Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

When your favorite series is as thrilling in book twelve as it was when it began, you know you have struck reading gold. The Lantern Men, #12 in the Ruth Galloway series, by Elly Griffiths is a book that both continues the great storytelling immersed in the mysterious, mythic salt marsh setting of Norfolk with its characters we’ve come to love and is a pivotal point of what the future holds. In other words, the murder mystery has its roots deliciously deep into the mythical connection of the Lantern Men of the marshes, and the always complicated relationships of characters sees some resolution. It is Ruth’s hour of deepest soul searching.

Change looms large in this new tale. Ruth has now been living with the American history scholar Frank and her daughter Kate in Cambridge for two years. Both Frank and Ruth are teaching at Oxford, and Ruth has rented out her house by the salt marshes in Norfolk. While she still sees her friends from Norfolk, she and Frank have carved out their own niche away from it. She is no longer the police expert engaged for cases that DCI Harry Nelson, Kate’s father, investigates for the North Norfolk Police Department. The most recent case she was not involved in was the serial murderer Ivor March, convicted of killing two women and suspected, especially by Nelson, of killing two more. It was Ruth’s former boss, Phil Trent, who was the forensic archeologist on call who dug up the bones in the garden of March’s girlfriend, the bones that proved to be two missing Norfolk women. But, a twist comes up in the Ivor March saga, that brings Ruth front and center again in her old police work. Nelson meets with March at March’s new prison accommodations, and March offers to reveal the location of the other two graves, but he will do so only if Dr. Ruth Galloway does the digging. Ruth feels as if she can’t refuse if it will mean that two more families will receive closure to their tormenting uncertainty. So, it’s back to her familiar stomping grounds to work with Nelson and his team, something she has missed since starting her new life.

The location that March gives to Ruth and Nelson is the garden of an abandoned pub, on the edge of the Cley Marshes. Ruth, who doesn’t know Ivor March, has wondered why he wanted her to do the dig. She doesn’t think she has any connection to him, but then she discovers that his ex-wife runs the writers and artists retreat, Grey Walls, where Ruth has just spent a week to finish her last book. The ex-wife, Crissy Martin, together with Ivor March’s current girlfriend and another former female resident at their retreat, are trying to get March out of jail, claiming he’s innocent. Ruth had heard of the Ivor March case and followed it, but she had no idea that the retreat in the fens was where March had lived with a group of men and women who all participated in different arts and the retreat in the early days of it. Ruth is further surprised that Crissy, whom she liked and even confided in, a rare thing for Ruth, during her week stay, is still connected to her ex-husband and the group of friends. However, only the gardener/artist John and Crissy remain to run the retreat now.

When the dig at the old pub reveals a surprise and the DNA evidence isn’t what Nelson had hoped, things really start to get complicated. Then, another young woman is found dead, and even Nelson has a nagging thought that March could be innocent, although that thought doesn’t linger long. And, of course, the mythic legends, which Nelson finds annoying and Ruth finds fascinating, rear their mysterious heads. This time it is the legend of the Lantern Men. Three of the men, including Ivor March, who had lived at Grey Walls had called themselves the Lantern Men, but contrary to the marsh legend of the Lantern Men leading people to their deaths, March claims that they saved young women who were lost. The dead women speak otherwise, but if March led the “Lantern Men,” is there now a copycat killer?

As with all the Ruth Galloway novels, readers are drawn to the whole cast of characters and their lives and relationships. The changes that Ruth has undergone in the two years since The Stone Circle, #11 in the series, carries over to other characters. Nelson is focusing on his two-year-old son George, but he misses Katie, his daughter with Ruth. DI Cloughie has left Norfolk and got his own patch at the Cambridgeshire CID, but he becomes involved in the Ivor March case, much to readers‘ delight. DI Judy Johnson is still in Norfolk and dealing with Tanya Fuller and her ambition to outshine Judy and everyone else. Of course, Judy has Cathbad, our favorite Druid to keep her calm and centered. A new member of the Norfolk Police is Tony Zhang, who promises to be a great replacement for Cloughie. Cathbad’s oldest child, Maddie, is gaining favor as a character, too, in her job as a journalist. Frank has achieved a major accomplishment in convincing Ruth to move to Cambridge, and he isn’t too pleased about her involvement in the Ivor March case and working with Nelson, but Ruth is still very much her own person. She’s changed where she lives, but there are limits to her compromises.

