Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review

Last year, the prolific Rhys Bowen gifted us with a stand-alone book, Farleigh Field. Set in England during WWII, it was a smashing success, and it was just my cup of tea in WWII novels, with mystery and history and shocking revelations. That I had two more novels from Rhys to enjoy last year, too, in her Royal Spyness series and her Molly Murphy series, was incredible good fortune. Well, she has done it again in 2018 with the stand-alone The Tuscan Child, another WWII novel, but set mostly in Tuscany. I knew that Rhys had spent lots of time in Tuscany recently, and I was quite envious, but her meticulous research benefits us all in this new novel, as the fictional village town of San Salvatore comes gloriously alive to our senses while reading this gripping tale. How does this author put out three outstanding books in one year? I suspect cloning, but I don't mind that science would work for my reading pleasures.

The novel is told in two timelines, December 1944-Spring 1945 and April 1973-June 1973. The story begins at its beginning, in December 1944. British bombing pilot Hugo Langley is the sole survivor of his plane when he is shot down over Italy by the Germans. Although wounded, he is able to parachute to the safety of an olive tree orchard in the Tuscany area of Italy. Continuing his good fortune, he is discovered by a young woman named Sofia Bartoli, who, at great risk to herself, helps him struggle to a bombed out monastery on a hill above the village. With the Germans occupying the area and Hugo's leg compromising his ability to travel, he is forced to hide in the shambles of the old monastery and rely on Sofia to bring him food and supplies. It is a life and death situation for them both, as Hugo's hiding and Sofia's assistance could be discovered and reported to the Germans at any time. As time passes, Hugo's thoughts of his half-hearted marriage in England turn to thoughts of love for the brave and beautiful Sofia, and Sofia, whose husband has been missing in action for some time, falls in love with Hugo, too. It is a time and place where love is stripped of its class boundaries and impossible futures, and the aristocratic Hugo and Sofia of simple means dare to tempt fate and probability.

Fast forward to April 1973, and Hugo's daughter, Joanna Langley, comes home to Surrey England from working on her law degree in London to bury her father, who has died at the age of only 64. Joanna's mother had died when Joanna was eleven, and she and her father had continued to live in the gatekeeper's house where Joanna had been born on the Langley estate, an estate that had to be sold after the war due to death taxes from Hugo's father's death. Upon going through her father's possessions that had been stored in Langley Hall's attic, Joanna discovers an unopened letter to a Sofia Bartoli in Tuscany with a "return to sender/address unknown" stamp on it. It is a love letter written after her father returned home to England, and in it Hugo mentions his and Sofia's "beautiful boy." Joanna is thunderstruck at this revelation that her cold, distant father had been in love with an Italian woman in the village where his plane had been shot down during the war, and that here might have been a child from the affair is astonishing. In further examining her father's belongings, she comes across a sketch of a woman and some of his art work that he had never shared with Joanna's mother and her. Joanna realizes that she hadn't really known her father, who had kept himself closed off to her. She suddenly wants to know about the man he had been before he shut the world out, and the only place she feels she can get answers is the Tuscan village of San Salvatore. So, she sets off for Tuscany on a mission to understand the mystery that was her father and see if she possibly has a brother left behind. 

With Joanna's appearance in San Salvatore, the bulk of the novel takes place in Tuscany, which now gives readers a look at the present-day village as well as the war-torn village when Hugo hid in its hills. The scenery and food are both luscious and engaging. The woman whose place Joanna stays at in the village is a cook from Italian culinary heaven, and reading about the meals she fixes is a wonderful bonus to the story. But, Joanna's friendly, nurturing atmosphere of Paola's house is not the typical reception she gets in this new place. There are secrets that have lasted far too long to be dug up by a nosy Englishwoman. Tuscany is a place of great beauty and time-honored traditions, but it is also a place where the past can deliver a dangerous present for someone disturbing it.

