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.