Monday, April 27, 2020

Reading Room Rerun: Some Great Reads from 2014

In my FaceBook memories that popped up today, there was a post about Palisades Park by Alan Brennert.  It's a fiction book from that year by one of my favorite authors (Moloka'i, Honolulu, and Daughter of Moloka'i) about the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey (1898-1971).  The story in this book begins in the 1930s, and follows a family's story of its connection to the park, dealing with the good and the bad of this place of enchantment, touching on civil rights and women's rights.  Some of us who are in our older years will remember the song "Palisades Park" by Freddy Cannon (1962). 

So, I started thinking that since we are all looking for great reads, I would republish my review for Palisades Park.  The only problem is that when I went back to my 2014 blog postings, I hadn't been posting like I am now, with one review per post (Of course, my reviews were a bit shorter then.)  I had posted the review of Palisades Park into a post of multiple book reviews.  As I read through the reviews of the books included in this post, I realized that every one of them was a favorite read and deserved to be revisited.  How could I not include following outstanding authors and their amazing books: Catriona McPherson, Karin Salvalaggio, Jamie Ford, Anne Cleeland, Elly Griffiths, Lyndsay Faye, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jen Danna and Ann Vanderlaan, Lucy Burdette, Rhys Bowen, Gabrielle Zevin, and Alan Bradley.  What a star-studded list of authors, right?  I hope you will enjoy reading through the reviews of these 2014 books that are so special, and if you missed one of these authors or books, you can use some of your stay-at-home time to catch up on them.    

Reviews from Some Great Reading in 2014

2014 is shaping up to be another stellar reading year for me, reliably wonderful reads from favorite authors and delightful surprises from new authors.  Quite honestly, I'm still trying to catch up on some books from 2013, so there will be reads published last year in my reviews, too.  Of course, I will forever be playing at catch-up in my reading, as time in the day just doesn't seem to keep pace with the amount of enticing books to be read.  If I'm lucky, there will always be books waiting.  Here is a sampling of the 45 books I've read so far this year, ones that I've particularly enjoyed. 

Palisades ParkPalisades Park by Alan Brennert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Nobody does historical fiction with the setting as a character better than Alan Brennert.  I'm not discounting that there may be some equal to the task, but none are more masterful at taking a place, creating fascinating characters with life-long ties to that place, and mixing in the magnetizing truth of events and people with the plausible storytelling of a simulated narrative.  Brennert is simply and complexly brilliant.  His previous best-selling novels, Moloka'i and Honolulu are of equally epic status. 
Overlooking the Hudson River, Palisades Park was the legendary amusement park in Cliffside Park/Ft. Lee,New Jersey forever immortalized in the song by Freddy Cannon in 1962 entitled "Palisades Park."  (  Opened in 1898 and closed in 1971, Brennert's story covers mostly the years when the park was under the ownership of the Irving and Jack Rosenthal, brothers who bought the amusement park from the Schenck brothers who went on to make history in the motion picture business.  The Rosenthals were wholeheartedly committed to making Palisades Park the premier park for fun and innovation.  Constantly updated, the musical element alone was a who's who of musical history, from the Big Bands of Benny Goodman to the up and coming Frankie Avalon and the Jackson Five.  The rotating attractions, the imaginative rides, and the country's largest saltwater swimming pool entertained thousands over the years.
Alan Brennert has inserted into this spectacle of enchantment a family of dreamers who find themselves immersed in the community of the amusement park where Eddie, the father, and Adele, the mother, met as concessionaires and after marrying opened up their Saratoga french-fries concession together.  Children Antoinette/Toni and Jack grow up with Palisades Amusement Park as their daily playground. The ensconced culture of the times becomes a  sweet nostalgic look at the days of listening to radio programs as a family, pin curling hair, reading comic books, and the "bobby soxer" look.  And, yet, Brennert doesn't leave out the not so sweet parts, such as racial discrimination and war, which so substantially affect the country and the lives of the Stopka family. WWII impacts Eddie, Adele, and their children in ways that will linger for decades and change lives forever.  The issue of civil rights is fought on the very doorstep of the amusement park with the family's belief that people are people, no matter what, put to the test.  And, the dreams of youth and the dreams of adulthood are played out in an ever changing landscape of possibility.  Toni's early goal of becoming a high diver after witnessing one at the park is challenged by gender expectations and family dynamics.  Eddie's and Adele's dreams are not always on the same page, and Jack, sweet Jack, finds that heroes aren't always as they seem. Intertwined in the story of the Stopka family are a cast of minor characters, both real and fictional, with consuming stories of their own. 
Even in the physical arrangement of the book, Alan Brennert gives creative, meaningful direction.  The beginning chapter, where Eddie as a child first visits the amusement park with his father, is entitled Opening Bally.  The final chapter, after Pallisades Amusement Park has closed, is entitled Closing Bally.  This metaphoric salute to the Park seemed somehow perfect and fully satisfying.  In the author's note at the end, he states that the book is his "love letter to a cherished part of my childhood."  After reading his love letter, I would conclude that he has spoken not only for those who cherished Palisades Park, but for all of us who have a special place from our childhood days that transported us into a world of magical possibilities. 
What's especially satisfying about an Alan Brennert novel is that they usually don't end with the last page, as the reader will become so engrossed in the setting, people, and events that you will seek out more books, fiction and non-fiction to keep your new-found love of place in motion.  My suggestion is to keep your post-its tab markers handy to identify the many parts of this narrative you will want to revisit.