I'm a fan of different timelines in stories, but there is a skilled finesse to creating a smooth sync between them. Rhys Bowen does that masterfully. Hugo's story in 1944 and Joanna's story in 1973 need each other to tell a complete story for both characters. The Tuscan Child is a great story in showing how people get to be the people they are, and it's an interesting look at the family dynamics of parent and child, making the point of parents as people before they are parents. The historical aspect of this fictional tale touched upon the interesting aspects of the demise of the great estates in England after WWII and the suffering of the Italian people once their alliance with Germany was ended in 1943. I appreciate historical fiction that spurs you on to learn more, and this story does that. Rhys has long been a talented character creator, and the characters of Hugo and Joanna and Sofia, along with an intriguing cast of minor characters, will stay with you long after the last page is turned. This book will be an easy choice for my 2018 favorite reads list.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Blessed are the Merciful by Kristi Belcamino: Reading Room Review

Reviewing Blessed are the Merciful, the sixth and final book of the Gabriella Giovanni Mystery series, is an emotional challenge for me. The first Gabriella Giovanni book, Blessed are the Dead, was my first Kristi Belcamino book and how I first came to know this talented, generous author. After reading that first book, I knew that Kristi was a special writer, a master storyteller. And, she has proved herself to be a versatile author, expanding her oeuvre to include the fierce Gia Santella series; a stand-alone Young Adult book that rocks and rolls, City of Angels; and a recently released stand-alone that chills you to the bone, Shadow Man. But, it all began with Gabriella Giovanni, who captured my heart and imagination, and started me on a journey of reading that has enriched my reading life and my personal life immeasurably. If this farewell salute sounds like a love letter to this series, well, it is. Saying goodbye to Gabriella and the other outstanding characters in the series was hard and messy, with tears for all.

So, this final adventure with newspaper reporter/crime solver Gabriella and her husband, DEA agent Sean Donovan starts with a scene of domestic bliss, as the Gabriella and Donovan eat breakfast with their three children, a hard fought for bliss. However, when Gabriella gets to work, a phone shatters that bliss with three simple words, "You are dead." She immediately recognizes the voice as that of El Loro, the drug king who had imprisoned both Donovan and her in Guatemala a year and a half earlier. Escaped from a Mexican prison, El Loro is out for revenge, blaming Gabriella for his capture and imprisonment. When shortly after the call, Gabriella narrowly escapes a car bombing, her car, and an attack is attempted on her family, decisions come quickly for Gabriella to accompany Donovan to Guatemala in pursuit of the man who wishes to destroy their lives and continue his drug trafficking business. But as usual, things don't go as planned once they reach a DEA safe house in the jungles of the country with so many bad memories for them. Donovan leaves with his three-man DEA team for a meeting telling them where to find El Loro, and Gabriella must wait behind for further action. Of course, action finds Gabriella before Donovan returns.

Within hours of Donovan's departure, Gabriella finds herself compelled to join forces with others to bring down the mighty drug lord, and once again she is separated from her husband in the wild surroundings of a country bent on defeating her. But, Gabriella will do anything to keep her family safe now and in the future, and so she trudges through the impossible, making decisions and taking actions focused on that sole goal. With her children in the capable hands of her step-father, the Saint, Gabriella goes for broke in the final struggle to establish peace in the lives of those she loves, no matter what the cost.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Force of Nature by Jane Harper: Reading Room Review

I read Jane Harper's debut novel, The Dry, at the end of last year and wondered why I hadn't read it as soon as it was published. The Dry introduced the character of Federal Agent Aaron Falk, and it was easily one of my favorite reads last year. That it was a debut novel was simply gobsmacking impressive. Now, in Force of Nature, Harper returns readers to Australia and Agent Falk, an honorable man whose baggage from his youth was explored in the first novel. We are still learning about this solitary figure in book two, with the focus on his relationship with his late father. But, those are the side notes that keep giving insight to the character and explain why he is where he is in life. There is an overwhelming problem with which to deal while we grow closer to the character, and that problem in Force of Nature is one of finding a needle in a haystack.

Five women and five men from the accounting firm of BaileyTennants go on a three-day team building trek in Australia's Giralang Mountains, routes and supplies provided by a professional excursion company for just such activities. But, at the end of the three days, as the men's team waits for the women's team to return to the base lodge, only four of the five women return. Aaron Falk gets involved in the disappearance because the missing team member, Alice Russell, was working with him to blow the whistle on the corrupt BaileyTennants accounting firm, a firm run by a brother and sister. The sister and brother were on the exercise, too, and Falk is concerned that Alice Russell may have been outed as a traitor before the trip. One thing is certain. The five women on the team have issues with one another, and Alice could be quite cutting with the others. Resentment would only grow with the time the women spent together. Falk and his partner, Carmen Cooper, can sense that the returning women are filtering their stories and holding back information, and at least one of them is holding back the key information to finding Alice. Sergeant King of the State Police is in charge of the search for Alice in the mountain ranges and keeps Falk and Carmen apprised of what is being done there. It's up to the two federal agents though to determine just what went on with Alice and the other women, as their investigation of the accounting firm depends on documents Alice was about to provide. 