While I was reading The Lantern Men, I was leading a group discussion for a virtual book club on the first Ruth Galloway mystery, The Crossing Places. It was a fortuitous coincidence for me, as there are quite a few allusions to book one’s events and beginnings in The Lantern Men. The continuity was a serendipitous delight. And, reading both in such proximity allowed me to feel the full force of how much has changed and yet remained the same, especially the power of the salt marsh setting and its role in life and death. Elly Griffiths has given us another outstanding story in this world of which I cannot get enough.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Reading Our Way Through COVID-19

Waiting at the doctor's office, waiting at the DMV, waiting for your car's oil to be changed, waiting for pretty much anything is something readers have covered.  I had a dentist I used to go to who always ran on time.  It should have been great, right?  But, with no wait came no reading time while waiting.  I now have a dentist who runs late.  So, with the Coronavirus causing almost everything in our lives to be cancelled, we readers wait for it to be over doing what we do best.  We read.

I've had a great reading year so far, and I am now even in hopes of fitting in a few books I wasn't sure I'd get to, while I wait.  I thought I'd share the books that I've just finished and those I've got lined up for the next month.  And, if I have to wait longer for the return to some normalcy, I've got that covered, too.

Here are some books you might want to consider while you wait, too.  They are all 2020 books, and the last book is not a mystery/crime book, but The Carousels of Paris is a extraordinary book that will bring you much joy.  

I'm coming back to this blog post to add a resource that so many people already use, but because my reading doesn't include a lot of cozy mysteries (although that seems to be changing a bit), I'm not the best person to recommend cozies.  Lucky for me that I know who the best person to recommend and know all about the world of cozy mystery reading.  That person is, of course, Dru Ann Love, and here is the link to her blog Dru's Book Musings so you can get your cozy list there.

Now, for my reading list, which goes to the first part of May.





Saturday, March 14, 2020

Above the Bay of Angels by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review

I’m a steadfast fan of all Rhys Bowen’s books. Her Royal Spyness series featuring Lady Georgie never disappoints and keeps me laughing at its wit and clever characters. Rhys also writes amazing stand-alone historical mystery books, four so far, that have become favorites and equally successful as her series books, being nominated for and winning multiple awards. She brings a fresh look at historical details that send this reader down rabbit holes of fascinating learning. Oh, that all history could be learned like this. 

Rhys Bowen really did have me at hello in her new stand-alone, Above the Bay of Angels. That first riveting sentence that reads, “If Helen Barton hadn’t stepped in front of an omnibus, I might still be sweeping floors and lighting fires at an ostentatious house in St. John‘s Wood” told me how special this book was going to be. From the bizarre food dishes that Queen Victoria wanted her cooks to fix to the entourage she required to accompany her to the French Riviera, all these historical details give such a distinct flavor to the story. Described to readers as seen through the eyes of cook Helen Barton, aka Isabella Waverly, the events and people come alive through her enthusiastic reaction to them. 1896 is a fascinating period of history everywhere, as new inventions and new thinking was on a steady rise. Queen Victoria, who you might think would be set in her ways in the twilight of her reign, is the impetus for this story with her forward thinking of bringing women into her previously male-run kitchen. This historical setting combined with the suspense of Isabella assuming Helen’s identity and the fear of her getting caught is thrilling. Add a murder to the mix and Helen fighting to clear her name, and you have a page turner. 