The Day She DiedThe Day She Died by Catriona McPherson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Catriona McPherson is the type of person who starts talking and everyone listens.  You just know that Scottish brogue of hers is ready to spill a tale or make you laugh.  Her writing cements her promise of a great storyteller, with the same shades of hook and catch as her speaking.  She draws the reader deeper and deeper into a world where there is no escape but through the weave of words that bring you to the edge and have you holding on for dear life.  I suppose I could have just said that Catriona knows how to write a bang-up psychological thriller, but the step by step entrenchment into the darkness of the story must be emphasized.  While reading this on-the-edge-of-your-seat mystery thriller, I kept thinking I should be shouting, "No, don't open that door," or "Run away, run away NOW!"  Usually, with a thriller movie, I change the channel for a few seconds.  There is no changing the channel or skipping a page with this book.  You will be hanging on every word.

Jessie Constable is a Scottish lass working in a charity clothing store in Dumfries.  It's a rather dull, predictable life, but it suits her fine as she struggles to keep demons from her past at bay.  What happens when she meets Gus King spins her ordered world into an erratic, impulsive existence that has Jessie wondering what is real and what is imagined.  Jessie comes upon Gus and his little girl Ruby in the grocery store, Gus seems to be having an emotional breakdown over a phone call from his wife.  Jessie decides she can't ignore the man sitting on the floor and his daughter distressed over it, so she offers to help.  Within hours, she finds herself ensconced in the man's cottage by the sea with his two small children, Ruby and Dillon, helping the family handle the news that Gus's wife, Becky, has driven her car off a road and killed herself. Jessie suddenly becomes care-giver for the children as Gus scrambles to cope with the tragic news.  The unfolding of the rest of the story is an experience in coincidences that aren't and words misconstrued, but not.  The simultaneous disappearance of Becky's best friend, Ros, becomes a puzzle that Jessie can't let go of, as she thinks it might have a bearing on Becky's suicide.  Gus is himself rather puzzling, as he alternates between grateful and caring to Jessie and inexplicably angry.   

Oh, what a tangled web Catriona McPherson weaves in this novel, and oh how delicious it is for the reader.  Prepare to stay up past your bedtime, and you might want to keep a light on after.  The Day She Died is the 2015 winner of the Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original and the 2015 winner of the Silver Falchion Award for Best Literary Suspense Novel.

Bone Dust WhiteBone Dust White by Karin Salvalaggio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Karin Salvalaggio has published her first book, a murder mystery that is the first in what will be a series.  I had to type that statement out, as I'm still having a hard time believing that Bone Dust White is her debut novel.  Karin's writing is a gift of great characters, finely paced plot, and murder mystery with an abundance of entanglements.  She has created a complex, somewhat understated main character in in State Police Detective Macy Greeley who is both well developed and yet not fully developed, hooking the reader, but brilliantly hinting that Macy Greeley is a promise of layers to come.  As with all the most interesting characters in a series, Macy has a past that is revealed as relevant to the situation and a future that is evolving. 

Bone Dust White brings readers into Macy Greeley's life when she is eight months pregnant, single, and on assignment away from her home of Helena, Montana in the small town of Collier, where she worked a murder case eleven years prior.  It has taken eleven years to finish business that began in murder and ends once again in murder.  Grace Adams lives with her widowed aunt in an isolated area of an unfinished housing development in Collier, and she is recuperating from a heart transplant operation when a woman comes through the snow to her house, knocking on the door, and then running from an assailant on the trails in back of the house.  The woman is stabbed and left to die, and while Grace is terrified, she is compelled to go help the woman after the attacker has fled.  Grace discovers that the dying woman is someone important from her past, and it's only the beginning of the past coming back to haunt her in its nightmarish revelations.  Macy's job is to find the killer by connecting the dots that lead back to Grace and why murder arrived at her door.  Grace isn't the only one who must relive the past, as Macy has some ghosts of her own, too.

It's always a thrill for a mystery series fan to get in on the ground floor of a series, and when its first novel, and the author's debut novel, is as satisfying a read as Bone Dust White, the excitement is enhanced ten-fold.  I am already invested in the character of Macy Greeley and am looking forward to how she handles the challenge of single parenthood while continuing to be an exceptional detective. 

Songs of Willow FrostSongs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At first, I was tempted to compare Songs of Willow Frost with the much-loved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but, fortunately, I only held onto that temptation briefly.  Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet dealt with favorite subject matter for me, the tragic Japanese internment during WWII, and then introduced me to the Chinese element of that turbulent time in Seattle history.  But, Songs of Willow Frost should be judged on its on merits, as it is a different story, although in the same setting.  Writing a successful second novel must be one of the hardest accomplishments for an author, especially after the stunning popularity of the first, and, yet, Jamie Ford has done just that.  He has dug back further into the Seattle history of the Chinese, both immigrants and those born in the United States, and given readers another engaging story of heartache and struggle, with the element of hope that Ford seems to employ as essential and authentic to his main characters. And, hope is hard to come by when choices only exist in the forms of different levels of hell.

