Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto Mystery #4) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

(The Vanishing Box doesn't come out in the United States until early next September 2018.  It is already out in the UK though, and since quite a few readers I know buy the UK copy from Book Depository and other available UK sources, I'm posting my review early.  I will re-post it in conjunction with the U.S. publication date.  Plenty of time to pre-order for that date.)

The early 1950s in England was an interesting time. WWII was just barely behind them, and the country was rebuilding itself and people reassessing their purposes in life. With survival of such a great tragedy comes guilt and determination that one's life count for something. Some went the direction of work that would serve others and some went the way of pursuing their dreams with abandon. DI Edgar Stephens, who had served in the war, now dedicated his life to pursuing criminals and making the world, or at least his world of Brighton, England, a safer place. Max Mephisto, Edgar's friend and fellow comrade in a special WWII unit called the Magic Men, chose to go back to his pre-war career of being a magician on stages across England and reaching for even grander spotlights than before. The world of variety entertainment has a fascinating history, and in the Stephens & Mephisto mysteries, the reader gets a front row seat to its changing times. The Hippodrome in Brighton serves as the venue where Max is currently performing in December of 1953, and that venue has a long, star-studded history, as well as an architectural one. Max calls his friend Edgar "a rarity, a completely honest man." So, we have two men who are friends and allies in spite of the different paths they take after the war, and who both end up helping to make the world a safer place with their parts in solving murders. Brighton is a comforting setting amidst the violence of murder, the sea and the history of the place providing a respite to the business of catching a killer.

It is a snowy, cold December in Brighton as Christmas draws near in 1953. DI Edgar Stephens is looking forward to attending the variety show at the Hippodrome, where his friend Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are the headline act as Magician and Daughter. As Edgar is engaged to Ruby, it's especially a treat to see. But, duty comes first for Edgar, and he is called to the scene of an unusual murder. A young flower seller, Lily Burtenshaw, has been killed in her room at a local boardinghouse and the scene is quite odd, as the young woman appears to be posed in a scene of some sort. The bright, enthusiastic sergeant Emma Watson uncovers, after a bit of research, that the scene depicted by the murder victim is a famous painting of the death of Lady Jane Grey. 

The investigation of this gruesome murder by Edgar, Emma, and the other sergeant Bob Willis takes them once again into Max Mephisto's theatre world. As well as Max's and Ruby's headlining act and some smaller acts, there is a risque act called the Living Tableaux, in which scantily clad women portray scenes from history, not unlike the murder scene set-up. The coincidence doesn't escape Edgar, and two of the performers are also borders at the house where Lily Burtenshaw resided, and they might be the last two people to have seen Lily alive, besides the murderer. When there is a second murder that is directly connected to the Living Tableaux act, Edgar spends more time at the theatre investigating and talking to Max about events. Max's involvement with one of the Tableaux performers complicates matters and comes to have a great impact on the case. The conclusion to the case will have you on the edge of your seat and reading as fast as you can so that you can arrive at the moment of revelation and safety at last.

The Vanishing Box is the complete package. It is a paradise of great characters, both major and minor. Elly Griffiths will have you interested in every character you come across in this book. She's that good. There are so many characters and relationships evolving in this book, as even Bob Willis takes on more life and promise in this story, no longer in the shadow of Emma Holmes of the sharp mind and great instincts. Emma herself is deeply involved in every aspect of tracking down the ruthless serial killer, working closely with DI Stephens, with whom she is in love, despite his engagement to Ruby. Edgar's and Ruby's relationship gets some close scrutiny, too, and Ruby is given growth that I didn't expect. Nicely done. Max's role as Ruby's father is under the microscope a bit, too. Of course, one would expect the major characters to be so fully developed and evolving. But, the minor characters, from the showgirl Betty to the landlords Edna and Norris to Max's and Ruby's agent Joe Passilini to the manager of the Living Tableaux, Vic Cutler, to the old border Mr. Entwhistle, there is a definition to their development that brings them alive as much as the main characters. Character development is one of Elly Griffith's strokes of genius. With a mesmerizing, thrilling story and a setting that is historically accurate and intriguing, The Vanishing Box can't miss being a smashing hit.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey: Reading Room Review

