Monday, November 17, 2014

End of Fall Reading 2014

With the first snow of the year, I've determined that fall is indeed ending and winter is announcing itself.  So, I want to share some of the highlights of my fall reading, which has been a bit less than usual due to that pesky real life getting in the way.  But, less doesn't mean a dearth of quality, as evidenced in my reviews below.  I've read some outstanding books since August, and there are others spilling over into winter reading.  I might want to wish for more snow to ensure my reading chair stays filled.

To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie

To Dwell in Darkness (Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James, #16)To Dwell in Darkness by Deborah Crombie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone planning a trip to London should forget about Frommer's, Fodor's, Lonely Planet, DK Eyewitness, or Rick Steves.  Deborah Crombie now has 16 novels taking place in and around different areas of London (well one in Scotland) that give detailed information about those areas, their history and their present-day configurations, that will make the reader feel at home in those areas.  And, hey, there are brilliantly plotted stories that accompany these tours.  Deborah's latest Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James mystery acquaints readers with Camden and the glorious St. Pancras Train Station, a Victorian marvel that has been remodeled with its history intact.  I'd be derelict in my reviewing if I didn't also mention yet another great accompanying map by Laura Hartman Maestro inserted in the inside front and back covers of the book.  The story, the characters, the setting, the map all provide a journey that is all-consuming from start to finish.  Doesn't it take a special kind of genius author to be on book #16 in a series and have kept fresh the excellence and excitement?  Well, Deborah Crombie isn't from the state of Texas for nothing, as large and mighty are expected and fulfilled trademarks.

Duncan Kincaid is still in a state of puzzlement and unease about his unexplained transfer from Scotland Yard headquarters to the borough of Camden, where he encounters in his new detective inspector Jasmine Sidana a bruised ego and negative attitude towards him.  He may be smarting inside from the obvious demotion of command, if not in title, certainly in control, but Duncan's priorities are quickly ordered when a protest turns deadly at St. Pancras Station.  A would-be smoke bomb has revealed itself as an incendiary device, releasing deadly phosphorous that burns and damages in a ghastly manner.  The dead protestor who carried the device must be identified and motivations must be untangled as Duncan works with his new team to investigate the protest group and its secretive members.  Fortunately for Duncan, Gemma (Duncan's wife and newly promoted Inspector)has a superb second-in-command, Melody Talbot, who happened to be at St. Pancras Station listening to her boyfriend's band play.  Melody's eyewitness account and quick thinking are a great advantage to Duncan in coming into the scene.  He includes Melody in his investigation, along with his former Scotland Yard sergeant Doug Cullen, to enhance his new team in trying to uncover what went wrong with the protestors' innocuous plans.  The dead protestor must first be identified, but that doesn't solve anything, other than elimination of one of the two missing members.  Investigation of the still missing protestor will lead Duncan and the others into areas of hidden danger and secrets best left alone.

Gemma is involved in her own investigation of the brutal murder of a young girl, trying to prove that the lead suspect is indeed the nefarious killer.   As is often the case, she and Duncan have their hands full with work and their family of his, hers, and ours children.  What is additionally amazing about Deborah Crombie's writing is that in the thrill of police investigations and solving murder mysteries there is room for Duncan's and Gemma's personal world with their family and friends.  It is a world that captures the readers' hearts and gives a fullness to the characters that makes coming back to them time and time again a homecoming of comfort and joy.  All the main players have backstories and lives that easily flow into and out of the story at hand, making a gathering at Gemma's and Duncan's house one that the reader revels in as if seated at the table alongside.  Crombie integrates characters from past stories into present ones with a deftness that is truly magical.  Their presence never feels extraneous.  All characters have purpose and flow in the story.  And, I always wonder how Deborah thought to create this perfect family of the three children for Duncan and Gemma, as it was no simple task.  But as with all the elements in this brilliant series, there is a deliberate progression that results in great satisfaction for readers.

One caution about To Dwell in Darkness.  Do not expect all questions to be answered.  There will still be much uncertainty left to explore in book #17.  But then, life is a continuation of discovery, isn't it?