It is 1934, and William Eng is having his twelfth birthday, to be celebrated along with all the other boys in the Sacred Heart Orphanage on September 28th, the designated day for all boys' birthdays at that institution.  The celebration includes a trip for all the boys to a movie theater, a treat highly anticipated in the depression era of sparse meals and few possessions.  This particular birthday turns out to offer up the gift that William has wished for during everyday of his past five years at Sacred Heart.  He sees his mother again, not on the street or in a visit to the orphanage, but on the movie screen as an actress.  His shock turns into determination to find her when he discovers that she is visiting the city.  Of course, nothing is simple in a landscape of a penniless twelve-year-old orphan.  That he does find her is only a small part of this complex story.  With chapters going back to 1921 and forward to the present 1934, the woeful tale of Willow Frost, William's mother, is revealed, and his placement in it is unraveled. 

Jamie Ford is an expert at creating empathetic characters and stories into which the reader becomes completely ensconced.  That he imparts history at the same time is second nature, and smoothly interwoven into the narrative.  I had been looking forward to Ford's second book for a while, and I'm delighted to report that it was well worth the wait.

Murder in Retribution (Scotland Yard #2)Murder in Retribution by Anne Cleeland

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the most thrilling discoveries for a mystery genre reader is that of a new series.  That has indeed been my pleasure with the New Scotland Yard series by Anne Cleeland.  I was most fortunate to receive an advanced copy of the second in this series, Murder in Retribution, and reading it has cemented my addiction to the characters of Chief Inspector Michael Acton and Detective Constable Kathleen Doyle as they work together both professionally and personally.  I think Cleeland's real gift in this series is its unexpected bluntness of events, an original approach that ignores the normal unfolding of life and relationships.  I am hopelessly hooked, just as Acton is with Doyle.

In this second novel of the series, the husband and wife team of Acton and Doyle become involved in the underworld murders in London that seem to be a tit-for-tat turf war affair.  It's a dangerous matter of investigation, and as seems to be the norm for the anything but normal couple, the investigation turns personal.  Acton has his own interests in bringing to justice certain criminal elements, and Doyle becomes a sitting duck for a most callous killer.  Even the brilliant Acton can't anticipate the insidious plan of attack that ensues. 

Anne Cleeland has created a captivating series full of intrigue and originality.  The delightfully witty dialogue of her characters is not limited to the main characters' give and take of intellectual sharpness and Irish good humor.  The entire cast is gifted with clever quips and interplay.  I find myself rereading dialogue in various scenes just to experience the satisfaction of it again.  Doyle is perhaps the most gifted, as even in dire circumstances, she seems to be capable of seeing the irony or insanity of it.  And, her understanding of and acceptance of Acton's special problem is most welcome, as the reader doesn't have to spend time wading through misunderstandings and immature relationship issues.

So, it is with unrestrained enthusiasm that I endorse and recommend Anne Cleeland's novel Murder in Retribution, due out the end of July.  I encourage pre-ordering it to ensure a quick arrival.  And, if the first in the series, Murder in Thrall, hasn't been read, it's a must to enjoy the full impact of the Acton/Doyle partnership.  I confess that, even though I'd already read the first book, I went back and reread it before delving into the second.  Now, you know just how much I am enraptured by these novels.

The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway #6)The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ruth and Nelson and Kate and Cathbad and Judy and all the wonderful, amazing characters of Elly Griffiths' Ruth Galloway mysteries are back in all their glorious splendor.  Taking a trip to Norwich once a year to be with these characters and the stories that bring them all together is one of my favorite reading experiences.  Characters, plot, setting--no one does these any better than Elly Griffiths.  She is the puppeteer extraordinaire in creating a world of suspense and emotion using the elements of storytelling that captivates and emerges.

Ruth, in her role as forensic archaeologist, finds herself smack dab in the middle of the filming of a TV series, "Women Who Kill," when a dig at Norwich Castle has yielded the body of the infamous Mother Hook, a Victorian woman convicted and hanged for the murder of children under her care as a baby farmer in 1867.  The past, as it often does, appears to be asserting itself into the present, as the death of one baby and kidnapping of others weaves its insidious way into the lives of the present day residents of Norwich.  Someone who calls himself/herself the Childminder is selecting children who are minded by others instead of the parents, whom the Childminder feels should be doing the caring.  Very much aware of her own toddler Kate's vulnerability, Ruth is eager to see the culprit caught and stopped before an escalation of violence ensues. Cathbad, the druid we readers have come to love, returns to the area, as the events of the day strike close to his heart.  With the possibility of a new romantic interest, Professor Frank Barker, the history expert for "Women Who Kill," Ruth is dually involved in work with Frank on the possibility of Mother Hook's innocence and in trying to aid in stopping the modern Childminder from tearing apart the lives of those she holds dear. And, of course, for Ruth there is the continuing worry of what the future holds for the child that she and Nelson share, but don't share. 

Elly Griffiths is such a consistently brilliant author, and, as a result, this series never disappoints.  The hard part of being a fan is waiting a whole year between novels.  Maybe, Elly will reward  and delight us with an e-story this year, too.  Elly/Domenica?    

Seven for a Secret (Timothy Wilde Mysteries, #2)Seven for a Secret by Lyndsay Faye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book in this series, The Gods of Gotham, introduced the character Timothy Wilde and his involvement as one of the first "copper stars" in the formation of the New York Police Department in 1845.  Seven for a Secret continues this sensational trip back in time, to a time and place of major change in our less than century old country.  As with her first book, author Lyndsay Faye, connects with another controversial topic of that time, one that will require decisions of what is right over what is the law.  Timothy is nothing if not a crusader for true justice and combatant for people whose rights are deemed less worthy because of their circumstances in life.  Having come up the hard way himself, with only his brother Valentine, to care a wit for him, Timothy understands all too well how it feels to have the world against you.  His understanding in conjunction with his compassion and strong will serve to make Timothy Wilde a persevering character that the reader roots for with great attachment.