Several years ago, when I read The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, I discovered an India of beauty, historical importance, depth, tragedy, redemption, and diversity. That book, set over a period of seventeen years, 1930 to 1947 mostly in Calcutta, stunned me with its impact on my reading life, as India became a source of interest and intrigue to me. It’s quite difficult for me to choose just one favorite book or even ten favorite books, but The Sleeping Dictionary is forever in my top ten. So, when I learned that Sujata had a new book coming out set in India, I was excited and anticipated another spectacular read. Expectations were met entirely. The Widows of Malabar Hill is another journey into India and its culture and people, this time in 1921 in Bombay. The author doesn't rest on her laurels of Calcutta. She takes us a thousand miles across India to a whole new area of intrigue. Both novels have a strong, independent female lead character, and that's not a small accomplishment in the first half of 20th century India. The struggle for women to have any control over their lives in this period of Indian history was a task of gargantuan proportions, and it is a timely entry as our country is dealing with a resurgence of women fighting to retain the progress they’ve historically made, a progress to equality. The Widows of Malabar Hill mirrors the white supremacy battle we are fighting in this country in its British white supremacy over the peoples of India, people of color.

For Perveen Mistry, a twenty-three old Parsi woman who is the first female lawyer in Bombay, life is indeed challenging. She partners with her father in their family law firm, but the courts do not allow her to represent clients before a judge. Perveen deals with the legal paperwork side of the business. It is in this capacity that she confronts the disposition of a client's will. The challenge of this particular task is that the beneficiaries are three widows who live sequestered (in purdah) from the rest of the world and who have no direct contact with men, other than what they had with their husband.

The first sticking point in Perveen’s attempt to do her duty is that the man appointed as household agent (person handling their money and affairs daily) for the widows isn't communicating with Perveen, except to send a letter indicating the women wish to give their inheritances to charity, in part to a charity he is establishing. Perveen insists that she must talk to each woman to ensure that their true wishes are being represented by this man, and so she visits their residence on Malabar Hill, a rather exclusive neighborhood, to do just that. The visit reveals some interesting information to and from the widows, and the decision to forfeit their inheritances is put on hold. The decision isn’t the only thing that changes. In the time that Perveen leaves the house after the interviews and returns to retrieve her forgotten briefcase, a murder occurs. With the women and their children secluded on one side of the residence, and the household agent and gate keeper on the other side, who has committed this crime? Someone gaining access from outside, or someone on the inside gaining access to the whole house? The answer lies deep in a quagmire of secrets and deceptions. 

The essence of this novel is two-fold. There is the murder mystery in which only Perveen has acccess to gaining all sides of information, and there is Perveen's story of her struggle as a woman in India, not just as a woman solicitor. The background story of the years leading up to Perveen's position in 1921 is a dramatic one. The author has chosen to tell this story in separate chapters labeled 1916 and 1917. The rest of the book, the majority of it, is designated by chapter titles and the date of 1921 with the month of that year. This arrangement works quite well, and we learn just how Perveen got to be the woman of strength and determination she is in pursuing the truth for her women clients in 1921. It also gives the reader insight into Perveen’s family and her best friend from Oxford, Alice, who deals with her own set of demands and struggles. I suspect that Alice’s life will be explored further in future books, too. 

Sujata Massey is a master at bringing both story and knowledge to readers. Learning the difference between Parsis/Parsee and Iranis and the Zoroastrian religion, difference in customs between these and Muslims, and how the British operated in Bombay during this time of British rule over India. And then, there is the description of Bombay and how it was established and built up. All this fascinating information is woven seamlessly into the narrative, making the reader better informed as well as a captivated reader. 

