Nathan Ferguson curses the day he agreed to look out for his best friend’s wayward sister. The charismatic earl is traveling to Paris to uncover the truth behind his father’s death, but his desire for Claire threatens to be his undoing. From France to Italy, on a journey of passionate discovery and danger, Nathan is honor-bound to protect her—from himself most of all. What can he offer Claire? Only love, as he sets out to prove to the woman of his dreams that she belongs to him—body, heart, and soul.

Well-written and engaging, this delightful historical romance pulled me in from the first page. Claire is a wonderful heroine- recovering from an abusive marriage and determined to take control of her own life for the first time. Nathan was a good foil for her- a jaded earl who scorns Society's rules but is nevertheless conventional enough to watch out for his friend's sister as she travels across Europe. Though there are points where I think the story was glossed over (especially as relates to revelations about Nathan's father at the end of the novel), perhaps reading the others in the series would add greater detail. Nevertheless, this was a great read even as a stand alone, and does inspire me to read more by this author.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A Note of Scandal by Nicky Penttila

A desperate composer tricks a principled newspaper publisher into printing a false story, and then falls for him. How can she prove that she’s worth a second chance?


A wonderful Regency romance that captures some of the seedier side of life in that time- the class inequalities, the tragedy of those injured in the war, the sad lack of opportunities for many women.  Olivia is a great heroine, though there were times I wanted her to listen to her inner voice and stand up for herself for once.  Will makes for a great foil to Olivia, struggling to maintain his father's legacy in the face of overwhelming odds.  Though Olivia's motives for getting involved with Merry and Martin don't emerge early enough in the story to make sense, her actions do make more sense when viewed in light of the societal structures of the time.

Well-written with strong dialogue and interesting insights into Regency life, this engaging romance is a delightful read.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Temptation Bay by Anna Sullivan


Maggie Solomon has always been one of Windfall Island's favorite daughters. A beautiful, passionate charter pilot who loves this remote Maine island, Maggie has never cared much for outsiders-until her latest passenger arouses the curiosity of the town . . . and something hot and irresistible in Maggie. With his long, lean looks and razor-sharp wit, the man is temptation itself.

Cop-turned-PI Dexter Keegan is on a covert mission to solve the case that will make his career: uncovering the identity of the Stanhope heir, kidnapped nearly a century ago. No one on this fiercely protective island can know what he's doing, not even the spirited, blue-eyed beauty who infuriates-and excites-Dex. As the desire between them ignites, Maggie becomes the key to the case . . . and the target of an unknown enemy. Now Dex will do anything to protect the woman he's come to love-even risk his own life.

With just enough intrigue to capture the reader's interest, this enjoyable read combines the mystery of a long-lost heir with a modern-day romance.  Maggie is a wonderful heroine- tough and resilient with just a small core of vulnerability to cement her appeal.  Dex is another great character, though I agree with Maggie that his decision to pose as an attorney made little sense given the island's automatic suspicions about outsiders.  There are wheels within wheels in this story, which is obviously the first in a new series.  Though I would have preferred to see the central mystery solved in the course of the book, I am intrigued enough to read the next offering when it is published.

Monday, September 30, 2013

A Most Devilish Rogue by Ashlyn Macnamara

Book Description:

Years ago, when Isabelle Mears was still a young miss too infatuated to know better, she surrendered her innocence to a dishonorable man. Though ruined and cast out from society, she has worked hard to shelter her illegitimate son, Jack. Having sworn off men in her quiet but dignified life, Isabelle is unprepared for the deep longing that rips through her when a handsome stranger rescues her rambunctious six-year-old from the pounding ocean surf.

George Upperton is a man in trouble with debts, women, and a meddling family. He is, by all accounts, the last gentleman on earth Isabelle should be drawn to. But loneliness is a hard mistress, and caution gives way to desire . . . even though Isabelle is convinced that happiness can’t be found in the arms of such a devilish rogue. Only when Jack is kidnapped does Isabelle discover the true depth of George’s devotion—and how far a good man will go to fight for the woman whose love is all that matters.

