Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Nightingale

This highly acclaimed book by Kristin Hannah was personally recommended to me by friend Betsy Friedman. It is beautifully written and compelling story with well developed characters, and yet it was sometimes uncomfortable to read due to the subject matter. Set during WWII when the Nazis have occupied France, two sisters who are as unlike as can be imagined end up taking very similar paths, each to resist the obscenities of the war in her own way.
Viann and Isabelle's mother dies when they are quite young and their father retreats into alcohol and absence. Viann gets pregnant by a childhood sweetheart at 16 and moves to the country to live happily with husband and child. Younger sister, Isabelle, is an emotionally wounded isolate, getting kicked out of one boarding school after another. But she is also adventurous and when she returns to Paris, having decided to live with her father, she gets involved in the French Resistance, eventually coming to be a primary resource for getting downed American and British pilots out of the country. She leads them over the harrowing Pyrenees mountains on dozens of occasions, gaining notoriety as The Nightingale. Viann's husband is sent off to fight the invading Germans but is captured. The village where Viann lives with her daughter is occupied and a series of German officers is billeted at her house, one kind, one cruel. When her neighbor and best friend is sent to a concentration camp, Viann bravely declares the child is her own and hides his Jewish identity. Eventually she is responsible for hiding away 19 Jewish children in a convent in the nearby countryside. The arbitrary terror and cruelty of the Nazis is painfully described, but so is the incredible bravery and love of the two women. A very informative tale about the little known women who resisted war in France. About writing this book, Hannah said,
"For me, The Nightingale started like any other novel. With research. I came across the historical stories of the women of the French Resistance and there was no going back. Their stories were mesmerizing, heartbreaking, intimate and universal. I was appalled that their stories were not better known.
All of my research led me to a central question: When would I, as a wife and mother, risk my life and my son’s life to save a stranger? Once that was in my head, I knew I had a story worth telling." Agreed!

Monday, October 3, 2016

A Great Reckoning

I have had this latest Louise Penny "Inspector Gamache" mystery (the 12th in the series and I have devoured them all) for several weeks, but was just kind of hoarding it. Once I started reading it, though, I was in til the finish. Down and done in one day--I love being retired. As always, the characters are richly developed and it's a treat to watch the relationships evolve. For example, Jean Guy is now married to Gamache's daughter, Annie, and they are expecting their first child. Gamache has decided he has been retired long enough and decides to accept one of many job offers he has received. He will take over the running of the Surete Academy and find the source of the corruption that is turning out such cruel and abusive graduates. He has already brought down many in the Surete itself for corruption and this promises to be an equally great challenge. He fires some faculty and brings in his own, but also keeps a few bad apples in house where he can continue to build cases against them. Little does he realize just how bad things have become. A seemingly separate mystery is unleashed when the women in Three Pines decide to help Olivier go through some papers that were found stuffed in the bistro's walls when they remodeled. Among the newspapers, and letters is an orienteering map that seems to show the way to Three Pines. And yet, the village is not on any of the official maps of Quebec. How did a whole village get disappeared? When a copy of the map shows up in the bedside table of a faculty member who is murdered, cadets and Commander come under investigation. It is just amazing to me that Penny comes up with such deliciously twisty plots and convinces even her long-time fans that, just maybe, Gamache could be the murderer.
As I checked Louise Penny's web site for a picture to include here, I found out that her husband had recently died. Her letter about his last days is here.

A Murder of Magpies

Prior to now, social historian and journalist Judith Flanders has been a non-fiction writer, but here she jumps into a contemporary mystery set in the publishing world of London. Sam (short for Samantha) Clair is a 40-something-year old book editor for Timmons & Ross and feels content with her life, even though it's a bit on the routine side. She edits primarily "women's literature" except for one client who writes juicy tell-all pieces about the fashion world. When Kit misses a luncheon meeting to discuss promoting his newest book, Sam is worried; Kit never misses a meeting. When she gets a visit from Inspector Field from the CID about a hit and run killing of a messenger who was to deliver Kit's manuscript to her, she gets really worried and starts investigating on her own. Well, not quite. It is Field's investigation, after all, and her dynamo of a barrister mother, Helena, also decides to help out. Sam is clearly in someone's sights who wants to stop publication of the book that suggests there were a lot of shady financial dealings going on in a certain fashion house.  As time passes, Sam is more and more certain that Kit is dead, but she does not give up. Offering snarky one-liners, she uses her contacts and her smarts to figure out what the police haven't, and almost gets killed for her trouble. Very readable with interesting characters, and of course almost anything set in England draws me in. I will definitely keep an eye out for future work.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Crusader's Cross