Six months into his job as a copper star, Timothy Wilde finds himself spending Valentine's Day 1846 tying up a case of a stolen painting while the love of his life is far away making herself a new life in London.  But, this particular Valentine's Day ends on a dramatic note as Lucy Adams arrives at Timothy's office in The Tombs frantic that her family has been stolen.  With Lucy's appearance, Timothy and his fellow policeman Jakob Piest encounter an issue that was both unremarkable throughout the country and volatile in its simmering injustice.  To Timothy, it would become a matter of conscience that reflected a major change to come.  For Lucy Adams was African American, and her son and her sister had been taken by slave catchers, or blackbirders, as they were known.  Although Lucy and her family claim they are legally free, with papers to prove it, proving it was often impossible when it was legal to "re-capture" run-away slaves, and the distinction between slaves and free blacks was often ignored by the blackbirders and the legal system.  So, Timothy's oath to uphold the law quickly becomes secondary to upholding human rights and doing the "right thing."  As usual, Timothy's opposition to slavery and the appalling practices of slave-catching puts his brother Valentine in a challenging position, as the Democratic party in which Val is so deeply entrenched supports slave owners' rights to own and recover slaves.  However, the bond between the two brothers never puts in doubt that Valentine has Timothy's back.  When Lucy Adams meets a tragic fate, Timothy proves that he has his brother's back, too.  Timothy must find a way to help a family remain free and keep his job, too.  Politics plays havoc with Timothy's mission, along with his nemesis, Silky Marsh.  Timothy's old friend Julius Carpenter is involved in the "committee," charged with protecting and freeing captured African Americans, and he is a vital part of the effort to protect Lucy Adams' family.  Other characters that charmed readers in the first book--Bird Daly, Mrs. Boehm, and Gentleman Jim--all give readers great insight as to the private moments of the brothers Wilde.  Timothy is determined to make at least one story in the New York City cesspool of misery have a happy ending, but he is fighting an uphill battle with the clock winding down quickly to the zero hour.

So, Lyndsay Faye has given readers a second fascinating story about mid-nineteenth century New York City, a place and time that she brings alive through characters of grit and diversity.  Through the character of Timothy Wilde, Lyndsay exposes the ugly underbelly of this great metropolis while maintaining the decency of those who would have it better.  The historical detail reflects the author's indefatigable research and dedication to authenticity.  My impression of Ms. Faye, both in person and on paper, is of someone whose brain is constantly humming with activity and intrigue, which translate to great reading for her fans.

The Wrong Girl (Jane Ryland, #2)The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In The Wrong Girl, Hank Phillippi Ryan continues the reporter Jane Ryland and Detective Jake Brogan series in great form.  As in the first book, The Other Woman, the action is perfectly paced, constantly building from one thrilling scene to the next, driving towards a connection of the mufti-layered plot that will not disappoint.  Ms. Ryan knows how to hook the reader on page one and keep you squirming until the last word.

With Jane Ryland still adapting to life as a newspaper reporter, after her fall from television fame for protecting a source, she can ill afford any missteps in her precarious new position.  What she doesn't need is Tucker Cameron, an ex-colleague that caused her headaches at the newspaper, showing up at her apartment on a Sunday afternoon with a problem for which Tuck is soliciting Jane's help.  Having recently been reunited by a reputable adoption agency in Boston with her birth mother, Tuck is convinced a mistake has been made.  Tuck implores Jane to use her reporter skills to uncover what is going on at the adoption agency that guarantees its information as indisputable.  Tuck isn't the only person to be doubting the perfect record of the Brannigan Family and Children Services, and Jane soon starts to suspect that there's indeed something rotten in Denmark concerning the prestigious placement agency.  The secrets run deep, and there are those willing to do whatever it takes to protect them. 

Meanwhile, Boston Police Detective Jake Brogan is called to the scene of a murder where a young woman with no identification has been killed and two small children left alive in an apartment.  Jake also notices a cradle, but no baby.  He seems to be the only one at the crime scene puzzled about the absence.  What appears at first glance to be a domestic homicide proves to be much more complex, wrapped in layers of missing information and missing and misidentified people.  The foster care system becomes an integral part of an investigation that must break through a facade of smoke and mirrors.

Jane and Jake keep finding themselves crossing paths once more in looking for answers (and Jane, a scoop) in their respective searches.  As usual, they serve each other as invaluable resources, and it is for that very reason they struggle to keep their desire for intimacy at bay.  They fear anything beyond friendship and professional allies would cross a line that could cost one of both of them a career.  But, when Jane starts receiving threats and Jake is placed in increasingly dangerous situations, it becomes harder to ignore the depth of their feelings for one another.

One of the aspects of Ryan's writing I most enjoy is how she puts layers of meaning in so much.  Dialogue, plot,characters, and even the title.  These all contain depths that tease the intellect and reward thinking.  With both books in this series, one realizes that the titles, "other woman" and "wrong girl", have multiple sources to which these names could apply in the stories.  I'm so looking forward to the next set of layers from this talented author.  The Wrong Girl is the 2014 winner of the Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Novel.