REVIEW: This enjoyable romance starts and ends strong, though it admittedly drags in the middle.  Isabelle is a delightful heroine, though it does get a little hard to believe she can focus on a romance when her young son is missing.  George at first appears to be an annoying wastrel, but gradually the deeper elements of his character appear, and it becomes easy to understand why Isabelle would fall for him.  The plot gets rather complicated and frankly I am still not certain exactly why Jack was kidnapped or how that was going to advance the cause of the kidnappers, but in the end I suppose it is the romance and not the kidnapping that is central to this story.  All in all an enjoyable read; I would certainly pick up other books by this author.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield


Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget...

Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.

And Bellman Black is born.

Hypnotically good is the only way I can think of to describe this book. I loved Setterfield's The Thirteenth Taleand wasn't certain how her latest would stack up. Once again though, the power of Setterfield's prose pulled me in and I had a hard time putting this book down. Her rich descriptions, compelling dialogue and creative storytelling make this book a must-read. From the first days of William's charmed life to its sad last days, this novel is a work of art. It is impossible not to like William, and not to mourn when he is dealt a series of blows that crush his young happy family. It is also impossible not to mourn when his desperate desire to keep some element of his family alive leads him to a bargain and a new life that essentially makes it impossible for him to find happiness. Though I would have liked to see more of William's daughter, that is my only quibble. All in all, a truly wonderful and compelling read!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lady Jenny's Christmas Portrait by Grace Burrowes

Book Description:
The only unmarried Windham sibling, Lady Jenny would not mind so very much taking care of her parents, if only she could study art in Paris for a few years first. Jenny longs for both an artistic challenge, and for a small taste of the passion life holds for those with the courage to seize it. 

Lord Elijah Harrington arrives to the Windham household to spend the Yule season painting portraits commissioned by Their Graces, and Jenny thinks she’s met not only a kindred spirit, but a man she might love. Alas, for Jenny—and Elijah—honor has obligated him elsewhere, and while ‘tis the season to be merry, for Jenny and Elijah it will take a miracle to bring them their happily ever after.

I had no idea this was the latest in a long series of connected romances until about 1/3 of the way through when it became clear that all those siblings must also have had a love story.  The book stands alone without any problems, though perhaps a reader already familiar with the characters might be less confused (there are a lot of siblings!)

The book started off a little slow and stiff for me, but quickly redeemed itself with a lovely story about love, family, and art.  I thought the tension between family duty and genius was well-balanced and it was interesting that both characters came from such large families with such different experiences of art.  Both Jenny and Elijah were delightful characters and I certainly found myself cheering on their interfering families' efforts to bring them together.

The one caution I would offer is that this book heavily hits the themes of babies and motherhood again and again.  It is an unusual focus on family especially for a romance novel, and I believe it is is pervasive enough to make this an uncomfortable read for anyone battling with the desire but inability to have a baby.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Question of Honor by Charles Todd

Book Description:

Bess Crawford enjoyed a wondrous childhood in India, where her father, a colonel in the British Army, was stationed on the Northwest Frontier. But an unforgettable incident darkened that happy time. In 1908, Colonel Crawford's regiment discovered that it had a murderer in its ranks, an officer who killed five people in India and England yet was never brought to trial. In the eyes of many of these soldiers, men defined by honor and duty, the crime was a stain on the regiment's reputation and on the good name of Bess's father, the Colonel Sahib, who had trained the killer.

A decade later, tending to the wounded on the battlefields of France during World War I, Bess learns from a dying Indian sergeant that the supposed murderer, Lieutenant Wade, is alive—and serving at the Front. Bess cannot believe the shocking news. According to reliable reports, Wade's body had been seen deep in the Khyber Pass, where he had died trying to reach Afghanistan. Soon, though, her mind is racing. How had he escaped from India? What had driven a good man to murder in cold blood?

Wanting answers, she uses her leave to investigate. In the village where the first three killings took place, she discovers that the locals are certain that the British soldier was innocent. Yet the present owner of the house where the crime was committed believes otherwise, and is convinced that Bess's father helped Wade flee. To settle the matter once and for all, Bess sets out to find Wade and let the courts decide.

But when she stumbles on the horrific truth, something that even the famous writer Rudyard Kipling had kept secret all his life, she is shaken to her very core. The facts will damn Wade even as they reveal a brutal reality, a reality that could have been her own fate.