Isabella Waverly has had a disappointing life, although its beginning was rather idyllic. She reaped the benefits of her father being born into the aristocracy and a kind, loving mother. But, the British aristocracy was not a fair game, and Isabella’s father had the bad fortune to be born the son of a second son, thus no inheritance. After some success in India in the Bengal Lancers and a return to England with a good position at the Savoy Hotel, Mr. Waverly develops a drinking problem, gets fired, and Mrs. Waverly dies. Isabella must leave school, which she loves, and go to work at age fifteen as a servant girl to support her father and younger sister. She ends up in the kitchen in a house of a woman who is a nightmare to Isabella’s soul, but she is stuck as the woman refuses to give her a reference to go elsewhere, even though Isabella’s work is excellent. On a day off, Isabella’s luck turns, and she is handed a letter by a dying woman for an appointment to interview for the position of under-cook at the royal palace . The appointment is for Helen Barton of Yorkshire, the dying woman, and the references have already been given and checked. Isabella grabs her chance for a better life, goes to the palace for the interview pretending to be Helen, and gets the position. 

The kitchen at the palace is a dream-come-true for Isabella, or Helen, as I will now refer to her. She has decided that becoming a Master Cook is her goal, and there's no better place to learn to do that than the royal kitchen. There’s just one other female cook in the large kitchen, and the male cooks aren’t exactly receptive, but through hard work and talent, Helen starts to earn their respect. After the pastry cook has an accident and must be off one day, Helen bakes scones for the Queen, who is delighted with them and then insists that Helen continue to work with the pastry cook. With the death of her father and her sister becoming engaged, Helen is finally out from under the burden of providing for anyone other than herself. The one dark moment comes when the real Helen’s brother shows up and threatens to spill the identity beans if he isn’t found a job with the royals, preferably with the Queen’s son, the Prince of Wales. In an encounter of great fortuity, Helen is able to ask the Prince of Wales to employ her “brother,” and Helen breathes a great sigh of relief, for the time being.

Helen is happy in her position and learning quickly, and she is not expecting the next great surprise. Queen Victoria has decided to leave the gloom and bad weather of a London February behind her and spend some time at the new hotel built for her in Nice, France, on the French Riviera. She always takes a large staff with her, as well as furniture and clothes and whatever else the Queen wants, such as the Highlander pipers, and Helen gets to be one of the cooking staff to go. She doesn’t even mind the boat trip and long, long train trip to get there. Helen never imagined that she would ever see such a place as Nice, and she is intrigued by everything, especially the cooking and baking of the French chefs, with whom the English chefs must share at kitchen at the great hotel. Helen is charmed by the warm, lively climate and its people, including the head French chef, a British transplant neighbor to the hotel, and the vendors of the food market. It’s all thrilling until a member of the royal party is found dead, and suspicion falls upon Helen, as she prepared his last meal. If she can’t clear her name, she stands to lose the job she loves and maybe more. 

Above the Bay of Angels is a clear choice for my favorites list of 2020 reads, as well as a having a place on my favorites through the years. I am sure that it will be an award winner because this stand-alone is a standout. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The King's Justice by Susan Elia MacNeal: Reading Room Review

The King's Justice is the ninth book in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal, and I feel like I should pinch myself to ensure that I'm not dreaming that.  Can readers have already had nine of these thrilling books in which to immerse their reading pleasures?   I guess time really does fly when you have great reading.  From the first story in this series, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, author Susan Elia MacNeal has made the WWII London setting come alive from her carefully researched details of what living in London during this time was actually like.  Readers feel Maggie's steps and see through her eyes the streets during the London Blitz, the living with rationing, the taking refuge in the subways during air raids, the aftermath of a bombed London, the make-do efforts of entertainment, and the war effort by so many to survive and endure.  Of course, not all the action of the series has taken place in London, as Maggie becomes a member of the SOE (Special Operations  Executive) espionage unit.  Readers have followed Maggie to Germany, to Paris, and to Scotland in her role as an SOE agent, and, everywhere we go, readers can feel the authenticity of the setting.  As a woman reading this series, it's been an amazing experience to be able to put myself in the shoes of a young woman living the WWII story.  However, these are not "women" stories.  They are WWII stories, and with murder mystery added to the mix, they are gripping reads for all, one of the best historical fiction mystery series there is.

