Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

This is about the 5th or 6th in the Flavia de Luce series by author Alan Bradley. Flavia is 11 years old and quite a chemistry whiz, thanks to an inquiring mind and access to her Uncle Tarquin's lab and notes. The supplies and equipment in the lab never seem to run out, even though it has been locked up for ages;  Flavia's particular passion is understanding poisons. Her companions are a chicken named Esmeralda and a trusty bicycle named Gladys. And then there are her two horrible older sisters, Daphne and Ophelia. Father is kind of a non-entity in Flavia's life, interacting with the children only rarely, and then  in a detached way. Partly this is due to the fact that his wife, and his daughters' mother, Harriet, has been missing for 10 years. But now she has been found...apparently the victim of an accidental fall while climbing in the Himalayas. Flavia is determined to try out the research suggesting that the dead can be brought back to life, but is interrupted in her efforts by the arrival of the pathologist from the Home Office. Now, she must live with the fact that Harriet is dead for good. She is jealous that Harriet left when she was just a baby and so both her sisters have more memories of her. But, while rummaging in the attic, Flavia has found some undeveloped movie film featuring her mother, and when she is finally able to view it, has more questions than answers.
     Add this to the strange goings-on at the train station when her mother's body came home: Winston Churchill shows up and talks to Flavia about pheasant sandwiches; a tall stranger seeks her out to deliver a cryptic message to her father; and that same man is subsequently pushed under the train. Moreover, she is beginning to believe that her mother's death was not an accident at all. Trying to wade through the layers of grief at her decaying family home, Flavia is learning all kinds of new information about her mother and father's past. And finally, it seems, Flavia may be heir to something she never expected--service to her country.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Quick

A debut novel by Lauren Owen which had promise: set in turn of the century London, an element of the supernatural, good reviews in such notable sources as Publishers Weekly and The Economist. However, after reading 168 pages, I still was not captured and so departed. An aspiring Oxford-trained poet decides to escape the crumbling family estate in the countryside and seek his fortune in London. Through a mutual acquaintance, he becomes roommates with a much wealthier young man who is leading the stereotypical life of the dissolute. But then one night, their mutual intoxication leads to a tryst and they become secret lovers. And then the poet disappears. His sister heads to London to try and find him.

Inherit the Dead

I have read serial novels/ mysteries before and found them entertaining, but this one failed. This was an absolutely stellar cast of contributors including Dana Stabenow, Lawrence Block, C.J. Box, Charlaine Harris, etc. but it just fell flat. The authors, to their credit--and I am sure to the credit of the editor Jonathan Santlofer--did present a consistent storyline, effectively building on each previous chapter. And they also sustained a sense of suspense, so that I kept reading. But the characters never felt fully developed and the ending left me with more questions than answers--and not in a good way. There simply is not enough information provided about characters or their motivation to make the plot believable. Felt like a waste of my time.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Reversal

This book continues the development of the relationship between half-brothers Michael Haller, well-know defense attorney (aka The Lincoln Lawyer) in the LA area, and Harry (Hieronymous) Bosch, veteran homicide detective for the LAPD. Both of these characters have their own series by Michael Connelly. Mickey has been solicited by the DA's office to take on the job of special prosecutor for the re-trial of Jason Jessup, who has spent 24 years in prison for the murder of a 12-year old girl in 1986. His conviction has been overturned on the basis of new DNA evidence, although the DA is still convinced the other evidence in the original investigation stands. Mickey hesitates to "cross the line" from defense to prosecution, but extracts a high price; if he wins in court, the DA will move Mickey's ex-wife Maggie from the backwater Van Nuys office to the main office. Also, she is to be Mickey's 2nd chair on the case, and he gets to choose his own investigator, enter Harry Bosch. Maggie is an experienced and highly successful prosecution attorney with the DA's office, Harry is one of the most seasoned and intuitive homicide detectives on the force, and Mickey knows all the moves a good defense attorney can make--so they form an impressive team. But it is no small feat to prosecute someone for a 25-year-old crime and they are up against one of the best defense attorneys in town. Jessup has energized a whole host of supporters from his cell, and so Mickey makes the strategic decision to ask for no bail;  Jessup is released on his own recognizance--and the police and prosecution can only hope he will screw up and that the LAPD surveillance team will catch him in the act. The plot moves briskly along and Connelly does a good job of keeping all the balls in the air for the various characters. Well worth the read if you are fan of either series. I have previous posts on The Lincoln Lawyer, The Gods of Guilt, The Brass Verdict.