The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a new historical mystery series by Sujata Massey, so we will get to see more of Perveen Mistry and her fight for justice for her clients, her people, and herself. 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the author.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames: Reading Room Review

Spending time with Samuel Craddock in Jarrett Creek, Texas is truly like visiting with an old friend. There are characters and settings that just find a way into your heart, and reading each book in the series becomes a conversation in getting to know that person and place better, like the evolution of any friendship. The supporting characters bring a satisfying familiarity, too, and I swear I can smell Loretta's cinnamon rolls (if I could only taste them). Even Samuel's cows are fondly followed. A Reckoning in the Back Country is #7 in the Samuel Craddock Mysteries, and one in which we see a couple of changes in Samuel's life, one sweet, one complicated. 

It is a few days before Thanksgiving in Jarrett Creek, and Police Chief Samuel Craddock is short-staffed due to personal time taken and unexpected illness. So, he takes the call about a missing man from one of the lakeside houses, where out-of-towners own and reside mostly on holidays and weekends, and he goes out to the residence to interview the wife reporting the disappearance. While talking to neighbors of the couple, two children run to their grandparents screaming and crying at what they stumbled across in the woods behind the houses. It is a gruesome discovery indeed. The missing Dr. Lewis Wilkins lies dead with his throat savaged by animals. The local vet is called to the scene, and he quickly determines that the bites and tearing were caused by dogs. With recent reports of dogs gone missing from their owners and rumors of dog fighting in the area, Samuel wonders if there is a connection to the death. Noting that Wilkins' hands showed signs of having been tied, it is apparent that a murder has occurred. Whatever the cause of death, it had a human hand in it.

Samuel soon learns that Dr. Lewis Wilkins has a troubled past and a multitude of secrets from his family. A recent malpractice case had placed the doctor in financial straits and an uncertain future, with his medical practice ruined. As the determined police chief digs deeper and deeper into the life of this man, gambling and other financial dealings start rearing their ugly heads. The man's family is as surprised as Samuel at the information that is unraveled. But, who wanted him dead enough to orchestrate such a horrific death? The return of Deputy Maria Trevino from personal leave gives Samuel Craddock the extra pair of hands and the partner he needs to help figure out this complex case that seems to go in so many directions. They do have their work cut out for them though.

The crime, of course, will be solved, and it is all a brilliant, thrilling ride to the end, but I am always left wanting more of Samuel and his friends and neighbors and Jarrett Creek. That happens when an author writes such an authentic, appealing cast of characters and setting. The reader always wants more. Terry Shames writes amazing murder/crime stories, and she gives them the personal stamp of charm and humor and familiarity that makes them feel like coming home.  I can hardly wait until the next visit.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Throw Back Thursday: Second Looks at Books

For Throw-Back Thursday on this January 11th, 2018, I'm going to revisit a few of my favorite non-fiction books.  One of my reading regrets every year is that I don't seem to be able to fit in many, if any, non-fiction books, and I do enjoy them, too.  So, here are a few that make me wonder why I'm not making more room for these books.  

Ring around the rosies,
A pocketful of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

—"Ring Around the Rosies," a children's rhyme about the Black Death

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths.

Now, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together the most recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative.

(Reading Room Note: Norman Cantor is quite the expert on the plague and Medieval times.  His writing style makes reading facts a pleasurable experience.)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'├ętat of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

(Reading Room Note:  If you want to learn something and you want to have lots of fun doing so, then reading the non-fiction books by Sarah Vowell is a must.  Her witty, story style writing will make you realize how history should be taught.  The titles alone are wildly entertaining.  Some of her other books include Assassination Vacation, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, The Wordy Shipmates, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.) 

Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

(Reading Room Note:  Erik Larson has established himself as one of the best storytellers of non-fiction published today.  You will hang on every word and then realize when it's over, it was all true.)