This is the 14th (2005) in James Lee Burke's "Dave Robicheaux" series, set as most of them are in the bayou country of Louisiana. We are taken back to a summer when Dave and his half-brother Jimmie were working oil in Texas as young men and Jimmie falls in love with a woman who rescues them off the beach in Galveston. Unfortunately, the woman he falls for, Ida Durbin, is a hooker and before they can run away together, someone takes her forcefully and they never see her again. But a dying man's confession leads Dave to think that Ida might still be alive and when he tells Jimmie, nothing will stop him from trying to find her. Meanwhile, Dave is back on the police force as a detective and when he investigates a local wealthy family that he think might be tied to Ida's disappearance, he inevitably gets crossways with pretty ruthless people. He seduces a lay nun, and that causes a scandal, providing fodder for someone trying to destroy Robichaux's credibility.  Dave's guilt triggers a slip and he goes off the wagon and is barely pulled back from the brink of self-destruction by his new love and by his old friend, Clete Purcell. When a serial killer that has been operating in New Orleans apparently commits murder closer to home in Iberia Parish, Dave gets suspended from the police department after his fingerprints turn up at the  crimes scene and, because he was in an alcoholic blackout at the time, he's not even sure he didn't kill the woman.
These are dark and gritty tales about fallible good people and bad people who once in a while do good things. The descriptions of struggling with alcoholism ring painfully true and so are sometimes hard to take. Burke as always is a superb story teller with rich, flawed characters, and atmospheric settings.  
Review from Kirkus.

Hit or Myth

I was apparently intrigued enough by the description in the Daedalus catalog to order this book when our local library did not have it. Apparently, author Robert Asprin has been writing this humorous fantasy series since the 70's and this is the 4th installment in the "Myth Adventures" series. Skeeve is the "court magician" in the kingdom of Possiltum, whose mentor, Aahz, is a Pervect (not to be confused with pervert). But Aahz gets kidnapped back to his own dimension and so for the first part of the book, Skeeve is on his own when King Rodrick asks him to use his disguising spell and take over the throne for a day. Only it turns out that the king does a runner because he does not want to marry the highly ambitious princess from the neighboring kingdom. And to top it off, the Mob has sent representatives to Possiltum looking for their army that disappeared. But with some quick thinking, Skeeve is able to send the Mob off to another dimension to practice the art of extortion among the merchants at the Deva Bazaar. Friends help Skeeve find the king and put him back on the throne and Aahz rejoins the group in time to head off to Deva and deal with the Mob.
This is billed as a "humorous fantasy series" which draws heavily on word play and would be appropriate for young readers, maybe 9 to 12 years old. Not interesting enough to fully engage me or seek out more, although I did finish this book since I paid for it ;-) I will pass it along to a great niece or nephew.

The Murder of Mary Russell

I have fallen way behind in my reading of the "Mary Russell" series by Laurie King, so have missed some of the intervening books: the most recent one I read and wrote about was Garment of Shadows. Of the people I know who have read this book, one liked it, one did not, and another did not even finish it. I came down on the positive side, although I understand that it is a significant departure from the more typical straight-ahead mystery tales she usually writes in this series, and might leave Mary Russell fans a bit out of sorts.
Here we are re-introduced to Sherlock Holmes' ever reliable housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson. We learn of her decidedly unorthodox childhood and apprenticeship in Australia. She is orphaned at a young age and left with an ungrateful younger sister and a totally inadequate father, who does eventually teach his older daughter a useful skill--how to con people. As they become more successful, Australia gets a little too small and they head to England to pursue their art. Clarissa Hudson is expert at manipulating men, until she falls in love and is, in turn, manipulated by a man who is a bigger con than she, and who leaves her in the lurch with a baby. The baby is given to her sister in Australia to care for after Clarissa has made the acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes, who offers a path to rehabilitation. He gives her the premises at Baker Street and becomes her "tenant." This puts a VERY different light and perspective on the relationship between Holmes and Hudson. When Homes retired, Mrs. Hudson went with and has subsequently become a pseudo-mother figure to Mary Russell.
The drama surrounds Mrs. Hudson's history--the lover who jilted her, the father she murdered, and the son she gave away. Needless to say, Mary is not murdered, but it takes a while to find that out. The ending is a surprise, although totally logical, given what we have learned about Clara Hudson. Recommended for her wonderful story-telling and her courage to re-create such a formidable character as Mrs. Hudson.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Second Grave on the Left

Yes the title is significant. A valuable clue is hidden there in this 2nd installment in the "Charley Davidson" Series by Darynda Jones (see also my post on First Grave on the Right). This is another wild ride with Grim Reaper, Charley Davidson, who in her regular life is a private detective. She has the ability of being able to see and talk to dead people who have not yet passed over, and to help them reach the other side.  Her father, a former detective, and her Uncle Bob, currently a detective with the Albuquerque PD, have, with her help,  solved an uncommonly high percentage of cases. People are a little suspicious and, in some cases, openly hostile at her ability to find killers.
When best friend and receptionist Cookie drags Charley out of bed in the middle of the night to help find a missing friend, Charley is awakened from a dreamy conversation with Reyes Farrow, the Son of Satan (yes, literally). Reyes has vacated his human body, which was in a coma in a prison hospital, and is being held prisoner by torturing demons. But he won't tell Charley where he is because she is the real target of his kidnapping--a portal to heaven for the evil creatures. Nevertheless he visits her in her dreams with lust in his heart. So Charley is trying to find Reyes on her own and trying to find Cookie's friend Mimi before a killer does. Fast-paced plot, sex, the supernatural, humor, and a kick-ass woman PI... these books have it all!