It's 1943, and Maggie is back in London for The King's Justice, but it is a battered, betrayed Maggie who is drinking and smoking a bit too much to try and forget her recent, horrific tribulations on a Scottish island.  To cap off a hard core drive to forget and engage in something other than SOE work, Maggie is now a member of the 107th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers and is knee-deep in diffusing the many unexploded German bombs left over from the Blitz of 1940.  Maybe not a death wish for Maggie, but she does seem to be living on the edge, as even her mode of transportation, a motorcycle, seems a walk on the wild side.  Her unit has a large number of COs, conscientious objectors, including the Britalian factor, those Italians who were born in Britain but whose Italian parents are just a breath away from their Italian relatives.  I wasn't aware of this part of the British population during WWII, and they suffered from mistrust and some internment, just as the Japanese did in the United States.  Also back in London and living at Maggie's house is Sarah, who served in the SOE with Maggie during their Paris undercover operation.  Sarah has left the SOE and returned to the ballet, after suffering the loss of the man she loved.  And, Chuck and her son Griffin are living with Maggie while Chuck's husband is serving in the war.  

What has Maggie's immediate attention is the upcoming execution of Nicholas Reitter, the Blackout Beast, whom Maggie and DCI James Durgin captured in a previous book, The Queen's Accomplice.  Targeting SOE female operatives, the Blackout Beast murdered five women in a sick reprisal of Jack the Ripper viciousness.  With hope that Reitter's execution will lay some of her demons to rest, Maggie is counting down the days, the hours, minutes, the seconds to the time when the savage mass murderer, or sequential murderer, is gone from the world. While the days count down, Maggie's boyfriend DCI Durgin brings a couple of cases to her attention, trying to entice her to help solve them.  The one that she might be persuaded to become involved in is the disappearance of a Stradivarius violin belonging to Giacomo Genovese, first chair violinist of the London Philharmonic and a Britalian, and when Durgin introduces Maggie to Giacomo after a concert, she's pretty well hooked.  

The other case involves another sequential murderer, a murderer who is targeting conscientious objectors, as is evidenced by the presence of a white feather, meant for cowardice, included with their remains.  The remains though are of a different sort, just the bones of young men, each victim's bones enclosed in a suitcase thrown into the Thames River and washing ashore.   Maggie has vowed to stay away from murder, but when Nicholas Reitter professes to know who the new sequential killer is and states he will only talk to Maggie, she feels she has no choice but to visit him in his cell and listen to what he has to say.  Of course, Reitter is full of the cat and mouse game, and Maggie finds herself once more involved in a race to save young lives, this time young men instead of young women. 

As Maggie applies her dogged determination and brilliance to the two cases, she is working through her own torments, the effects of her war experiences, or PTSD, as it is called today.  She's also struggling with her relationship with James Durgin, who, although he asked for her help, seems dismissive of her theories.  Durgin admires Maggie's skills, but he's not exactly enlightened where women's equality is concerned.  There is a myriad of issues that are addressed in this book, all intricately woven into the story.  The PTSD, the woman's place in the world, the death penalty, and the internment and mistreatment of Italians in England during WWII.  It's a wonderful mesh of issues, history, murder, and mystery.  The characters are fascinating, those for good and those of evil, and through Maggie's research on the criminal mind, we are given questions to ponder about nature and nurture in the people who become killers.   To say The King's Justice holds the reader's interest is a gross understatement.  As Maggie concludes her business and quells her demons, there's the added bonus of having a rather clear idea of where her next adventure will be.  It's going to be hard to wait for the next installment of this exceptional series.

I was given an advanced reader's copy of The King's Justice, and my review is my honest, objective assessment of it.  

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens: Reading Room Review

Sometimes a book comes along that gets it so right and says it so well you know you have to share that book with anyone and everyone.  Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens is such a book.  That it took Eskens over twenty years from the time he first started this story to the time he was ready to give it to the world speaks of the desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the best possible way.  There is one of my favorite authors who only wrote and published one book in her lifetime, and that book also addressed racism and bind hate and coming of age amongst it.  Nothing More Dangerous is in that league of important books about this subject, and I have placed it next to my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my bookshelf where that revered book sits.  Set in 1976, Nothing More Dangerous is also a timeless story that should also become a staple in classrooms and homes across the country.  It's a reminder that the fight against racism is a never-ending one that requires our constant vigilance.  Forty-three years since the time setting of the book and its relevance is as immediate as ever.