As Falk begins the investigation at the mountain range itself, he is confronted with ghosts, that of his father who hiked this wilderness and whose map of the area is in the backpack of his father's that Falk brings along to his lodgings, and there is the ghost of a serial killer who once used these mountains as a hiding place. The investigation when Falk is in Melbourne is fraught with complications of past and present relationships and trying to move forward with the surprise bringing down of a corrupt company. Falk's partner, Carmen, is an interesting new character who works well with the loner Falk and seems to have a well-balanced control of her life, although her upcoming nuptials give a bit of pause for thought. With hours becoming days, Falk and Carmen are losing hope for a happy ending with either Alice's survival or the success of their financial investigation into BaileyTennants.

There should be no doubt after reading Jane Harper's second Aaron Falk novel that Harper is an author of great skill and delivery. Her writing is as polished as any seasoned writer I read. Her grasp of creating a suspenseful story results in a thrilling read, with her on-target descriptions of an immense forest in the dark and trails that lead nowhere. The gas attendant at the only station close to the park entrance states, "It’s the panic that gets you. Makes it hard to trust what you’re seeing.”
Harper brings this panic into our minds with a masterful deftness. Force of Nature cements this series and this author as storytelling at its finest.

Friday, March 2, 2018

March Preview: New Releases of Books You Won't Want to Miss

March 2018 is keeping up with the first two months of this year in its offering of enticing new book releases.  I'm still trying to catch up with February's reading, and it's a formidable challenge.  But, if a plethora of new releases is a problem, it's a problem I'm happy to have.  Below are the covers and descriptions of the some of the books to which I'm most looking forward this month. 

Jacket Description:  It happened the night Maggie Wilbourne was to be put to death, the first woman executed by the state of Pennsylvania in modern times. That was when a group of women passionately protesting Maggie’s imprisonment struck. They blew up a local dam, flooding the town of Everton and indirectly inspiring a hellish night of crime and chaos.

Fourteen of today’s most exciting contemporary crime writers will take you to the fictional town of Everton, with stories from criminals, cops, and civilians that explore the thin line between the rich and the poor, the insider and the outsider, the innocent and the guilty. Whether it’s a store owner grimly protecting his property from looters, an opportunistic servant who sees her time to strike, or two misguided youths taking their anger out against any available victim, The Night of the Flood is an intricate and intimate examination of the moment when chaos is released—in both society and the human spirit.

Contributors: E.A. Aymar, Rob Brunet, Sarah M. Chen, Angel Luis Colón, Hilary Davidson, Mark Edwards, Gwen Florio, Elizabeth Heiter, J.J. Hensley, Jennifer Hillier, Shannon Kirk, Jenny Milchman, Alan Orloff, and Wendy Tyson. 

Jacket Description:  Reminiscent of the bestsellers of Laura Lippman and Harlan Coben—with a dose of Big Little Lies or Stranger Things—an absorbing, addictive tale of psychological suspense from the author of the highly acclaimed and Edgar Award-nominated What Remains of Me and the USA Today bestselling and Shamus Award-winning Brenna Spector series, in which a seemingly open-and-shut police case with a clear-cut hero and villain turns out to be anything but simple.

Late one night in the quiet Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, a distraught woman stumbles into the police station—and lives are changed forever.

Aimee En, once a darling of the ’80s pop music scene, claims that a teenage boy stole her car, then ran over another young man who'd rushed to help.

As Liam Miller’s life hangs in the balance, the events of that fateful night begin to come into focus. But is everything as it seems?

The case quickly consumes social media, transforming Liam, a local high school football star, into a folk hero, and the suspect, a high school outcast named Wade Reed, into a depraved would-be killer. But is Wade really guilty? And if he isn't, why won't he talk?
Told from a kaleidoscope of viewpoints—Wade's mother Jackie, his younger brother Connor, Aimee En and Pearl Maze, a young police officer with a tragic past, If I Die Tonight is a story of family ties and dark secrets—and the lengths we'll go to protect ourselves.

Jacket Description: 
Friends since childhood, and lovers and business partners as adults, Niamh and Ruairidh are owners of a small Hebridean company, Ranish Tweed, that weaves its own very special version of Harris Tweed. Although it's a small company, their fabrics have become internationally sought-after as a niche brand in the world of fashion and haute couture.