This latest addition to the Bess Crawford canon is truly excellent and so often heart-breaking.  The mystery here is secondary in my opinion to the deeper truths it reveals about pre-war Anglo-Indian life.  It is impossible not to connect to Bess as a character and the grim realities of war are never sugarcoated in this series.  The sad story that unfolds of the abuse of children send halfway around the world supposedly to lead a better life is just heart-wrenching.  Once I started reading this book, I just couldn't put it down.  That said, this is no casual summer beach read.

Monday, July 8, 2013

That Scandalous Summer by Meredith Duran

Book Description:

One Daring Widow
In the social whirl of Regency England, Elizabeth Chudderley is at the top of every guest list, the life of every party, and the belle of every ball. But her friends and admirers would be stunned to know the truth: that the merriest widow in London is also the loneliest. Behind the gaiety and smiles lies a secret longing—for something, or someone, to whisk her away. . . .

One Reluctant Suitor
Raised in scandal, Lord Michael de Grey is convinced that love is a losing gamble—and seduction the only game worth playing. But when duty threatens to trump everything he desires, the only way out is marriage to a woman of his brother’s choosing. Elizabeth Chudderley is delightful, delicious—and distressingly attractive. With such a captivating opponent, Michael isn’t quite sure who is winning the game. How can such passionate players negotiate a marriage of necessity— when their hearts have needs of their own?

This latest offering by Meredith Duran focuses on Elizabeth Chudderley, a side character from two of her earlier works.  Unfortunately, I found it very hard to warm to Elizabeth in this book- she drinks too much and is often too vapid for sympathy.  As the book unfolds, she does get more palatable, but I just never really found myself pulling for her.  I also think that there wasn't much background tension moving the romance forward which is a marked contrast to other Duran books.  In the end, even a mediocre Meredith Duran is a cut above many of the offerings in this genre, but it was nevertheless disappointing given the high quality of her earlier books.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

It Happens in the Dark by Carol O'Connell

Book Description:

The reviews called it “A Play to Die For” after the woman was found dead in the front row. It didn’t seem so funny the next night, when another body was found—this time the playwright’s, his throat slashed.

Detective Kathy Mallory takes over, but no matter what she asks, no one seems to be giving her a straight answer. The only person—if “person” is the right word—who seems to be clear is the ghostwriter. Every night, an unseen backstage hand chalks up line changes and messages on a blackboard. And the ghostwriter is now writing Mallory into the play itself, a play about a long-ago massacre that may not be at all fictional. “MALLORY,” the blackboard reads. “TONIGHT’S THE NIGHT. NOTHING PERSONAL.”

If Mallory can’t find out who’s responsible, heads will roll. Unfortunately, one of them may be her own.

I must confess, I came to the Mallory series late, and so read the first nine books in immediate succession.  Sadly, that burned me out on the series and I vowed to steer clear of future additions.  I picked this book not really realizing that it was part of the series, and boy am I glad I did.  This is an excellent mystery story, and one that also adds interesting revelations about Mallory herself and her relationships with those around her.  I enjoyed it so much I went back and picked up the book I had missed along the way, happy to once again find myself in Mallory's world.  For me at least, these books are best digested a bit at a time- all in one go was just too much and blunted their impact.

A great story, but not a great intro into the series so be sure to read them in order if possible!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Heirs & Spares by J.L. Spohr

Book Description:

It’s 1569. Elizabeth I sits on the English throne, the Reformation inflames the Continent, and whispers of war abound.

But in Troixden, just north of France, the Lady Annelore isn’t interested in politics. Times are hard, taxes are high, and the people in her duchy need her help just to survive. Her widowed father is a good man easily distracted by horses, and her newly knighted childhood friend…well, he has plans of his own.

Then Annelore receives a call she can’t ignore.

When Troixden’s sadistic king died childless, his younger brother William returns from exile to find his beloved country on the brink of civil war. He’s in desperate need of the stability that comes with a bride and heirs. But Annelore, his chosen queen, won’t come quietly.

Now the future of Troixden lies in the hands of two people who never wanted the power they’ve received and never dreamed that from duty and honor they might find love and a path to peace.