Boady Sanden has lived his whole fifteen years on Frog Hollow Road in Jessup, Missouri in the Ozark Mountain area.  He barely remembers the father who died when he was five-years-old, but his mother has been in a state of sorrow since his dad's passing, which serves as a constant reminder that his father is gone.  Luckily, their neighbor, Hoke Gardner  has been around to teach Boady fishing and other skills a father might have done, and Hoke has been a source of listening and dispensing wisdom, as Boady's mother seems so isolated in her grief.  With no friends and a few bullies at his high school, it's Frog Hollow Road that gives Boady a life where he can be himself and enjoy his surroundings.  However, it's a restless satisfaction with where he lives, as Boady is saving up money from his job at the sheetrock business, down the road from where he lives and where his mother is office manager, to leave it all behind for the big city.  He just needs to turn sixteen and be able to afford an old vehicle he can drive to get away.  He has it planned out and won't be deterred, until he is.

The big old Victorian house across the road from Boady's small house had been empty for several years, but a sudden sprucing up of its interior foretells new neighbors.  Those neighbors are Charles and Emma Elgin and their son Thomas, and their arrival changes everything in Boady's life.  The Elgins are a black family, and not everyone is as welcoming as the residents of Frog Hollow Road.  Charles Elgin is there to take over management of Ryke Plastics, the main employer in the county, due to an embezzlement of funds and a missing female employee suspected of absconding with the money.  The man Charles Elgin is replacing is Cecil Halcomb, and Cecil and his cousins belong to the CORPS, Crusaders of Racial Purity and Strength, so the replacement by a black man is an offense to Halcomb that is not taken lightly.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to end racial discrimination and hate, but twenty-two years later in Jessup, Missouri in 1976, Hoke Gardner tells Boady a hard truth, that "you'll never change what a person thinks in their head or what they feel in their heart by passing a law."  Frog Hollow Road, in the summer of 1976 becomes a microcosm of the best and the worst of humanity, as friendship between Boady and Thomas grows into their families being close, and the CORPS-minded people of Jessup make their hate known.  Boady must decide if he should or can take a stand against those whose minds and hearts are poisoned by hate. 

Although this narrative is clearly a coming-of-age story for a white teenager named Boady Sanden, and we closely follow the changes in him through the first person POV, it is a story of change and coming to terms with one's identity for several of the other characters in the book, too.  Layers.  It's the layers that make the story even richer.  Boady's mother Emma; Emma's employer, Wally Schenicker;  Hoke Gardner; and Thomas Elgin all have a summer that will forever affect their lives.  And, there's the mystery of Lida Poe's disappearance and how it ties into the events of that fateful summer.  The title of the book, Nothing More Dangerous, is part of a Martin Luther King quote and states the essence of the book perfectly.  "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  Boady Sanden and his friend Thomas Elgin come face to face with that danger, and the world as Boady knew it is forever changed.  

Nothing More Dangerous is a giant of a book in only 291 pages.  It will stay with you, not only in thinking about your best reads, but in thinking about how you should live.  Books of this magnitude should be read, shared, and discussed across the classrooms of America, in the book clubs of every sort, and at the table of family dinners.  Words matter, and Allen Eskens' words in this book can serve to caution us and to guide us, to spur us on to be better people and make a better world. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Lucky One by Lori Rader-Day: Reading Room Review

Lori Rader-Day writes original stories.  In fact, she is one of my favorite Masters of originality, along with a select group of authors who are masters at writing stand-alone stories that readers will never have read the likes of before.  A few of her contemporaries in this group that I also love are Catriona McPherson, Lou Berney. and Jane Harper.  Lori Rader-Day has made her mark in just five years and five books, and although I realize that she has been involved in writing longer than that with shorter fiction, she has become a major force in mystery/crime fiction in pretty short order, and that's quite an accomplishment.  I know when I open a book by Lori, I am entering a place I never expected to be, right along with some of her characters.  And, those characters bring a uniqueness to the stories, not in a loud, showy way, but they are the extraordinary ordinary of life.  The twists and turns of making sense of their existence reveal how complex the seeming ordinary can be.  The layers of what brought the characters to their defining moments are rich with the unexpected.  The Lucky One is this author's fifth book, and it will no doubt receive awards and award nominations like her others.  Readers respond with much deserved adulation when a book is special, and The Lucky One is perhaps Lori Rader-Day's most special book yet, with its deep twisting plot and the layered revelations its characters experience.

