Thursday, August 31, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

Stef Penny is a Scottish author who seems to fly under the radar, at least here in the states.  She is a screenwriter and has written many adaptations for radio, too.  She is a former agoraphobic who oddly enough, or maybe because of, has a special relationship with wide open spaces and isolated people, and she is drawn to write about them.  I have been a fan of hers since her first book, The Tenderness of Wolves (2006), which won Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year.  Her second book, The Invisible Ones, came out in 2011, and it is that book that I'm featuring here today.  And, I'm delighted to announce that Stef Penny has a new book coming out next Tuesday, September 5th, entitled Under a Pole Star.  There is a lot of time between Penny's books, but they are well worth the wait.  I hope that, with only three to catch up on, readers and reader friends of mine will give themselves the treat of this gem of an author and her amazing stories.

Jacket Description:
In a hospital bed, small-time private detective Ray Lovell veers between paralysis and delirium. But before the accident that landed him there, he’d been hired to find Rose Janko, the estranged daughter of a traveling Gypsy family, who went missing seven years earlier.
Half Romany himself, Ray is well aware that he’s been chosen more for his blood than for his investigative skills. Still, he’s surprised by the intense hostility he encounters from the Jankos, who haven’t had an easy past. Touched by tragedy, they’re either cursed or hiding a terrible secret—the discovery of which Ray can’t help suspecting is connected to Rose’s disappearance…
Seamlessly toggling between Ray’s past and present, and the perspective of the missing woman’s young nephew JJ, Stef Penney builds a gripping page-turner that doesn’t let go until its shocking end.

My Review:
I've been waiting and waiting for a new Stef Penney since reading and loving her debut novel, The Tenderness of Wolves. Well, the wait was worth it. Stef Penney has written another great novel that delves into the secret lives of people who are set apart from the mainstream life of the world. In this latest novel, it is the Gypsy life of the Travelers that is the focus of the action and the mystery involving a missing woman of that life. While many Gypsies have left the road and settled in "brick," or permanent houses in the 1980's England, the small group of which this missing woman was a part is still living in their trailers and banding together for support. Ray Lovell, who is half Romany himself, is hired as the investigator by Rose Janko's father to find out what happened to his daughter seven years ago when she disappeared. As in her first novel, Penney has shown great skill at creating an isolated world full of secrets and survival. Her ability to give the reader characters that draw the reader in and keep said reader riveted to their unfolding lives is second to none. The story is told in alternating chapters by Lovell, starting with his near death hospitalization and working backwards for a while, and by J.J. Janko, a teenage member of the Janko group of Travelers from which Rose disappeared. I was fascinated with the insights into the Romany life. I finished this book quickly, as I just couldn't stop reading its captivating story. I do hope that Ms. Penney doesn't keep me waiting as long for her next brilliant book as she did this one. She is an extraordinary talent, and we readers are lucky to have her.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

Today's selection for my Throw Back Thursday read is one that will satisfy mystery, crime, police procedural, and historical fictions fans all.  And, especially that group of mystery fans who are devotees of the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.  Sir Arthur is such a fascinating character in his own right, apart from Sherlock Holmes.  The Cottingley fairies hoax tied in with Doyle's ardent belief in spiritualism is itself enough to earn him unique interest.  But, it is another piece of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's history that I bring you today.  Arthur and George is a fictional account, but factual in details, of Doyle's taking on the case of  George Edalji, an English born solicitor of a Parsee father and a Scottish mother, who was wrongly convicted of a crime in 1903 and served three years in prison for it.  After writing a newspaper account of his own innocence, Edalji sent a copy of it to Doyle, who became interested in exonerating George Edalji of the conviction.   In a life imitating art situation, the author of Sherlock Holmes employs the methods of his creation to produce evidence of innocence.  Does he succeed?  That's easy enough to check in online reports of this famous case, because famous it was.  It resulted in a change in the English court system through establishing the Court of Appeals. There is so much rich material in this book about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his life in addition to his thrilling adventure of playing detective that it really should be a must read for anyone who is a fan of the author.  And, that it's written by Julian Barnes guarantees that the story flows beautifully from beginning to end.  