Ultimately, this book was a disappointing read.  Though both Anna and Wills show sparks of character, in the end they simply aren't fleshed out enough to really pull in the reader.  The story is extremely choppy- every scene is too short and cuts off before any true depth can appear in either plot or characters.  Several plot elements also seem unrealistic (like a king traveling around to choose a bride rather than having his courtiers present themselves at court) which undermines the narrative.  The court intrigues are shallow and never really gel into true drama, perhaps because all the characters are two dimensional at best.  This book has the elements of a good read, but simply never develops enough to become one.

The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

Book Description:
A few years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, spook-turned-novelist Edwin Lemaster revealed to up-and-coming journalist Bill Cage that he’d once considered spying for the enemy. For Cage, a Foreign Service brat who grew up in the very cities where Lemaster’s books were set, the news story created a brief but embarrassing sensation and heralded the beginning of the end of his career in journalism.

More than two decades later, Cage, now a lonely, disillusioned PR man, receives an anonymous note hinting that he should have dug deeper into Lemaster’s pronouncement. Spiked with cryptic references to some of Cage’s favorite spy novels, the note is the first of many literary bread crumbs that lead him back to Vienna, Prague, and Budapest, each instruction drawing him closer to the complex truth, each giving rise to more questions: Why is beautiful Litzi Strauss back in his life after thirty years? How much of his father’s job involved the CIA? As the events of Lemaster’s past eerily—and dangerously—begin intersecting with those of Cage’s own, a “long stalemate of secrecy” may finally be coming to an end. 

I was pleasantly surprised by this novel- after a painfully slow start that made me question my choice, the plot hit its stride when Bill starts to delve into his past life as a Foreign Service brat in Cold War Europe. Fesperman demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of both classic and obscure spy novels throughout this book, and I really enjoyed the whole books-within-a-book plot. Things get a bit complicated and some of the coincidences seems a bit contrived, but I think most spy novels bump into that issue at some point. All in all, an enjoyable romp through the golden age of espionage.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

he's GONE: a novel by Deb Caletti

Book description:
The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.
As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.

When I picked up this book, I thought it was going to be a mystery/thriller about the search for a missing husband.  Instead, this is really a book about the complexities of love and marriage and relationships and family.  The fact that Dani's husband is missing is the central element of the plot, but the meat of the story is Dani's exploration of their life together to try to unearth clues about his disappearance.  The book is well-written and in places a moving read, though there were also moments where I found Dani's passivity rather irritating.  Nevertheless, this novel was a great read, one I would not hesitate to recommend.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book description:
As children Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were. Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.

This book was just strange for me.  I read and was caught by haunting quality of the prose, but somehow kept expecting more in terms of the actual action.  The story was sad and disturbing and yet the characters just seemed quietly accepting throughout.  When the book ended, I felt like it was just a quiet sigh of resignation- and somehow, I kept expecting there to be some actual action or condemnation or something.  I don't know- I didn't really enjoy the book, but I can't stop thinking about elements of it.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

His Majesty's Hope: A Maggie Hope Mystery by Susan Elia MacNeal

Book description:
World War II has finally come home to Britain, but it takes more than nightly air raids to rattle intrepid spy and expert code breaker Maggie Hope. After serving as a secret agent to protect Princess Elizabeth at Windsor Castle, Maggie is now an elite member of the Special Operations Executive—a black ops organization designed to aid the British effort abroad—and her first assignment sends her straight into Nazi-controlled Berlin, the very heart of the German war machine. Relying on her quick wit and keen instincts, Maggie infiltrates the highest level of Berlin society, gathering information to pass on to London headquarters. But the secrets she unveils will expose a darker, more dangerous side of the war—and of her own past.

This is the third installment in the Maggie Hope series, and I suspect will be the last I read. Though this book is nowhere near as derivative as the 2nd, there were moments at the end where I was once again pulled into the TV series Alias. This book is certainly darker than the first two, but is also less realistic which is saying a lot. Too many coincidences for my taste undermine what could have been a decent WWII thriller. After a strong opening, this series has settled into a formulaic treatment which robs it of the spontenaiety and quirkiness which made it so enjoyable in the beginning. Recommending this series to fans of Maisie Dobbs does them a grave diservice as Maggie has none of the depth of character and intelligence that make Maisie and her stories so compelling.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

Book description:
Ruth Galloway is shocked when she learns that her old university friend Dan Golding has died tragically in a house fire. But the death takes on a sinister cast when Ruth receives a letter from Dan written just before he died.