A Flame in the Wind of Death (Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries #3)A Flame in the Wind of Death by Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan have created a series that has proved its staying power with its third tale of Massachusetts State Police Trooper Leigh Abbott and forensic anthropologist Matt Lowell.  A Flame in the Wind of Death is the second full-length book in the series, with the first being Dead Without a Stone to Tell It.  No One Sees Me ‘Til I Fall was a novella in between last year’s debut novel and this April 2014 release.  I am dazed by the flawless flow of these narratives. 

Not wanting to play favorites, but having topics of particular interest, I must confess that A Flame in the Wind of Death captured me especially.  It’s Salem, Massachusetts with Halloween on the doorstep, and a murderer strikes with a vengeance.  When a fire in a Salem antique shop reveals grisly remains of a woman with ties to the  Witchcraft community Abbott and Lowell have their work cut out for them in determining the victim's identity and finding the murderer.  So, the setting and setup are perfect for a tale in which bones must talk and shadows must be chased.  The pressure is on, as Salem prepares to welcome an outpouring of tourists on its busiest days of the year.  When a second similar murder occurs without any obvious connection to the first, nerves quickly become frayed.  Both murders are over the top, with the victims never having had a chance for survival.  Someone has an axe to grind, and whether he or she is finished is anyone’s guess.  Caught up in the intensity and pressure of the investigation, Abbott and Lowell aren’t finding much time for romance in their blossoming relationship, but then again, they are quite resourceful.  

The forensics are fascinating in this latest addition to Abbott and Lowell, as all of this series deals with detailed forensics, not skimming the top, but delving into the intricacies of bone, muscle, tissue layers -- and, yet, in Matt breaking it down and explaining it to Leigh, the reader comes to understand, too.  Never do the explanations outweigh the narrative of the story.  They enrich it, cleverly woven into the narrative and ever moving Abbott and Lowell closer to solving the case.  In A Flame in the Wind of Death, there is the additional element of fire and charred remains that add to the complexities of Matt Lowell’s job as a forensic anthropologist.  It is through the examination and close scrutiny of the skeletal remains of the victims that answers will be found as to the final minutes of life and means of death, which cry out to be heard.     

Beginning the chapters with a well-defined piece of the jargon used in the subject of the book, in this instance fires and fire fighting, greatly enhances the understanding of the action.  The research on fires and fire fighting has been thoroughly conducted, and the reader can be assured of authenticity in the gripping storyline.  Also, there is a conciseness of language to be enjoyed, use of the apposite word instead of a plethoric ramble.   The authors are so adept at this practice that I can’t help but delight in such well-placed words.  

The characters of this series are evolving at a steady pace in each novel, and the reader can’t help but feel a bond with not only Abbott and Lowell, but Matt’s forensic team as well.  Then there is Matt’s father, the ME, and Leigh’s co-workers.  All the characters are so well fleshed out, adding the familiarity and back story that readers crave and appreciate.

Sound structure, sound narrative, and sound writing.  You don’t pay your nickel and take your chances with this series.  You pay your nickel and get great reading.

Murder With Ganache: A Key West Food Critic MysteryMurder With Ganache: A Key West Food Critic Mystery by Lucy Burdette

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This especially bad winter has been the perfect time to catch up reading Lucy Burdette's Key West Food Critic Mystery series.  Each book is like taking a vacation to my favorite tropical spot for relaxation and fun.  Burdette captures the essence of Key West perfectly, while taking readers on a delicious journey of culinary offerings on the island  But, she doesn't shy away from exposing some of the less savory aspects of the island life.  It's a feel good read anchored in reality.  In Murder with Ganache, homeless teens are at the forefront of life off the tourist path.

March might not be considered by most people to be the season of weddings, but in paradise, anytime is wedding time, and Haley Snow's best gal pal, Connie, has chosen that month to marry the love of her life, Ray.  Haley is Connie's maid of honor and in charge of baking 200 key lime cupcakes.  As is often the case with Haley, she is trying to juggle several pressing matters at one time.  With the wedding days away, Haley is dealing with deadlines for her job as food critic at Key Zest Magazine and the arrival of both sides of her family, including the last minute addition of her disgruntled teenage stepbrother Rory.

With accommodations finally worked out to everyone's satisfaction, Haley's main worry seems to be trying to ensure her mother and stepmother play nice.  Not so fast.  As the plan for Haley's cupcakes falls, so do the rest of the week's festivities follow suit.  Rory disappears the first night of the visit, and after a frantic search by boat, he is found on an abandoned sailboat unconscious and beaten.  While Rory fights for his life, the homeless girl he was with turns up murdered.  To discover what transpired in Rory's missing hours, Haley must turn to a shelter for homeless teens and a bench where pictures are taken for a lark. When Connie's long absent father shows up, even the no fuss wedding becomes complicated.  Can Haley convince her police friends that Rory isn't a murder suspect, keep a wedding on track, and turn out the articles to secure her job?  Only Cuban coffee and Haley's unfailing wit can see her through this kettle of trouble. 