Jacket Description:
As boys, George, the son of a Midlands vicar, and Arthur, living in shabby genteel Edinburgh, find themselves in a vast and complex world at the heart of the British Empire. Years later—one struggling with his identity in a world hostile to his ancestry, the other creating the world’s most famous detective while in love with a woman who is not his wife–their fates become inextricably connected.

In Arthur & George, Julian Barnes explores the grand tapestry of late-Victorian Britain to create his most intriguing and engrossing novel yet.

Movie Connection:
It seems that so many of the throw-back reading selections I've chosen have had movies or television series made of them, so I'm adding a new feature to my Thursday Throw Back Reading.  For the book Arthur and George, there is a recent three episode Masterpiece Theater production (here in the states, ITV in Britain) starring Martin Clunes (the wonderful Doc Martin) as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I would definitely recommend reading the book first.   

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from my Past

Whirligig by Paul Fleischman

Today's selection for Throw-Back Thursday is a book that had a profound effect on me with its message of how we affect other people's lives, sometimes with known results to us, but often without our realization that something we did or said had an impact.  Whirligig by Paul Fleischman is a young adult book that deserves a wider audience than an age label.  While it is important for young people to absorb the message of this book, it is equally important for adults to be cognizant of it, whether for the first time or as a reminder.  You affect others' lives.  It's as simple and as complex as that.  I have given this book to friends over the years, and I think it's time I started to do so again.  

Book Jacket Description:

When sixteen-year-old Brent Bishop inadvertently causes the death of a young woman, he is sent on an unusual journey of repentance, building wind toys across the land.

In his most ambitious novel to date, Newbery winner Paul Fleischman traces Brent's healing pilgrimage from Washington State to California, Florida, and Maine, and describes the many lives set into new motion by the ingenious creations Brent leaves behind.

Paul Fleischman is the master of multivoiced books for younger readers. In Whirligig he has created a novel about hidden connections that is itself a wonder of spinning hearts and grand surprises.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service by Rhys Bowen: Reading Room Review


Oh, Lady Georgie! You do make me so happy that I'm a reader and that I found Her Royal Spyness series four years ago. Having a new Royal Spyness book to look forward to each year is a guaranteed favorite read for the year. Rhys Bowen is a born storyteller that charms readers with her fascinating characters, witty dialogue, captivating settings, and suspenseful story lines. Always fun reads, there is still the serious undertone of a murder to be solved. On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service is the eleventh book in this series, and each one is a treasure of exceptional narrative.

It is 1935 and Lady Georgie is still in Ireland at her fiance Darcy's castle after they both helped exonerate Darcy's father from a murder charge. But, Darcy has jut left for another of his "secret missions," and Georgie decides she needs to return to London to check on her request to the Queen. The request is an important one, a relinquishment from Lady Georgie of her place in the line of succession to the English throne, which is currently 35th. It must be granted before Georgie and Darcy can legally marry in England, as Darcy is Catholic and a royal cannot marry a Catholic.  Upon her arrival in London, Darcy finds two letters waiting for her at her brother's house, which used to be her house, too, and both of those letters end up working together to send Georgie to Italy. Georgie's friend Belinda is hidden away in Italy awaiting the birth of her baby and has asked Georgie to come stay with her, and the letter from the Queen is an invitation to tea, which results in the Queen giving Georgie a mission of her own while in Italy. Georgie is to act as spy at a house party given by a past school chum of hers where the Queen's son, David the Prince of Wales and Mrs. Simpson are to be guests. The Queen fears that the couple are using this house party as a cover to marry.