Alice Fine works for her father in the construction business he co-owns in Chicago, and she doesn't have much of a life otherwise.  No friends, an ex-fiancée, and a lone hobby that doesn't require interaction with others.  That hobby is an odd choice for a hobby, but it's one that has a personal connection for Alice.  She belongs to an online group called the Doe Pages, people who post about those who have vanished, from missing persons being posted to unidentified remains being found somewhere.  The "Does" try to find information on the missing and sometimes to match up the remains to the missing .  It's not the most cheerful way to spend time, but for Alice, it's a mission.  She was kidnapped as a child and rescued by her father, who was a cop at the time.  She wants everyone who's missing a loved one to have a happy ending, but if they can't, she wants them to have resolution.  Although she herself never had the resolution of knowing who her kidnapper was or knowing he had been caught, she feels lucky that she was that rare victim who was rescued in a matter of hours.  Of course, she knows even the lucky ones suffer from fall-out, as her family had to move from their small town in Indiana to Chicago, her father changed careers, and her mother was never whole again before she died. 

Alice's uneventful world is turned upside down when she sees a picture she recognizes as her kidnapper on the Doe site.  Someone has listed him as missing, and Alice realizes she has a need to find him, to fill in blanks that have surrounded her kidnapping all her life and to bring him to justice for his crime.  As it happens, Alice has agreed to meet some of the Does for lunch at a diner, and she ends up confiding in the other two who show up, Juby and Lillian, about her kidnapped past and the discovery of the missing man, Richard Miller, who she remembers as her kidnapper.  With Lillian being a researcher of some success for the Doe Pages and Juby being an enthusiastic force, as well as Lillian's friend, Alice enlists their aid in finding Richard Miller.  She says nothing to her father because she wants to be sure of what she's doing before getting his hopes up.    

Lillian's research gets them started in Milwaukee, where they go and find their first clues.  But, their search will take them back to several towns in Indiana, including the town where Alice lived when she was kidnapped, Victorville.  They also meet another person in their searching, Merrily Cruz, and Merrily is looking for Richard or Rick, as she calls him, too.  But, Merrily has a different reason than Alice to find Rick.  He had been a father figure of sorts to Merrily and involved with her mother, so she's worried about his safety, and she has questions about why he disappeared from their lives so long ago.  It seems both Alice and Merrily are looking to close gaps in their lives so that they can move forward.  Merrily becomes involved in the group's search, with her memories adding to the growing information about Rick.  Merrily's story is as relevant and important as Alice's, and Lori Rader-Day divides the narrative into alternating chapters from both women, although the narrative might lean a bit more on the side of Alice's telling.  What becomes apparent to both women is that they have lived lives full of secrets and lies, and the dominant parent in each life, Alice's father and Merrily's mother, have answers that they keep locked inside.  Fortunately, both women, along with Juby and Lillian, are resourceful.  Of course, with answers there will come new danger, and the players in the shadows are ruthless in their dedication to keeping sleeping dogs asleep.

The Lucky One is a cold case with a burning fervor.  The secrets of thirty years, the covered tracks and intricate manipulations are all wonderfully peeled away by the author to reveal a story of deep deception.  Lori Rader-Day is an author who can build the sturdiest of structures and take it apart piece by piece with the smoothest of motion to show the darkness that lies within.  It's a dissembling of the fraud behind the truth, and in The Lucky One, readers will be gobsmacked by the best.