The letter tells of a great archaeological discovery, but Dan also says that he is scared for his life. Was Dan’s death linked to his find? The only clue is his mention of the Raven King, an ancient name for King Arthur.

Then Ruth is invited to examine the bones Dan found. Ruth travels to Lancashire–the hometown of DCI Nelson–with both her eighteen-month-old daughter, Kate, and her druid friend, Cathbad, in tow. She discovers a campus living in fear of a sinister right-wing group called the White Hand. She also finds that the bones revealed a shocking fact about King Arthur–and they’ve mysteriously vanished. When Nelson, visiting his mother in Blackpool, learns about the case, he is drawn into the investigation, especially when Ruth and his beloved Kate seem to be in danger. Who is willing to kill to keep the bones a secret?

This fifth installment in the Ruth Galloway series is an enjoyable read, if not as strong as those that came before. As Ruth finds herself pulled into the mysterious death of a colleague and the possible discovery of King Arthur's bones, she is also trying to navigate the complicated waters of her relationship with DC Nelson and his family. 

The mystery here isn't as compelling as those in earlier novels, a weakness that isn't offset by the side of the story that focuses on Galloway's complicated personal life. Frankly, I find that side of this particular series less interesting and though I like Ruth as an investigator, I often find her rather annoying as a character. I've never been particularly fond of Nelson either so when the mystery doesn't carry the story, I confess I am much less engaged.

A solid addition to the series but not a good starting point for any newcomer who will quickly be lost in the complicated backstory.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Proof of Guilt: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery by Charles Todd

Book description:
London, summer 1920. An unidentified body appears to have been run down by a motorcar and Ian Rutledge is leading the investigation to uncover what happened. While the signs point to murder, vital questions remain: Who is the victim? And where, exactly, was he killed?
One small clue leads Rutledge to a firm built by two families, famous for producing and selling the world's best Madeira wine. Lewis French, the current head of the English enterprise, is missing. But is he the dead man? And does either his fiancée or his jilted former lover have anything to do with his disappearance—or possible death? What about his sister? Or the London office clerk? Is Matthew Traynor, French's cousin and partner who heads the Madeira office, somehow involved?

The experienced Rutledge knows that suspicion and circumstantial evidence are not proof of guilt, and he's going to keep digging for answers. But that perseverance will pit him against his supervisor, the new acting chief superintendent. When Rutledge discovers a link to an incident in the French family's past, the superintendent dismisses it, claiming the information isn't vital. He's determined to place the blame on one of French's women despite Rutledge's objections. Alone in a no-man's-land rife with mystery and danger, Rutledge must tread very carefully, for someone has decided that he, too, must die so that cruel justice can take its course.

This latest installment of in the Ian Rutledge series is a decent (if sometimes confusing) addition to the canon. The mystery here is very complicated with a large cast of characters pas and present who can turn into a confusing sea of people- a family tree or some kind of character list like Agatha Christie often featured would certainly help keep it all straight. Despite the overly complex cast of characters/motivation for murder, the book offers some lovely insights into the developing (and maybe healing?) mind of the sadly tortured Ian Rutledge. The glimpses of post-WWI English life always help to strengthen these novels, and have given me a much deeper appreciation for the complexities of that unique time period. For those familiar with Rutledge and his problems, this should be an enjoyable offering, but I would certainly not recommend this book as an introduction to the character or series!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Aviator's Wife by Melanie Benjamin

Book description:
For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.
Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

This fictional look at the personal life of Anne Morrow Lindbergh is a wonderful read that captured my interest from page one. Watching as Anne (a shy and sheltered girl) fell in love with one of the most famous men of her time (and ours) was delightful, even though there were clear signs of trouble on the horizon. The account of the kidnapping and death of her baby son was harrowing, as was the slow decline of her relationship with Charles. From beginning to end, this book gives life to a story that many of us know only for its headlines. It is is moving and troubling and ultimately rewarding- an excellent read that I highly recommend.

As always, Melanie Benjamin does an great job of placing her characters firmly in history, and of making their words sound true to their circumstances (even though they are of course fictional). I enjoyed the Aviator's Wife immensely, and also recommend Alice I Have Been for a similarly strong and emotional tale.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

Book description:
The year is 1933. Maisie Dobbs is contacted by an Indian gentleman who has come to England in the hopes of finding out who killed his sister two months ago. Scotland Yard failed to make any arrest in the case, and there is reason to believe they failed to conduct a thorough investigation. The case becomes even more challenging when another Indian woman is murdered just hours before a scheduled interview. Meanwhile, unfinished business from a previous case becomes a distraction, as does a new development in Maisie's personal life.