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The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

The Skeleton RoadThe Skeleton Road by Val McDermid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Books can transport us to some wonderful places.  Books can transport us to some terrible places.  Often, the place is the same with the perspective different.  The place can be a vast geographical landscape, or it can be the confines of a mind.  Reading allows us to see the beauty and the ugliness of that same place so that making a black and white judgment becomes obstructed by the full disclosure of knowledge.  We are forced to be less judgmental and more understanding.  Val McDermid is the master of showing us what we think we know is but a fragment of a whole.  The world and the mind are never black and white, and reading a Val McDermid novel quickly reminds you of that.  The Skeleton Road is a journey through war, love, retribution, and the aftermath thereof. The Bosnian War after the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s plays an integral part in McDermid's story, and I'm embarrassed to admit that it took reading this book to bring the bones of this war to my full attention, not that readers should expect an in-depth account of that complicated conflict.  The author skillfully uses the war as a backdrop to the present day action of the story.

The Skeleton Road opens with the discovery of a skeleton with a bullet hole in its skull on the rooftop of an old abandoned historic Edinburgh building being assessed for development.  As the skeletal remains are conclusive proof that the crime took place some time ago, DCI Karen Pirie of the cold case unit of Police Scotland is called in to investigate.  First to be addressed is identification of the remains.  But identification of the victim as of Yugoslavian roots only deepens the mystery, leading Pirie from the academic world of Oxford to the complex world of Croatia.  To further complicate matters, the victim, who has been dead for eight years, has been a recent interest of two lawyers of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) investigating a series of murders of war criminals. Unable to attribute the murders to the deceased, these rather bumbling lawyers must scramble to determine who else could be responsible, as their new boss puts them under increasing pressure.  DCI Pirie, who is calm under her boss' pressure to solve her case, finds the investigative road leads to an Oxford University professor, Maggie Blake, who was in residence in Dubrovnik during its 1991 siege in the war between the Serbs and the Croats and who fell in love with a Croatian general.  Both of these women will uncover long buried secrets in the course of the investigation.

The novel is told from three perspectives, predominantly by DCI Karen Pirie following her investigation into the murder of her cold case victim.  Pirie is a very steady character, as she is likeable, dedicated to her job, gifted with a sense of humor, and is in a stable relationship.  So, her point of view is an ongoing source of reliable narrative.  But, as Pirie's case is deeply rooted in the bloody, tragic past of Croatia, the other two points of view are a natural connection to her narrative.  Maggie Blake's flashback chapters deal with the intensity of being in the war zone of the Bosnian War, the human toll and emotions of it, and provide important points of time and place.  The two ICTY lawyers, though rather inept at first glance, bring needed background and information with their POV chapters.  Together, McDermid uses these three perspectives to create the intense drama of crime built upon crime.

War is hell, and its nightmares don't end with its end.  The atrocities by both sides in war reach beyond the graves of the original victims.  McDermid has given us a dark, gripping tale that terrifies and educates.  The characters are deftly drawn with their strengths and flaws that cautions the reader to pause before drawing any conclusions.  I did have a couple of issues with the ending, but it did nothing to disturb my opinion that Val McDermid has given readers a magnificent story.  Although the book is described as a stand-alone and can absolutely be read as such, for those of us who are taken with DCI Karen Pirie, the first book featuring her is A Darker Domain.

I was fortunate to receive this book from the publisher Grove Atlantic as a promotional giveaway on Goodreads for my honest opinion of it.

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A Deadly Measure of Brimstone: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson

A Deadly Measure of Brimstone: A Dandy Gilver MysteryA Deadly Measure of Brimstone: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One thing a reader can count on when reading a book by Catriona McPherson is layered plot and interesting characters.  Although A Deadly Measure of Brimstone is the 8th addition to the Dandy Gilver series, it is my introduction to these books set in the 1920s in Scotland.  Of course, I’ll be playing catch-up now, but I was quite comfortable in reading this one before the first seven, as the characters were well fleshed out and relationships were clearly formed.  I think that reading the previous seven will add to my enjoyment of reading more of all of the recurring characters, but I didn’t feel at all lost or confused in their roles.  I consider it a great talent of the author to make the reader comfortable in her series, wherever they might happen to jump in.