But the threads of their relationship are beginning to fray. As they prepare for an important showing at the Première Vision fabric fair, held in Paris every year, Niamh accuses Ruairidh of having an affair with Irina, a Russian fashion designer they work with--a fight that ends with Ruairidh storming off and getting into Irina's car. Moments later, Niamh watches in horror as the car containing her life partner explodes in a ball of flame.

With Niamh a prime suspect in the murder, the Parisian police hound her even after she returns to Harris to bury the pitiful remains of her lover and business partner. Amid the grief and struggles that follow, she begins to suspect that things are not what they seem; and when there is an attempt on her life, she becomes convinced that what looked like a terrorist attack on her lover might be something more personal by far . . .

Jacket Description: 
The police say it was suicide.
Anna says it was murder.
They're both wrong.

One year ago, Caroline Johnson chose to end her life brutally: a shocking suicide planned to match that of her husband just months before. Their daughter, Anna, has struggled to come to terms with their loss ever since.

Now with a young baby of her own, Anna misses her mother more than ever and starts to question her parents’ deaths. But by digging up their past, she’ll put her future in danger. Sometimes it’s safer to let things lie…

The stunning, twisty new psychological thriller from number one bestseller Clare Mackintosh, author of I Let You Go and I See You.

Jacket Description:
What would you sacrifice to save your children?

Your marriage?

Your freedom?

Your life?

How far would you go?

Gabriella Giovanni has met her deadliest enemy yet. Ruthless. Powerful. Driven. He will stop at nothing to make Gabriella pay with everything she holds dear. But he has underestimated her. Nothing will stop her from saving the children she loves.  

Jacket Description:   Vermont, 1950. There's a place for the girls whom no one wants--the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It's called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it's located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming--until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she's tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister's death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister's boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can't shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past--and a voice that won't be silenced. . . .

Jacket Description:   The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the accident at Bennington, the two friends—once inseparable roommates—haven’t spoken in over a year. But there Lucy was, trying to make things right and return to their old rhythms. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy—always fearless and independent—helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country.

But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice—she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.

Tangerine is a sharp dagger of a book—a debut so tightly wound, so replete with exotic imagery and charm, so full of precise details and extraordinary craftsmanship, it will leave you absolutely breathless.

Jacket Description:  When Daphne Marist and her infant daughter, Chloe, pull up the gravel drive to the home of Daphne’s new employer, it feels like they’ve entered a whole new world. Tucked in the Catskills, the stone mansion looks like something out of a fairy tale, its lush landscaping hiding the view of the mental asylum just beyond its border. Daphne secured the live-in position using an assumed name and fake credentials, telling no one that she’s on the run from a controlling husband who has threatened to take her daughter away.

Daphne’s new life is a far cry from the one she had in Westchester where, just months before, she and her husband welcomed little Chloe. From the start, Daphne tries to be a good mother, but she’s plagued by dark moods and intrusive thoughts that convince her she’s capable of harming her own daughter. When Daphne is diagnosed with Post Partum Mood Disorder, her downward spiral feels unstoppable—until she meets Laurel Hobbes.

Laurel, who also has a daughter named Chloe, is everything Daphne isn’t: charismatic, sophisticated, fearless. They immediately form an intense friendship, revealing secrets to one another they thought they’d never share. Soon, they start to look alike, dress alike, and talk alike, their lives mirroring one another in strange and disturbing ways. But Daphne realizes only too late that being friends with Laurel will come at a very shocking price—one that will ultimately lead her to that towering mansion in the Catskills where terrifying, long-hidden truths will finally be revealed....

Jacket Description:  Today, translated crime fiction is in vogue - but this was not always the case. A century before Scandi noir, writers across Europe and beyond were publishing detective stories of high quality. Often these did not appear in English and they have been known only by a small number of experts. This is the first ever collection of classic crime in translation from the golden age of the genre in the 20th century. Many of these stories are exceptionally rare, and several have been translated for the first time to appear in this volume. Martin Edwards has selected gems of classic crime from Denmark to Japan and many points in between. Fascinating stories give an insight into the cosmopolitan cultures (and crime-writing traditions) of diverse places including Mexico, France, Russia, Germany and the Netherlands.