In this 11th installment of the Maisie Dobbs series, Maisie is reflecting on a growing desire to travel the world while investigating the death of a young Indian immigrant. As Maisie searches for the killer, she gradually uncovers the strange sad world of immigrants of color in 1930s London. The mystery here is nuanced and enjoyable, and I was kept guessing until the end.

As always, it is delightful to track Maisie as she develops into a confident, independent young woman. Her care and concern for those in her life (in both personal and professional relationships) always draws me to her as a reader. I also love the way this series reveals the unique world of England between WWI and WWII. All in all, an excellent addition to a wonderful series- but start with #1 and not #11!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal

Book description:
As World War II sweeps the continent and England steels itself against German attack, Maggie Hope, former secretary to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, completes her training to become a spy for MI-5. Spirited, strong-willed, and possessing one of the sharpest minds in government for mathematics and code-breaking, she fully expects to be sent abroad to gather intelligence for the British front. Instead, to her great disappointment, she is dispatched to go undercover at Windsor Castle, where she will tutor the young Princess Elizabeth in math. Yet castle life quickly proves more dangerous—and deadly—than Maggie ever expected. The upstairs-downstairs world at Windsor is thrown into disarray by a shocking murder, which draws Maggie into a vast conspiracy that places the entire royal family in peril. And as she races to save England from a most disturbing fate, Maggie realizes that a quick wit is her best defense, and that the smallest clues can unravel the biggest secrets, even within her own family.

After reading the first book in this series, I was excited to pick up the second. I expected a enjoyable, if not particularly historically accurate, novel and that is what I got. The characters are fun, the insights into life in WWII England interesting, and the code-breaking tidbits intriguing. All was well until the entire sub-plot regarding Maggie's parents started to emerge- as a fan of the TV show Alias, I was shocked to discover the wholesale use of the entire plotline about Sydney's parents. Even the lines that Hugh utters about a wall of poppies are lifted from Vaughn's speech to Sydney about the wall of stars at the CIA. This was no small similarity in circumstances- this is essentially lifting the plot of several Alias episodes and just changing the names of the characters!

I was deeply disappointed by this lack of originality and it undermined my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. If I were not a fan of Alias, I would have given this book four stars, but knowing how a central plot element was shamelessly stolen from the TV series, I'm giving it zero stars.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age by Jonathan Keats

Book description:
According to Vasari, the young Michelangelo often borrowed drawings of past masters, which he copied, returning his imitations to the owners and keeping originals. Half a millennium later, Andy Warhol made a game of "forging" the Mona Lisa, questioning the entire concept of originality.

Forged explores art forgery from ancient times to the present. Jonathon Keats profiles individual art forgers and connects their stories to broader themes about the role of forgeries in society. From the Renaissance master Andrea del Sarto who faked a Raphael masterpiece at the request of his Medici patrons, to the Vermeer counterfeiter Han van Meegeren who duped the avaricious Hermann Göring, to the frustrated British artist Eric Hebborn, who began forging to expose the ignorance of experts, art forgers have challenged "legitimate" art in their own time, breaching accepted practices and upsetting the status quo. They have also provocatively confronted many of the present-day cultural anxieties that are major themes in the arts. 

Keats looks at what forgeries--and our reactions to them--reveal about changing conceptions of creativity, identity, authorship, integrity, authenticity, success, and how we assign value to works of art. The book concludes by looking at how artists today have appropriated many aspects of forgery through such practices as street-art stenciling and share-and-share-alike licensing, and how these open-source "copyleft" strategies have the potential to make legitimate art meaningful again. 

I love books about art forgery, and so was very excited to receive this one to review. Unfortunately, my initial excitement soon wained when it became clear this book didn't really seem to have a central cohesive premise. I definitely enjoyed the in depth look at some renowned forgers (I would have like some illustrations of the art in question but I read a review copy so this may have been addressed in the final for sale version), and I found myself suprisingly sympathetic to the idea that great forgers are still great artists if they are creating new works rather than just churning out multiple copies of the Mona Lisa. 