The main character is, of course, who the series is named for, Dandy Gilver, a woman of considerable means living in the Perthshire countryside with her husband Hugh and their two teenage sons.   Hugh is very conventional and likes to maintain a certain order to life, although I suspect that his time in WWI, from which he just returned in the first book of the series, has opened his eyes more than he admits to changes that are in progress.  Dandy needs a bit more adventure than her husband, and, thus, her detecting business allows her to use her abundant instincts and smarts to satisfy her yearning for excitement.  Joining her in her detective business is neighbor Alec Osborne, with whom Dandy seems to be able to let down her positional reserve and get to the nitty gritty of murder and strange occurrences.  Theirs is an easy-going back and forth, with witty conversation and true team work.  Alec appreciates the plucky side of Dandy, and Dandy thrives on the support for her endeavors. 

In this eighth novel, Dandy’s husband and sons have been lingering with the flu and its after effects for some weeks.  As luck would have it, and Dandy does seem to have a certain amount of that, the family of an older woman who has died at a Hydro facility in the Borders town of Moffat, requests the services of Dandy to investigate the suspicious death.  So, Dandy is able to convince her husband that he and the boys need to partake of the healing powers of the facility, not revealing to him the ulterior motive behind the trip.  There is a practical reason for removing her family from their residence, too, as Dandy hopes to do have some home renovations done while away.  Alec is on board with the assignment and arrives at the Laidlaw Hydropathic Hotel as a guest, while Dandy lets a house for her family. 

Investigating the death of their clients’ mother, Mrs. Addie, takes Dandy and Alec, as well as the reader, into the 1929 world of hydrotherapy to try and determine just what went wrong with Mrs. Addie’s treatments there.  The brother and sister who run the establishment, Thomas “Tot” Laidlaw and Dr. Dorothy Laidlaw, strike Dandy as odd from the get go, but their secrets are well hidden and difficult to uncover.  To further complicate matters, there is the rumor of ghosts and that Mrs. Addie herself had seen one.  Spiritualists start arriving at the Hydro as the Gilvers settle in, and Dandy and Alec must determine what, if any, the other world has to do with the mysteries of this one.   

One of my favorite parts of this novel was the time setting, the end of October 1929, and as Dandy and Alec inch ever closer to the answers of what happened to Mrs. Addie, time inches closer to the date of the 1929 stock market crash in America, which had effects worldwide, including Dandy’s peer group.  McPherson cleverly brings this important event into the story in subtle references to finances and the stock market in America, and, she ties up the solution to all the mysteries in the plot to coincide with the Crash of ’29.  Great pacing in this ending and throughout the novel.   

I thoroughly enjoyed this Dandy Gilver mystery and plan to read the others set in a time of great change for the world, especially Great Britain, where the traditional ideas of class and culture were being shook to the core after WWI.  Dandy is the perfect vehicle in which to see these changes.  She may have much in common with the ladies of Downton Abbey, but she is able to use her wit, good humor, and practicality to carve an identity all her own.   Catriona McPherson, who just won the Anthony Award at the 2014 Bouchercon for “Best Paperback Original” for  her stand-alone As She Left It, knows how to tell a story with unforgettable characters and captivating plot.       

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Carry-over Books Published in Fall 2014 to Read This Winter

Station Eleven: A Novel by Emily St. John Mandel (hardcover)
The Secret Place by Tana French (hardcover)
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (hardcover)
A Demon Summer: A Max Tudor Mystery by G.M. Malliet (hardcover)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (paperback)
The Cinderella Murder: An Under Suspicion Novel by Mary Higgins Clark & Alafair Burke (hardcover)
Glory O'Brien's History of the Future by A.S. King (YA hardcover)