Monday, January 8, 2018

What Doesn't Kill You by Aimee Hix: Reading Room Review

What Doesn't Kill You is Aimee Hix's debut novel, but if you didn't know that, you'd be hard pressed to realize it. This novel reads as smooth and seasoned as the middle of a series, not the beginning. I was fortunate to read an early copy, and I remember being struck by the unfettered transitions from sentence to sentence and scene to scene. I just completed a second reading of the published novel so that my thoughts would be fresh on the content. I was as thoroughly thrilled with the second reading as the first, and one overriding thought was that Aimee Hix really knows how to write. As a former English teacher, I take great delight in her sentence structure, transitions, and command of the language. Her playful turn of phrase can surprise the reader with some gems, like "Even if he hadn't looked like a lying liar pants with his shifty lying body language ..." Add the language mastery to the storytelling and character creation, and you have what is sure to be one of the best new books of 2018.

Willa Pennington is an ex-cop who is in training to join her father's private investigating business. Still trying to recover from the loss of her best friend Michael, dead just four months, Willa stumbles into a murder scene when doing a favor for her neighbors, David and Susan Horowitz. Their granddaughter Violet is in an abusive relationship with a man, and Willa agrees to meet Violet at the place she shares with the abusive boyfriend to help move. But, when Willa arrives at the isolated house, no one is there, except the dead boyfriend. Violet takes a runner, and Willa, whose father is currently out of town on vacation, feels a responsibility to the Horowitzes to clear Violet of any suspicion in the murder.

When Willa's continued interest and investigation into the murder brings her dead friend's brother into the picture, Willa finds that loose ends to a murder are not all she has to figure out. Seth and Willa have a complicated relationship that provides backstory and sexual tension and witty dialogue and danger. Not bad for a couple of characters trying to figure out both their places in the world and each other's lives. It also is a bit of a problem with both of them having a vested interest in catching the killer. The case is, of course, bigger than a single murder of a loser boyfriend. And, yet, it becomes personal, too. Willa’s doggedness to follow the threads and find answers takes a course of high drama and brutal action that endangers her life. 

Suspense, action, great story, great structure, great characters. I can hardly wait for Book #2!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Blizzard of Books: January New Titles

There is good news a plenty in January reading.  First, it’s January, and the weather means lots of indoor time to read, and you’ll need every minute of that time because, secondly, there is a bonanza of great new titles coming out this first month of the year.  So, with snow storms bearing down on many of you this week, it’s the perfect opportunity to snuggle up with a warm blanket, some hot chocolate, and a great new January read.  And, remember, even if you can’t get out to buy the books or borrow them from your library or order them to be delivered, you can always download them as ebooks.  So, make sure you’re prepared for the bad weather with your reading selections.  Then, you can worry about eggs and milk and bread.


January 2018

The Case of the Unsuitable Suitor (Enquiries Agency Mystery) by Cathy Ace (Jan. 1st)

Scones and Scoundrels: The Highland Bookshop Mystery Series #2 by Molly MacRae (Jan. 2nd)

In the Shadow of Agatha Christie: Classic Crime Fiction by Forgotten Female Writers: 1850-1917 edited by Leslie S. Klinger (Jan. 2nd)

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (Jan. 2nd)

The Blasphemers: Vera and Tolliver #3 by Annamaria Alfieri (Jan. 7th)

What Doesn’t Kill You (A Willa Pennington, PI Mystery) by Aimee Hix (Jan. 8th)

The Hostess with the Ghostess : A Haunted Guesthouse Mystery by E.J. Copperman  (Jan. 9th)

A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames (Jan. 9th)

The Widows of Malabar Hill (A Mystery of 1920s Bombay) by Sujata Massey (Jan. 9th)

The Wife Between Us: A Novel by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (Jan. 9th)

The Chalk Man: A Novel by C.J. Tudor (Jan. 9th)

A Treacherous Curse (A Veronica Speedwell Mystery) by Deanna Raybourn (Jan. 16th)

Gia and the Lone Raven (Gia #4, Novella) by Kristi Belcamino (Jan. 19th)

The Wife: A Novel of Psychological Suspense by Alafair Burke (Jan. 23rd)

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Flavia de Luce #9) by Alan Bradley (January 30th)

Into the Black Nowhere: An UNSUB Novel by Meg Gardiner (Jan. 30th)