After seeing Belinda, Georgie is off to the house party of her old school chum, who really wasn't quite a chum. It is an odd assortment of fellow party guests that Georgie encounters, with the first surprise being her mother Claire and her mother's fiance Max, a German industrialist. There is a German general and his aide and a couple of more German soldiers present, too. The hostess of the party has married into a wealthy, distinguished Italian family, and her husband is Mussolini's top aide. A very strange gathering for a house party indeed. And, one of the Germans is blackmailing Georgie's mother, who, of course, asks Georgie for help. The dynamics of Georgie's and her mother's relationship are always interesting to follow, but our dear Georgie is learning how to stand up for herself a bit.  The catty banter between Claire and Mrs. Simpson is something to not be missed, too. 

With secret meetings and locked doors, there is much to cause suspicion that there is more than just a house party occurring. Then, one of the Germans is murdered, and the stakes become life and death for everyone. Lady Georgie must not only try to determine who the murderer is, but she is determined to help her mother as well. As Georgie works frantically to put the puzzling pieces into a complete picture, she is barely one step ahead of her own demise. And, will Darcy take any part in this killer party? Well, you might want to look for some early signs of that.  Georgie and Darcy always have an entertaining way of showing up in the same places.

It is amazing how many things a book in this series can do. From entertaining with humor to thrilling with a murder mystery to sharing pivotal moments in history, the Royal Spyness series satisfies many appetites. The characters in these books, both old and new, are full of fascinating quirks and witty words. Of course, there is a masterful hand guiding all of these elements, and so kudos to the brilliant Rhys Bowen once again. On Her Majesty's Frightfully Secret Service is a smash hit!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Blessed are the Peacemakers by Kristi Belcamino: Reading Room Review

Blessed are the Peacemakers is the 5th Gabriella Giovanni mystery, and I am solidly addicted to their spell. I should know better than to start a book in this series at night, but I did it anyway and the next time I looked at the clock, it was 6:30 a.m. But, what a glorious night/morning of reading it was! Well worth any sleep lost or dreams missed. Can't imagine any dreams being better than this book. Gabriella and the danger she finds herself in make reading this series a thrill like few others. This character is smart, strong, and tenacious. She is a fierce defender of the truth and those she loves. Gabriella Giovanni is simply one of the best female characters in mystery/crime fiction.

In this latest chapter of Gabriella's life, she is once more in the role of protecting her family and trying to survive tough personal blows. Gabriella and her husband Sean Donovan have been married seven years, with their precious daughter a seven-year-old testament to their love. Living in her step-father's penthouse in San Francisco, with all the protection and luxury it provides gives her family a place to heal and relax after threats in the past. Gabriella has a job she loves as a crime beat reporter, and her husband has a job with the DEA. Looking forward to taking the first vacation with just the two of them since their marriage, Gabriella and Donovan must first get through a week of his absence on a DEA assignment. That vacation never comes, as Donovan's plane goes down in the jungles of Guatemala and he is presumed dead. After two months of barely being able to get out of bed, Gabriella decides that she must visit the area where the plane was last on radar, to find his body or learn what happened to him, as the DEA has ended their inquiries. The decision to travel to these jungles is one that will place Gabriella in a dangerous environment of nature and drug cartels, but she feels that she must endure it in order to put her life back together for her daughter and herself. 

Although Gabriella has had a senator's help in planning her trip, with a guide and arrangements on the ground set in place, Guatemala is a place where plans are seldom allowed to follow their intended course. The drug cartels make the rules and have their own plans. Gabriella Giovanni and Sean Donovan are pawns in a cut-throat business where human life is only as important as it is beneficial to the cartels. Gabriella soon learns that trust is a slippery slope of disappointment and dire consequences. Her quest to find her husband is a twist of the unexpected in the most gripping tales yet in this series. 