The Monk Downstairs

Life is messy and being a monk, for some, is a retreat from that messiness. For others, it is stepping right into the middle of things and acting out one's faith. This somewhat characterizes the conflict between Michael Christopher--formerly Brother Jerome-- and his former abbot. Michael has left after 20 years in the monastery because the contemplative life that he sought to live there has suddenly failed him. He has no belongings, no job history, and very little experience dealing with the messiness of ordinary life. He is also the first person to respond when single mother Rebecca Martin puts out a vacancy sign for the studio apartment on the ground floor of her house in the Bay Area. Rebecca is the mother of Mary Martha ( I initially had to have this parable from the Bible explained to me although it is explained quite sufficiently later in the book), and currently a graphic designer for a growing company that used to offer relaxed working hours; Rebecca is disillusioned with love and life.
Little do either Michael or Rebecca know that their relationship with one another may save their lives--in the metaphorical sense. Although I suppose it helps to have enough familiarity with religion and/or the Bible to understand some of those allusions in the story--including the correspondence Mike carries on with one of the brothers at the monastery--I did not find it difficult to work around. Both Rebecca and Michael captured my heart fairly early on with their flawed and funny (as in laugh out loud) lives. There are sad and philosophical parts, too. But mostly it is about two people trying to find their way through the messiness with their hearts and souls and integrity intact. This is a very sweet story that I REALLY enjoyed--so much so that I have ordered my own copy of the book as well as a copy of the sequel, The Monk Upstairs. Tim Farrington has written other books that sound like they have similar themes and I may grab those from the library. According to Kirkus (with whom I usually agree) I am a sap for liking this book, but according to Publishers Weekly this is a "a charmingly written, gratifyingly hopeful tale." I'm going with the latter.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

All Our Yesterdays

This is a book by Robert Parker that is not one of his well-known series (Spenser, Jesse Stone, Cole & Hitch, or Sunny Randall) but a stand-alone that looks at three generations of two families: the Sheridans and the Winslows. It is only when  3rd generation Christopher Sheridan is threatened with the loss of his long-term love, Grace Winslow, that it appears the self-destructive cycle of marrying the wrong woman for the wrong reason might be broken. Christropher not only breaks out of his safe ivory tower life as a professor of criminology at Harvard by accepting a special prosecutor's job tasked with investigating gang warfare, but he delves into his history by going back to his roots in Dublin where the trouble all began.
Chris' grandfather, Conn Sheridan, was a soldier with the IRA and became involved with a sympahtetic American woman, Hadley Winslow, during "the Troubles." When he was ordered to leave Dublin, he begged her to come with him, but she had seen their affair as no more than an adventurous fling and had no intention of abandoning her upper class life. She betrayed him to the British and he was put in jail, sentenced to hang. With the help of his colleagues in the IRA, he escaped and went overseas to Boston--not coincidentally, where Hadley was from. He became a cop, then a detective, and then a case came his way that brought Hadley not only back into his life, but also at his mercy.
This is also the story of Gus, Conn's son and Chris' father, who became a police chief, taking money from the gangs. He loves Chris to distraction and would and did do anything for him. But he never found a woman to love until he met the wife of Hadley's son, who was also the mother of Grace, Chris' partner. Yep, the three generations of Winslows had all been romantically involved with the three generations of Sheridans, mostly with disastrous consequences. But everyone is freed from their obsessions in the end--one way or another. As usual, Parker does an outstanding job of creating characters through dialogue even more than action. It is a long'ish book (nearly 500 pages) spanning several decades, but eminently readable.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Artists in Crime

On my lazy day today, I finished Dame Ngaio Marsh's mystery--the 6th in a series of 32 books featuring Inspector Roderick Alleyn--a fairly early one as this is where he meets the woman who later becomes his significant other, Agatha Troy. Alleyn has apparently been on extended leave from Scotland Yard's CID, having spent a year in New Zealand. He meets the well known artist, Agatha Troy, on board ship as he is returning to England via Fiji and then Quebec. He is immediately taken with her, and she is--he believes--immediately put off by him.
Upon coming home to visit his mother prior to returning to work, he is called up to solve a murder at the home of none other than Agatha Troy, who happens to live in the same village as his mum. An artist's model, employed by Troy to support a class of resident art students at her ancestral home, has been murdered--right in front of the class. This will certainly complicate any hopes Alleyn had for pursing a romantic relationship with Ms. Troy.
The book has a great plot. You know the obvious suspect may not really be the murderer, but it takes a while to find out who indeed has plotted to kill the annoying Sonia, since any number of people seem to have had motive and at least a few had opportunity. A second murder--this time of the primary suspect--creates a more complicated picture, but through the solid detective work of Alleyn and colleague Fox, the crime is solved. Published in 1938, this book was fun to read because of the somewhat dated British phrases. One of the early characters, for example, is referred to as "the success" of the cruise ship, meaning she is wildly popular with the men and has a troop of them following her about.