The book is scholarly in tone and certainly presumes some familiarity with the language of art criticism. Though I enjoyed everything I read in the book, at the end I found myself questioning why the book was written because there just didn't seem to be an underlying thesis. Perhaps a longer work would have allowed the author to more fully develop his themes; as it was, I was left feeling unsatisfied as a reader.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Vanity Fare: A novel of lattes, literature, and love by Megan Caldwell

Book description:

Molly Hagan is overwhelmed. Her cheating husband left her for a younger blonde, her six-year-old son is questioning her authority, and she’s starting a job as a copywriter for a local Brooklyn bakery.  She doesn’t need the complications of a new love. But the bakery’s sexy British pastry chef is determined to win her heart. And there is his intimidating and oh so irresistible business partner...who happens to have a secret that might prevent Molly from getting her own Happily Ever After.

Molly and her 6 year-old son Aidan are struggling to find their footing six months after husband and father Hugh left, but the struggle becomes more acute when his company implodes and Molly is left with the need to find a job fast to keep a roof over their head. As Molly learns to trust herself and to forge a new path, she also of course finds love again.

This story of one woman's journey to find herself after her husband leaves her for a younger woman doesn't break any new ground, but is an enjoyable weekend read. At times I found myself very irritated by Molly who surely should have seen some of her troubles coming. Aidan is a delightful character, certainly a better choice to spend a life with than any of the men Molly is involved with throughout the book. At times quite enjoyable, at time quite frustrating, this is an OK chick lit offering.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones by Alan Bradley

Book description:
Eleven-year-old amateur detective and ardent chemist Flavia de Luce is used to digging up clues, whether they’re found among the potions in her laboratory or between the pages of her insufferable sisters’ diaries. What she is not accustomed to is digging up bodies. 

Upon the five-hundredth anniversary of St. Tancred’s death, the English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey is busily preparing to open its patron saint’s tomb. Nobody is more excited to peek inside the crypt than Flavia, yet what she finds will halt the proceedings dead in their tracks: the body of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist, his face grotesquely and inexplicably masked. Who held a vendetta against Mr. Collicutt, and why would they hide him in such a sacred resting place? The irrepressible Flavia decides to find out. And what she unearths will prove there’s never such thing as an open-and-shut case.

This fifth offering from Alan Bradley featuring the young (and homicidally inclined) Flavia de Luce is a wonderful addition to the series.  Though the fourth book focused more on Flavia's development than the murder, this book skillfully blends the two into a masterpiece of a mystery.

It certainly seems Bishop's Lacey is a magnet for murder, but as usual Flavia is on the spot to do a bit of detecting.  The mystery this time arond is much more nuanced, and allows for a suitably nuanced picture of Flavia to emerge as well.  As she goes about solving the murder with panache, she is also coping with a much more complicated mystery- the mystery of growing up.

From start to finish this book pulled me along with Flavia and her band of misfit friends and relatives.  The murder mystery is tight, Flavia's development is both realistically and empathetically presented, and the cliffhanger of an ending a delightful shock.

This is a must read for anyone following the series, and the series is a must read for anyone who loves a good mystery.  Now I'm hanging on the edge of my seat, waiting for #6!

Friday, January 11, 2013

The American Patriot's Almanac: Daily Readings on America by Dr. William J. Bennett & John T.E. Cribb

Book Description:

365 reasons to love America! The fife and drum of history mark the time of each passing day. And within their cadence, personalities, conflicts, discoveries, ideas, and nations peal and fade. American history is no different. From the starving time of Jamestown during the Winter of 1609, through the bloody argument of the Civil War, and to today, the United States is a tale best told one day at a time.
In The American Patriot's Almanac, Bennett distills the American drama into three hundred sixty-five entries-one for each day of the year. 

Though not the kind of thing you will read through in one sitting, this book is an enjoyable addition to my history shelf.  This is the kind of book I pick off a shelf maybe once every couple of weeks and read through for the pleasure of it.  I can definitely see how useful it would be for anyone with kids at home because it is a great way to digest small and enjoyable tidbits of American history.  This isn't the place to learn all about everything, but this book is a great jumping off point for any student of history.  All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable almanac of Americana.