One of the many talents of author Kristi Belcamino is the ability to create suspense, the kind of on-the-edge-of-your-seat excitement that keeps a reader racing along with the characters to escape danger and death. However, Belcamino also has a deft touch at the slower moments of suspense, where waiting behind a door in a breathless panic raises the reader's pulse along with the character waiting. This story and all the other Gabriella Giovanni stories, are participatory reading at its finest. All bets are off in the struggle to survive, and the moment-to-moment peril is palatable.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reads from My Past

When a book lover has a favorite book, it's rarely enough to own just one copy of the book or one format of it.  The book becomes a collector's item for the reader, who delights in finding anything from the original hardback or paperback to the audio version to a bobble doll of the main character.  So, it is with Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon for me.  It is without a doubt my favorite Stephen King novel, as well as one of my favorite novels.  This particular tale of King's is one of his shorter ones, 244 pages, but it is one of his most powerful, too.  I own book versions, audio, and the pop-up edition.  I haven't seen the movie version because I just don't want to take the risk of something so special being ruined by a movie adaptation.  The images I've formed in my mind from reading the book are truly too precious to ruin. 

Published in 1999, the Tom Gordon in the title was a real pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, and it came out on April 6th that year, opening day for the 1999 Red Sox season.  It rose to #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, and it was King's current book when he was hit by a car that June and almost died.  An article that gives great background on this book and King's relationship to it can be found @  This  2015 article is written by Grady Hendrix, who is the author of the 2014 novel Horrorstor and the just released My Best Friend's Exorcism.  

Description from Publishers Weekly:
"The world had teeth and it could bite you with them anytime it wanted." King's new novel, which begins with that sentence, has teeth, too, and it bites hard. Readers will bite right back. Always one to go for the throat, King crafts a story that concerns not just anyone lost in the Maine-New Hampshire woods, but a plucky nine-year-old girl, and from a broken home, no less. This stacked deck is flush with aces, however. King has always excelled at writing about children, and Trisha McFarland, dressed in jeans and a Red Sox jersey and cap when she wanders off the forest path, away from her mother and brother and toward tremendous danger, is his strongest kid character yet, wholly believable and achingly empathetic in her vulnerability and resourcefulness. Trisha spends nine days (eight nights) in the forest, ravaged by wasps, thirst, hunger, illness, loneliness and terror. Her knapsack with a little food and water helps, but not as much as the Walkman that allows her to listen to Sox games, a crucial link to the outside world. Love of baseball suffuses the novel, from the chapter headings (e.g., "Bottom of the Ninth") to Trisha's reliance, through fevered imagined conversations with him, on (real life) Boston pitcher Tom Gordon and his grace under pressure. King renders the woods as an eerie wonderland, one harboring a something stalking Trisha but also, just perhaps, God: he explicitly explores questions of faith here (as he has before, as in Desperation) but without impeding the rush of the narrative. Despite its brevity, the novel ripples with ideas, striking images, pop culture allusions and recurring themes, plus an unnecessary smattering of scatology. It's classic King, brutal, intensely suspenseful, an exhilarating affirmation of the human spirit.

                                          Tom Gordon

Pop-up Version of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon


Audio Version of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, narrated by Anne Heche

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Path into Darkness by Lisa Alber: Reading Room Review

With the third installment of the County Clare Mysteries, Lisa Alber has cemented the series’ success. One of the descriptions heard in reviews of this series is that it is atmospheric, and that is indeed a delicious element of each book. There is always a lingering of the fey, both its positive and negative mysterious underpinnings. Another strength is Alber’s adeptness at developing interesting characters whose stories weave together from book to book, anchoring the readers to the community of Lisfenora, Ireland and its charm. 

The action gets underway quickly in Path into Darkness, with a local man called Elder Joe found murdered in his cottage. Series favorite Detective Sergeant Danny Ahern is called to the scene where he encounters the bloody corpse of his fellow Plough and Trough Pub patron and the person who found Elder Joe, Merrit Chase. Merrit, who hails from California, now resides in Lisfenora with her father, whom she had come to Ireland in search of, and who is the local matchmaker. As Danny and Merrit have a tense relationship, the investigation into the death begins on a troubling course for Danny. Add in that the investigation is beginning on a Saturday, the day that Danny takes his children to see their comatose mother in the hospital, a situation that Danny feels great guilt about, and it is a trying day indeed. 