I received an advanced copy of The Lucky One from the publisher, and my review reflects only my own words of praise for an amazing, thrilling read.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Lost You by Haylen Beck: Reading Room Review

Lost You is the second Haylen Beck I've read and the second one written under this name by acclaimed Irish author Stuart Neville (The Ghosts of Belfast). I haven't read anything under the Neville name yet, but I am a solid fan of Haylen Beck. The first Beck book, Here and Gone, was a favorite of mine from 2017, and although I'm just reading it now in 2020, Lost You is a favorite from 2019. Both books deal with mothers and children, lost and found, and the lengths a mother will go to for her children, but they are worlds apart in their stories. Lost You has two desperate mothers and one gobsmacking twist, the kind of twist that I live for in reading--well executed, not forced, and gasp-worthy. The story you start reading is not the story you end reading, and, yet, the pieces are there, just not arranged how you expect.

Libby Reese and her three-year-old son Ethan are on vacation at an luxurious resort in Naples, Florida, a reward that Libby is allowing herself for her hard work on her soon-to-be published book. For Ethan, who loves swimming, the resort with its seven pools is paradise. For Libby, it is a chance to relax that has been a long time coming. She has been raising Ethan by herself since he was six months old and his father/her husband left them. Their first day at Casa Rosa they meet Charles and Gerry, a couple who instantly take to Libby and her adorable child. Gerry is especially good in his helping Ethan to enjoy the pool, and Charles is quite adept at getting Libby to let her hair down a bit. After an evening of some music and dance with Charles and Gerry, with Ethan in tow, Libby is saying goodnight to Charles at the elevators when Ethan disappears into an open elevator. Libby can't catch the elevator before the doors close, and her son is whisked up and away. A frantic search ensues with no success. The police are called in, and Charles is found injured on one of the staircases, and Libby fears that her new friend didn't just fall. She is now certain that Ethan's disappearance is anything but accidental or happenstance. 

So, what follows is a book about the search for a lost or abducted child, right? Wrong. What follows is the story of how life for Libby Reese and her son Ethan got to the point of that night, when their world would be forever changed. Haylen Beck delves deep inside his characters and shows us how they came to be the people that they are. Whether you like a character or not, and there will be some of each in Lost You, you come to understand that character through the skillful development by the author. I felt both the joy and the heartache that the characters in this story experience, and as with life, it's sometimes both at once. Lost You is going to be a read that you find hard to put down, and when the twists come, you will feel them full on.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Author James Ziskin and Capturing the 1960s

In 2017 I did an interview with Jim Ziskin for this blog.  It was the year of his fourth Ellie Stone mystery, Heart of Stone, which won an Anthony, a McCavity, and was a finalist for an Edgar and a Lefty.   Today the seventh Ellie Stone, Turn to Stone, is released, and I wanted to post something more than my review about Jim and his amazing writing.  So, I was reading over this 2017 interview and came across the question and answer about the 1960s setting of these books.  Jim does such a remarkable job of integrating elements, historical and pop, into the stories, and I had asked him about this seamless inclusion and the research he did for it.  Being born in 1954 and growing up in the 60s, I find the setting especially fascinating.  Following is my question and his answer.  Do you as readers have any favorite or memorable 60s moments that Jim has included in this series, or do you have some famous 60s moments you'd like to see in future Ellie Stone stories?

Reading Room:  The 1960s setting of the Ellie Stone books is so seamlessly entwined in the stories, never appearing forced or gratuitous.  I was amazed at the inclusion of so many 60s connections, both large and small, such as the building of the Berlin Wall; the John Bircher; types of clothing, like blue seersucker dress.  How do you go about deciding what to include and achieving this natural flow of authenticity?  What forms of research help you become ensconced in this time period?

JWZ: Everything in good measure. I think the key to setting the scene properly is to do huge amounts of research, then use only a tiny fraction in the actual story. The effort that goes into research should be felt by the author, never by the reader. As a writer, I have to know which details to use in the book. It's tempting to add every historical nugget you unearth, but the danger is that you'll create a book that stinks of research.