City of Darkness and Light (Molly Murphy Mysteries, #13)City of Darkness and Light by Rhys Bowen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Be prepared to be wowed by lucky #13 in the Molly Murphy mystery series.  It is the second of the series to take place primarily outside of New York City, in another country.  The country this time is France, and the city is Paris in its heyday of cutting edge artists and intellectuals.  The year is 1905, and major cities, such as New York and Paris, are bursting with history and change upon which the twentieth century will be built.  Rhys Bowen once again seamlessly weaves the fiction of Molly's exploits with this metamorphic history, and the reader is presented with historical figures integrally enmeshed in the story line.  Of course, one of the strengths of Bowen's writing is transporting readers to an earlier time and place through her well researched connections of people to plot.  The Paris of 1905, at the zenith of seminal modernist artists, provides a bevy of real-life characters, such as Degas, Picasso, Monet, and Cassatt.  And, the places of Montmartre and Montparnasse will become wonderfully familiar. Bowen even works the Dreyfus affair and Gertrude Stein into a story where the history of Jewish discrimination is evident.

As City of Darkness and Light begins, Molly has no thoughts of Paris and famous artists, other than the occasional letter from her friends Sid and Gus, who have traveled to that progressive city in order for Gus to explore her artistic endeavors.  Molly is quite happy with her new family of her husband Daniel and son Liam.  However, Daniel's police business intrudes into their lives in a most devastating manner, as retaliation from the newly formed Costa Nostra takes the form of a bomb that destroys Molly and Daniel's cozy home and very nearly costs them their lives.  The solution to keeping Molly and Liam safe while Daniel searches for answers to the bombing is for Molly to take refuge with Sid and Gus in Paris.  Molly and Liam sail for the safety of Paris, but, to Molly's dismay, her friends are not there to meet her and have seemingly disappeared.  In Molly's attempt to locate her missing friends, she stumbles into a murder of a famous American artist who has resided in Paris for twenty years.  Molly's journey to locate Sid and Gus will take her into the heart of the artist community and require her yet once more to unscrabble a mystery of complex scope.  Molly also discovers that the Paris Surete is no fonder of interference than the New York Ciy police.

Followers of the Molly Murphy series will be well pleased with Molly's latest excursion into murder and mayhem.  Although now a married woman and a mother, Molly hasn't lost any of her drive and determination to use her powers of detection in solving yet another confounding death and clear the names of the innocent.  This lady is made of far sterner stuff than sugar and spice and everything nice, and she never ceases to win us

 The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Sometimes books don't find us until the right time." ~A.J. Fikry

The hardest book reviews to write are for those books that touch your soul, stories that you cannot imagine living your life and not having read.  It's so hard to do those books justice, because it's so hard to capture that inner joy of complete satisfaction gained through a piece of magical narrative.  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is special beyond just a great read; it is a promise of second chances for us all.  Nobody does transformations better than Gabrielle Zevin.  She smacks it out of the ballpark right to your door, where you have no choice but to envision it for yourself.  Her stories redeem us and dare us to transcend our boundaries of imagination and possibility.  This latest novel reveals that life throws chances for change and happiness at us, if we are only open to catch them.

For many readers, the first tantalizing aspect of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is that A.J. owns and runs a bookstore on an island, Alice Island, and he is passionate and knowledgeable about reading.  How many of those of us who love books have dreamed about owning a bookstore, and on a island to boot. Book lovers will be delighted with all the mentions of classical literature, adult contemporary literature, young adult lit, and children's books.  Each chapter begins with an introduction to a short story that has somehow been important in the life of A.J.  Mention of the books and the stories may well cause additional reading after this novel, as the connection felt with A.J. and others causes a desire to inhabit their world and read their books.

When the reader first gains entry in A.J.'s world, the book connoisseur is recently widowed at the young age of 39 and is rather snobby about his literature tastes, persnickety and curmudgeonly inclined.  But, through the interaction with certain people on the island that is rather accidentally thrust upon him, A.J. and his bookstore, Island Books, will undergo a metamorphosis that has a ripple effect.  After losing his wife in a car accident, A.J. was well on his way to a life of chosen misery.  However, he will be gobsmacked with a surprise that puts to rest his desolate plan to drink himself to death. 

Along with A.J., there are great characters that populate this book and the island of Alice.  Chief Lambiase, Alice's chief of police, is an unlikely recruit to the world of books, but as his reading expands through A.J.'s mentoring, so does the community's involvement.  The friendship between A.J. and Lambiase is sweet part of A.J.'s salvation.  Zevin's characters, both major and minor, are always brilliantly developed and integral to the story.  The characters of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry invite the reader in and set a place at the table.  Funny, sad, uplifting, heartbreaking, hopeful.  Your emotions will be spent loving and living this story.  I'm reminded of a line from the movie Moulin Rouge, where the writer states, "The greatest thing, you'll ever learn, is just to love, and be loved . . . in return."  I believe this quote encapsulates the essence of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There is something undeniably enchanting about the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley, and yet, they are not fairy tales for children.  However, as Flavia and her Aunt Felicity concur, perhaps the de Luce family secrets are best discussed in terms of tales of fantasy.   This series continues to be one of my favorites, as Bradley has created a character in Flavia that is one of the most engaging in literature.   Still a child at not quite twelve-years-old, Flavia functions quite ably in an adult world, intellectually years beyond a child and with survival skills, both emotionally and physically, equal to the adults that surround her.  Her familiarity with chemistry, including her particular interest in poisons, and her  impressive detecting abilities make for quite the exceptional child. 