March 2018

Night of the Flood, edited by Ed Aymar and Sarah Chen (March 5th)
If I Die Tonight by Alison Gaylin (March 6th)
I’ll Keep You Safe by Peter May (March 6th)
Foreign Bodies (British Library Crime Classics), edited by Martin Edwards (March 6th)
Let Me Lie by Clare Mackintosh (March 13th)
Blessed Are the Merciful (Gabriella Giovanni #6) by Kristi Belcamino  (March 15th)
The Broken Girls by Simone St. James (March 20th)
Every Note Played by Lisa Genova (March 20th)
Alternate Side: A Novel by Anna Quindlen (March 20th)
Tangerine: A Novel by Christine Mangan (March 27th)
The Other Mother: A Novel by Carol Goodman (March 27th)

Monday, February 26, 2018

Murder in Misdirection (Doyle and Acton #7) by Anne Cleeland: Reading Room Review

There are characters in a series in whom readers become so invested that reading a new book in their continuing story is like receiving a letter from home detailing the news of kith and kin.  You tear open the letter/book and dive in, reading to the end in a breathless aura of suspense, and there is always plenty of suspense in a Doyle and Acton story.  Murder in Misdirection, the seventh book in this series is a particularly satisfying one, as the storyline of Detective Sergeant Kathleen Doyle and her pregnancy has kept readers on pins and needles for several books now. 

Kathleen is on maternity leave from Scotland Yard, and so Michael Sinclair, Lord Acton and DCI at the Yard, has some peace of mind that she is safe and out of the Met's business (and his) that usually puts her in harm's way.  As Acton says more than once, he's got to stop underestimating his wife.  Being close to giving birth doesn't sideline Doyle from trying to help solve problems, problems that usually end up tangled in the web of Acton's maneuverings.  A request from Father John, the priest at Doyle's church, to aid in his efforts to convince the bishop that a recently departed man be granted burial in sacred ground has Doyle looking into matters best left undisturbed. 

And to further plunge Doyle into the fray of business which Acton wants her to stay clear is the appearance of a ghost in the form of a dead priest.  Ghosts are just a normal occurrence to Doyle, whose fey abilities are both a useful resource and a curse.  The dead priest is urging Doyle to take action where blood money and arson involve a relative of his.  It's clear that Acton is in the middle of this puzzle, but Doyle once again has to keep her investigations secret from her husband, as he is keeping his actions secret from her, to help prevent Acton from damning his soul any more than he already has.  Of course, Acton's view of the matter is centered around making Doyle's life and the life of their unborn child safe in perpetuity.  Although the story is told from Doyle’s POV, we are allowed glimpses into Acton’s unspoken thoughts through the author’s use of beginning each chapter with one of his observations.   

There are some fascinating subplots going on in this book, too.  Philippe Savoie, dangerous criminal and friend of the fair Doyle’s, is sitting in prison awaiting either a trial or a prison escape.  And, of course, Savoie is involved with Acton’s plans to tidy matters up from the corruption ring at the Met that Acton uncovered in the last book.  Savoie’s adopted son Emile is staying with Doyle and Acton while the criminal is incarcerated, as is the young girl Gemma, the ward of Mary, who is the intended nanny for Doyle’s and Acton’s soon-to-be-arriving Edward.  Emile and Gemma have secrets about themselves that will be uncovered, too, secrets that will gobsmack the adults in charge. Reynolds, Lord and Lady Acton’s butler and jack-of-all-trades, shows a new skill as he deftly handles the young children underfoot.  Lizzie Mathis, Acton’s no-nonsense partner in shady doings is back and doing Acton’s bidding.  Detective Inspector Thomas Williams is doing some bidding, too, but for Doyle.  And Detective Sergeant Isabel Munoz is on hand to spar with Doyle, always some favorite pieces of dialogue.

At this point in reading Anne Cleeland’s writing, the Acton and Doyle series and her adventure books, too, I have probably sung Anne’s praises with untold number of superlatives.  However, I don’t think I can ever thank her enough for creating the Doyle and Acton series that gives me such a thrill in each book.  Fans of this series, and there are many, aren’t just fond readers.  We have rather the same diagnosis as Acton in his uncontrollable passion for Doyle, happily addicted.  

Doyle and Acton series, first six books: covers and reviews

Murder in Thrall: Reading Room Review 

Murder in Hindsight: Reading Room Review

Murder in Retribution: Reading Room Review

Murder in Containment: Reading Room Review

Murder in All Honour: Reading Room Review

Murder in Shadow: Reading Room Review