Suspects are hard to come by for the murder of Elder Joe, even though he could be a rather reprehensible person. But, a relatively newcomer to the area, Nathan Tate, a potter, becomes a person of interest. Nathan has a troubled past, including a stay in a mental hospital, and his overbearing adult daughter Zoe, whom he abandoned as a teenager, has recently found him and moved in with him. The Tate family has lots of demons and secrets. Nathan’s slippery grip on reality and his memory lapses coupled with Zoe’s claim to be a healer make for some high drama and suspense. Danny must try to sort through what he can uncover to determine if Nathan is indeed a suspect.

The mixture of old and new characters in this story provides plenty of intrigue. Annie, another newcomer to the Lisfenora area, brings a whole other scenario for the murder of Elder Joe, and her journal entries scattered throughout the book provide titillating insight into a psychological mind game occurring. I was happy to see that Merrit had a larger part in this story, along with her father Liam, and their relationship. At this point in the series, Lisfenora has become a familiar place in whose residents the reader has vested affection and concern. I feel that Path into Darkness has solidified the bond between reader and characters that will continue forward. 

Path into Darkness deals with multiple stories, back stories and the murder at the forefront, but Lisa Alber deftly handles all the strings in the web, throwing in a twist or a turn, and brings all to a completed picture, which defies prediction. There are themes of resurrection, second chances, family secrets, family love, and unbearable grief running throughout this clever narrative. Get comfortable and keep a light on because once you start reading Path into Darkness, you will have to chase the thrill to the end.

I received a copy from the author of this book, and I have given a clear, unbiased review.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal: Reading Room Review

The Paris Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal is #7 in the Maggie Hope Mystery series set during WWII. I have been an ardent fan of this series since the beginning, and I was rather surprised when I realized that we were to the seventh title already. Time really does fly when you’re having fun, or when you’re reading an amazing series. What first engaged me in this series was the absolute connection to Maggie in her surroundings, war-torn London. MacNeal had brought the feeling of walking down a bomb ravaged street in London in 1939 into sharp focus for readers. Through Maggie Hope, we see history as if it’s unfolding before us. And, here we are at book #7, and the author has never wavered from bringing the reader into the scene, immersing us into a time and place where history so affected our future.

It is now 1942, and Maggie, through her called-in favor from the Queen of England, is in Paris, which is occupied by the Germans, as is the rest of France--well, except for Vichy France, whose rule is maintained by a Nazi-collaborating Frenchman. But it is Paris, the city of lights, where Maggie awaits her documentation allowing her to enter daily life in this tightly controlled German military zone. What she finds when she does get her new identification and papers is a city covered in swastika banners and muted life. The city of lights has lost its once brilliant color and amore. Posing as an Irish young woman who has come to Paris to shop for her bridal trousseau, Maggie settles into the Ritz Hotel, where the German Luftwaffe is headquartered. Because Ireland is neutral in the War, she is granted freedom to move around as she pleases. But, of course, there is always the watchful eye of the Gestapo and whoever may be collaborating with them. “Trust no one” is advice that is given to Maggie upon her entry into Paris. Her real purpose in getting herself smuggled into this dangerous place as a spy is to find a SOE, Special Operations Executive, agent whose communications have gone rather odd of late. Also, Maggie is in pursuit of her half-sister, who was last seen in Paris when she escaped from the safety of the SOE handlers. 

The characters include some with whom we are familiar from earlier books, and it certainly is to the reader’s advantage to have read the preceding six stories in the series, as the bonds with those characters will be stronger.  Of course, the story is so captivating that prior reading isn't essential.  There is also a whole new cast of characters, consisting of German officers and French spies and the lovely addition of Coco Chanel. Coco’s befriending of Maggie is another avenue of exploring the conditions of occupied Paris, how the fashion capitol of the world dealt with fashion and its continuation through the hardships of war. Also, the inclusion of Maggie’s friends and fellow agents, Hugh Thompson and Sarah Sanderson, who are undercover as part of the Paris ballet company, is a window into the arts in Paris at this time. The Germans may have been monsters, but their interest in the finer things of life allowed the artistic and musical talent to survive, albeit under the strict regulations and pillaging of the Nazi regime. 