When I'm preparing a new Ellie Stone novel, I study old newspapers, television shows, movies, and popular music. I also find great details in period advertising. Some of the clothing I describe comes from the 1959 Sears Catalog or print ads from women's magazines. But the best way to create that nostalgic impression is to sprinkle the story lightly with normal, everyday objects that communicate the time period succinctly and believably. For example, in STONE COLD DEAD, there's a scene where Ellie is forced to wait to make phone call until the woman hogging the party line hangs up. Maybe I'll put a skate key in some future book. And who remembers pipe cleaners, Vitalis, telegrams, horizontal hold, and shortwave radios? Today, most people don't even know what those things are, but they were in wide use in 1960 when the Ellie Stone books take place. Recreating people's attitudes and mores is a little trickier, of course. But it comes from copious preparation and judicious use of what you find.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Blue Christmas by Emma James: Reading Room Review

Author Emma Jameson is so good to her reading fans.  She promised to have Blue Christmas out at Christmas, and although Emma had other things to deal with last fall, she came through for the readers, and we had the most lovely of treats for our Christmas Day reading.  The 6th installment of the Lord and Lady Hetheridge series is a follow-up book to the devastating events of Book #5, so it's impossible to review without referring to those events and their fallout.  I always try not to spoil a book for readers, but in a series it's too often a case of one book leading to the next and building on it, and Book #6 is rooted firmly in what Tony and Kate went through and survived in the fifth book, as the events in that book had been building in previous books, too.  It's such a terrific series that reading it from Book #1 and seeing the relationship start and develop between Tony and Kate and seeing how the nefarious villain of Book #5 has taken hold in the other books is just the right way to read it.  

Tony and Kate, along with the rest of their extended family, have spent many months at their country estate, trying to heal both physically and mentally from their near-death rooftop experience atop a London building.  While Kate's physical healing was a lengthy process, it is her mental state that Tony fears will be the deterrent to a full recovery.  He convinces her to see a therapist, as well as seeing one himself, and by December, Kate has finally agreed to a week in London with Tony to see how she handles it.  Of course, ever the considerate and loving husband, Tony has leased a place with the best security measures possible.  Having Kate feel safe is key to the London trip encouraging her return her Scotland Yard job and a life in London for them all, including Tony's new enterprise of being a private detective.  It's a tall order to achieve her sense of safety, but if anyone can do it, Tony can.  

They haven't even gotten properly settled into the London house before their former investigative partner at Scotland Yard, Detective Sergeant Deepal "Paul" Bhar calls to tempt them with a bizarre murder case he's just landed.  Surprisingly, Kate is interested, not to say she's agreed to come back to work, but wanting to become involved in this most interesting murder.  Tony agrees to come onto the case as a hired consultant, since he's no longer employed as a Chief Superintendent by Scotland Yard.  But the three of them are friends as well as colleagues, so it's good to have them back together again.  The pièce de résistance that Paul dangles in front of Tony and Kate to come on board is the method of the murder of miserly millionaire Barnaby Galen.  The murder weapon is a horror prop of a skeleton dressed as a "granny," and it's pop-up appearance has apparently scared the old miser to death.  Paul knows they won't be able to resist working on such a case, and he is absolutely right.  

Emma Jameson has created such a wonderful cast of characters in this series, and while Blue Christmas focuses mostly on Kate and Tony and Paul, the other characters are mentioned, and we know that they are just around the corner waiting to all be together in another story.  Tony's and Kate's relationship is the glue that holds it all together, and it is such a model of respect, consideration, and love for each other.  Their romantic moments are aptly placed and appreciated, as readers want them to enjoy the fruits of their labor, their working on a beautiful love story.  Paul Bhar provides much comic relief in the series, with his love life and his mother, who is a romance author and is relentless about looking out for her son.  Paul may just surprise his mother in this current book.  Kate's brother and sister and nephew have all become a part of her and Tony's family, and it speaks volumes as to Tony's love for Kate and his character as a person that he has accepted them all so graciously.  Even Tony's staff make for interesting characters and parts of different stories.  And, the villains in the stories are fascinating, too, although readers are always glad to see them felled.  With the characters and the setting and the stories, this is a series that will quickly become a favorite, one you will even want to reread .

So, once again, well done Emma Jameson, and thank you for your most welcome 2019 Christmas gift!  Blue Christmas was the icing on my holiday season.  Did I mention that the ending brought sweet tears to my eyes?  It did.

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