In the latest entry in the series, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the mystery of what happened to Harriet de Luce, Flavia's long-lost mother, when she went missing in the mountains of Tibet is finally resolved.  The book opens at the defunct train platform of Buckshaw Halt, open for the express purpose of Harriet's return.  This return raises as many questions as it answers, not the least of which is the identity and purpose of the tall, strange man who is pushed to his death under the wheels of the moving train.  Flavia begins to get a sense of Harriet's and the de Luce family importance to England, as former Prime Minister Winston Churchill waits with the family and even speaks to Flavia, though his words are rather cryptic.  

Many of the characters from past books make a reappearance in this story, and of course, all the regular, fascinating personalities are there.  Flavia's brooding father; her tormenting sisters, Daphne and Ophelia; loyal family friend and handyman Dogger; Mrs. Mullet, Buckshaw's long-time cook and quasi-housekeeper; and Inspector Hewitt, whom Flavia  fervently wishes would acknowledge her detective skills.  And, there are a few new characters who bring both problems and answers.   Alan Bradley is brilliant at creating and developing characters that,  be they good or bad people, captivate the reader and add drama to the plot.  Flavia is on the cusp of a metamorphosis, as her quest to uncover her mother's secrets reveals  Flavia's place amongst all these people,  especially her family.    The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches is a turning point in Flavia's life and the series.  I'm certainly excited to see what Bradley has in store next for this unique character and her family.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

A Girl Called Justice by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

Elly Griffiths has been a favorite author of mine for some years now, first with her Ruth Galloway series, then with her Stephens and Mesphisto (Magic Men) series, and recently with her stand-alones.  Now she has entered her brilliant writing talents into a new children's series, Justice Jones.  This first book, A Girl Called Justice, was wonderfully atmospheric and quite chilling, with even the temperatures inside the boarding school supporting the shivering mood.  Twelve-year-old Justice Jones is a character readers will fall in love with at once, as she is a girl whose mother has recently died, accounting for her placement in the boarding school, but a girl who tries to make the best of her situation.  She's no cry baby, our Justice.  She's highly intelligent and resourceful, and having grown up with a mother who wrote mystery books, Justice is always on high alert for a mystery.  She has certainly landed in the perfect atmosphere for a mystery at Highbury House Boarding School for the Daughters of Gentlefolk.  The school is located on the edges of the Romney Marsh area of southeast England, a remote, isolated setting.  

Justice Jones begins the school year at Highbury late into the first semester.  Her mother has died and her father, who is a barrister, in fact a QC, works long hours and feels he can't be there to care for Justice, so the boarding school is the solution.  As soon as Justice arrives, she learns that a maid has recently died at Highbury, and there are undertones of something being amiss, both with that death and ongoing activities.  While Justice is learning to adjust to this new atmosphere of groups and rules and making friends, investigating a suspicious death is an anchor that Justice can grab hold of that keeps her on the familiar ground of her mother's Leslie Light mystery series and her father's murder cases. 

Justice is a list maker, and as she explores the mystery surrounding the maid's death, she keeps a journal of clues and suspects and observations.  The journal is in keeping with the time period of the book being 1936.  There are, of course, no computers, no Google, and I like that Justice must dig for clues and do research from scratch, so to speak.  Being of a brave nature, Justice also does some late night sleuthing after lights out, sneaking along the many corridors of the old mansion and trying to avoid the creaky spots on stairs.  Throw in some secret messages and a haunted tower, and the suspense never loses its edge.  When a snowstorm cuts the school off from the outside world, it's clear that the maid's death was murder and that a dangerous person is desperate to stay undetected.  Justice isn't sure who she can trust, but she will have to confide in someone to solve the case and save lives.

One of Elly Griffiths' strengths as an author is her creation of great characters.  Justice is already another favorite character for me.  I've mentioned her intelligence, her bravery, and her resourcefulness, and her curiosity.  She is also compassionate and has a charming sense of humor.  I'm somewhat reminded of Flavia de Luce, but Justice seems better able to fit in and Justice's father is warmer and more in tune with his daughter's feelings and situation than Flavia's father is.  I was pleased that Justice wasn't abandoned by her father.  Justice's roommates are all from different backgrounds and have different personalities that I look forward to learning more about in subsequent books.  

I am absolutely delighted with this new series by Elly Griffiths.  It looks like another hit for her in a line of hits.  I'm so glad that she's writing this series, as I can share it with my ten-year-old granddaughter, who has enjoyed other young sleuth series.  I would recommend the series for ages 10-13, but I'm sure there will be plenty of adult fans, too.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Carousels of Paris by Kaye Wilkinson Barley, with Don Barley

Life is always better with some magic in it, and during these days it's essential.  People yearn for the magic they used to find in traveling, discovering new places and the special, unique experiences in those new places.  One of the most magical and exquisite places to travel is Paris, France.  It's somewhere I haven't been, but it's on my list, which has now, unfortunately, been put on hold.  But, we humans are resourceful creatures and are quick to adapt.  If we can't leave home to go to Paris, then we will find a way to bring Paris to our home.  How fortunate we now armchair travelers are to have the publication of a new book that captures the essence of Paris in its subject matter.  The Carousels of Paris by Kaye Wilkinson Barley, with photographs by Kaye Wilkinson Barley and Don Barley, is an adventure that enchants and brings joy.  The variety of carousel animals and carriages are delightful and beautifully photographed by the Barleys.  Kaye's introduction and narratives of historical interest and descriptive location are the perfect guide to enrich the journey through this world of whimsical fancy.  From the capturing of the brass bell to the bicycle carousel to the uncovering of the extinct dodo, this is a special book that I keep beside my chair to look at again and again, and every look brings me the same feeling of joy I had as a child when I rode on my first captivating carousel ride.  Like Kaye Barley, this fascination that began as a child has stayed with me through the decades.  So, if your heart, soul, and mind could use some uplifting, The Carousels of Paris will wrap you in its charm and beauty, and when we can once again physically travel to Paris, you can include a tour of carousels, too.