On the line in these behind-the-scenes war efforts is the Allied invasion of France, keeping the location of Normandy a secret. It’s a win or lose the war move that Churchill and those working in the secret organizations of the British war-fighting machine are desperate to protect at all costs. Sacrifice has never meant more or been so great. Evil has never been more threatening to take over.  Maggie and her fellow spies know what is at stake.

This book may be my favorite yet in the Maggie Hope series, mainly because the history of Paris under Nazi rule is such a fascinating subject, and Susan Elia MacNeal spins a suspenseful, gripping story out of real people and circumstances, facing peril with their every step. There is no comfort of home or time off for the participants in this drama. Every day is a challenge to make it through alive. The story will seize you with its life and death struggles in a fight to prevent the Nazi takeover of the world. The author recreates the feelings and sacrifices of these brave spies in this powerful narrative that will make it all too real to the reader.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher for an honest review.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

On September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, four young African American girls went to church.  Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley never got to return home that day.  They were killed in a racially motivated bombing at their church, 16th Street Baptist Church.  Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund is not the story of those four girls, but instead is a tribute to their spirits, who do occasionally appear.  It is the story of the city of Birmingham itself at that turbulent moment in history, of its people, black and white, and how the Civil Rights movement played out there.  Told through the viewpoints of different characters from different ends of the racial divide,  it's not a pretty story, but it is one that bears revisiting.  

Sena Jeter Naslund is a favorite author of mine, and this powerful book is probably my favorite of her books.  She is an author who is a master at taking epic subjects and making them into unforgettable stories.  

Book Jacket Description: 
From the acclaimed author of the national bestseller Ahab's Wife comes an inspiring, brilliantly rendered new novel of the awakening conscience of the South and of an entire nation.

Written with the same scope and emotional depth as her previous award-winning novel, Four Spirits is set in Sena Jeter Naslund's home city of Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in the 1960s was known as Bombingham. Naslund brings to life this tumultuous time, weaving together the lives of blacks and whites, civil rights advocates and racists, and the events of peaceful protest and violent repression, to create a tapestry of American social transformation.

Stella Silver is an idealistic, young white college student brought up by her genteel, mannered aunts. She first witnesses the events of the freedom movement from a safe distance but, along with her friend Cat Cartwright, is soon drawn into the mounting conflagration. Stella's and Cat's lives are forever altered by their new friendships with other committed freedom fighters.

A student at a black college, Christine Taylor is inspired to action by the examples of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. She courageously struggles to balance her family responsibilities, education, and work with the passions and dangers of the demonstrations. Her friend Gloria Callahan, a gifted young cellist and descendant of a runaway slave, tries to move beyond her personal shyness and family coziness to enter a wider circle, including blacks and whites, men and women, all involved with the protests. Lionel Parrish, teacher, preacher, and peddler of funeral insurance, battles his own demons of lust and self-preservation, while New York activist Jonathan Green gives up a promising career as a pianist to work for racial justice in the South.

These characters all add their voices to the chorus that makes up this symphony of innocent children and the mythic elderly, the devoutly religious and the skeptical humanist, the wealthy and the poor, the city and the country. Poignant and evocative, rich in historical detail, and filled with the humanity that is the hallmark of Naslund's fiction, Four Spirits is a compelling tale that transcends tragedy and evokes redemptive triumph.

Author's Notes:  When I was a college student in the early sixties in Birmingham, Alabama, I promised myself, if I ever did become a novelist, that I would write about the acts of courage and tragedy taking place in my city. I would try to re-create through words what it was like to be alive then; how ordinary life went on, how people fell in and out of love, how family members got sick, how people worked ordinary jobs, tried to get an education, worshiped, looked for entertainment, grew up, died, participated in the great changes of the civil rights struggle or stood aside and watched the world change.

There were many horrors and haunting events but none more powerful than the murder of the four young girls to whom this book is dedicated. In my imagination they stand in a sacred circle, a ring of fire around them. I do not step into that Circle. That is to say, I do not try to re-create them. Their families and friends are holding them dear the way they really were.