                                  Kaye Wilkinson Barley and Don Barley

It's hard to pick out favorite photos and carousel rides in a book where every photo brings delight, but I have managed to choose four photos that I want to share as representative of the wonderful world of  whimsey in this book.  Because it was the horses I first fell in love with as a child, I had to include a picture of the ornately decorated horses so typical of what comes to mind with the term carousel.  The second photo shows that it's not only the rides that are so beautifully adorned, that the attention to detail extends to the entire carousel, with the ceilings depicting scenes from Paris or other themes.  Next is a photo of the entire magnificent carousel, with horses and rabbits and pigs and decorative seats to ride.  Last is the charming photo of one of the rabbit rides, waiting for its next passenger to thrill.   These photographs are but a small sampling of all the marvelous wonders of the carousels of Paris that Kaye and Don Barley bring to you in their amazing book.  

Friday, April 3, 2020

Hid From Our Eyes by Julia Spencer-Fleming: Reading Room Review

It's August 1952 and the body of a young woman in a party dress has been discovered on Route 137, near Millers Kill, in the Adirondacks.  It's August 1972 and the body of a young woman in a party dress has been discovered on Route 137, near Millers Kill, in the Adirondacks.  It's present day August and the body of a young woman in a party dress has been discovered on Route 137, near Millers Kill, in the Adirondacks.  Three young women dead over a fifty year span, with no apparent cause of death and no one held responsible.  But, in that passage of time, there are new resources available to the police, and Chief Russ Van Alstyne of the Millers Kill Police Department has more than a case to solve.  He has his own reputation to clear and a police department to keep off the chopping block.  Add in a new baby and his wife Clare Fergusson trying to find a balance between her job as the priest of St. Alban's Episcopal Church and day-care and self-care, and Russ and Clare have professional and personal issues stacking up to a heavy load.  Clare, who must deal with her guilt of being addicted to pain pills for three months during her surprise pregnancy, is struggling to be the best mother, wife, and priest she can be, and the thought of what the pills did to relieve stress haunts her daily.

Hid From Our Eyes takes us into the investigations of the three young women's identical deaths under the direction of three separate police chiefs of Millers Kill and the part each chief played in the mentoring of the next chief.  It's a story of connections that run deep and some that run dark.  Identification of the young women is problematic, as no ID is left at the scene of discovery, and when Russ comes into the cases with his own Jane Doe, the 1952 victim still remains nameless.  As justice for the police chiefs is as much about bringing closure to victims' families as catching the perpetrator of the horror, the loss of identity lies heavy with the justice seekers.  Chief Harry McNeil died without being able to find the identity of victim #1.  Chief Jack Liddle was able to unravel the mystery identity of victim #2 but no cause of death and no perpetrator, and Chief Van Alstyne finds who victim #3 is and where she is missing from, but he struggles to determine why and who caused the death.  The investigations into determining the identities is a great story of police work, following leads and interviewing and using gut reactions.  At the center of these investigations is the annual county fair with an outside carnival company, an event that draws familiar faces and strangers.

And, while there's plenty of drama to keep readers thoroughly engaged in the murder mysteries, the heart of this series is in the relationships of the characters, Clare and Russ, Clare and Russ and their baby, Clare and her parishioners, Russ and his mother, Russ and his police officers, Haley Knox and Kevin Flynn, Haley Knox and Russ' police officers, and the police chiefs and their successors.  In Hid From Our Eyes, the history of the relationships between the police chiefs, from one to the next, reveals how deeply they care about the communities they serve.  And, we finally get to learn about Margy Van Alstyne and her relationships with Russ' father and with Russ' mentor, Jack Liddle.  Then, there are the inner relationships the characters have with themselves, their demons and their struggles, their joys and their loves.  The intricacies that make these characters who they are cause readers to care intensely about them and become wholly invested in their lives.  Julia Spencer-Fleming has created a world nestled in the Adirondacks with characters who are real to readers, and that's a talent of both heart and mind.

Julia Spencer-Fleming is a master at taking the multiple storylines, making each one a thrilling tale in itself, and then weaving them altogether into an epic saga of brilliantly connected dots.  There's no confusion either.  Readers will be able to clearly follow from one timeline to another and back again. It's been a bit of a wait from the last Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne book to this one, but our beloved authors have real lives, too, and Hid From Our Eyes was well worth the wait.  Spencer-Fleming is a born storyteller whose writing reflects an understanding of people in trying circumstances, resulting in characters and storylines that pull at our heartstrings and broaden our minds.  Fans of this series are going to devour this new entry with great enthusiasm.  And, in this time of time on our hands, there's never been a better opportunity for those who have missed this author to start the series, a series that begins its first book In the Bleak Midwinter with one of the best opening lines I've read, "It was one hell of a night to throw away a baby."  Of course, you can read the series out of order, but I'm on board with Steven Tyler when he sings, "I don't want to miss a thing," and you won't want to either.

Full disclosure requires that I state I received an advanced reader's copy of Hid From Our Eyes from the publisher and that the review above is my own opinion and assessment.