Monday, August 1, 2016

City of Thieves

This novel by David Benioff (co-creator of HBO's Game of Thrones series) commences with a conversation between author and grandfather as Benioff beseeches his grandfather for recollections of living through the Nazi siege of Leningrad. There seems to be some debate about whether his grandfather was actually there (see review from NYT). Following that prologue, however, we jump into the life of 17 year-old Lev Beniov, who is yet too young to join the army but helps man a fire brigade from the roof of his old apartment building. One night, he and his pals see a parachute coming down and when it lands in the street, they find a dead German pilot, whose corpse they promptly strip for weapons and clothes. Keep in mind that, at this point, they are lucky to get one piece of paper-filled bread or an eighth of an onion to eat on any given day. But when the cops show up, Lev nobly helps a fallen friend, a girl he secretly longs for, to escape and is caught in the process. Awaiting execution overnight, he is joined in his cell by his exact opposite. Whereas Lev is dark and slight and inexperienced with women, Kolya is a descendant of Cossacks with blonde-haired, blue-eyed good looks and charm that women of all ages find irresistible. Kolya swears he did not desert his unit but just missed his ride; nevertheless, they will both be hanged or shot. But fate intervenes and they are taken before a secret police general who wants them to find a dozen eggs for his daughter's upcoming wedding cake. If they succeed--against all odds--they get their lives back. They start by following every rumor and searching all the black market sources in the city and nearly get killed by cannibals. Eventually they go behind enemy lines into the countryside seeking chickens. What they find instead are girls held hostage for pleasuring Nazi officers and a band of partisan fighters. They are captured, but then Kolya hatches a plan to get the eggs from their captors by wagering Lev's chess playing skills against those of the 
Sturmbannführer. Benioff provides well-researched and compelling descriptions of the hardships and violence faced by the Russian common folk during the siege. An additional review from Kirkus.

One True Sentence

Not surprising, given the title, the book is about writers--famous ones for the most part--but a very fictionalized account upon which to build a mystery. The setting is 1920's Paris, when aspiring writers and artists of all sorts flooded to the post-war City of Light to live cheaply and find inspiration. Hector Lassiter, best friend of Ernest Hemmingway and writer of pulp short stories that are readily published and consumed in American magazines. Ernest is there with wife Hadley and new baby, Gertrude Stein, Alice Toklas, Sylvia Beach and more all play character roles as the plot evolves around a series of murders. The victims are all editors of small, struggling literary magazines of which there are several. Hector is being pursued by Molly, a young poet from Elgin, Illinoise, even though she has a boyfriend, struggling painter, Philippe. Besides, she seems a little too wholesome and innocent for Hector's tastes. Enter Brinke Devlin, a sexy black-haired beauty with a reputation for being the "professional muse" around town; Sylvia reveals to Hector that she is secretly a mystery writer who works under a man's pseudonym. Add in a 3rd English cozy writer and Gertrude decides they must undertake to find the killer or killers, since she has no faith in the police. As part of the storyline, we learn about a group of people who have embraced nothing as their icon--not dada-ists, but nada-ists, and it quickly becomes apparent that they are involved in the murders. But all is not as it seems. Although Hector and Devlin fall in lust and then love, he begins to wonder about her role; is she really helping him investigate or leading him a merry chase in the wrong direction. This is not one you will figure out ahead of time as it provides lots of twists and turns.There is a lot of explicit sex, cold December weather, and literary allusions. Good but not stellar, although they may get better as this is the first in a series of 10 books featuring Hector Lassiter, and Craig McDonnald's Head Games, was nominated for the Edgar and the Anthony awards. Kirkus review here.

Killer Reunion

This 21st installment in the "Savannah Reid" mystery series by G.A. McKevett (a pseudonym of author Sonja Massie) finds Savannah and relatively new husband Det. Lt. Dirk Coulter on a visit to Savannah's home town of McGill, Georgia, for a 25th high school reunion. Savannah grew up dirt poor, the oldest of 9 siblings, taken from her abusive parents at a young age and raised by loving grandparents. There were a lot of cruel kids at school who made fun of her poverty, but Jeannette Parker was the mean queen of them all. Savannah is hoping for a triumphant return on the arm of her handsome and loving husband, as well as getting to celebrate Granny Reid's 80th birthday. Her ex-beau, one of Jeannette's many conquests, is now the county sheriff, as hunky and good-looking as ever and maybe still in love with Savannah. When Savannah gets into a cat fight with Jeannette at the reunion and then Jeannette turns up dead, guess who becomes the prime suspect and gets thrown in jail--into the same cell as her drunk and disorderly mother.?! But family and friends mortgage it all to get Savannah out on bail so she can figure out who the real killer is. She is well equipped to do this as she runs the Moonlight Magnolia Detective Agency back in Santa Carmelita, California, and her trusty sidekick Tammy, and Savannah's youngest brother fly in to help her. Well portrayed characters, complete with southern drawls, evocative sense of place, and realistic dynamics of a small town are all in favor of this book. Light fare reading and there is lots of it if you want to start at the beginning. Savannah, BTW is a big woman, making her a somewhat unusual protagonist, which is also refreshing. Brief review from Kirkus.

The Insides

This is Jeremy Bushnell's 2nd novel; I blogged about the first, The Weirdness, a few weeks back. I liked the first book but I like this one even more. The characters are fully realized and some are truly likeable, whereas others are empathy-worthy or detestable. In other words, they engage you. As Bushnell says on his web page, this is "about knives, meat, weird portals, witches, monsters, and racists."
Ollie is a highly accomplished butcher, in the most ordinary sense of the word, working for a high-end NYC restaurant called Carnage that stakes claim to unusual preparations of a wide variety of meats. All day long, she wields her knives taking apart carcasses in elegant fashion and finds the work satisfying. She is in an informal competition with Guychardson, who helps out on weekends, and while she is clearly the more accomplished butcher, he always seems to finish before she does. She thinks it might be because his knife is magical.  She would know because she used to be a street magician before she married, moved to an organic farm and had a kid. But that is all in the past and she has distanced herself from magic. However, a racist thug who delights in wearing a wooden pig mask, desperately wants Guychardson's knife--which may not be a knife at all but a piece of a legendary World Sword--and is happy to kill people to get it. Pig's partner in seeking the knife has engaged the services of a psychic, Maja, who can find anything. So now, wherever the knife goes, Maja and Pig are not far behind. This is an intriguing plot line, lots of fanciful magic elements and an alternate world thrown in for good measure. Absolutely enjoyable read. A review from Publishers Weekly and from The Washington Post.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Strangler Vine

Set in 1830's India, this book by M. J. Carter is a mystery that evokes the hot and harsh environs very effectively and offers a biting view of the deteriorating relations between the policies and practices of the East India Company and the native population at all social levels. The strangler vine, which wraps itself around trees and eventually kills them, is a less-than-subtle metaphor for the colonialism of the Raj.
A minor officer in the EIC army, Avery, is set to accompany, Blake, an apparently dissolute former captain who has gone native to locate a famous and now missing British author, Mounstuart, in the back country. Apparently Blake was something of a "black ops" specialist for the EIC until his native wife died and then he simply withdrew from society. Blake and Avery are accompanied by 3 additional native employees of the company as they begin to trace Mountstuart's route and Avery begins to get a sense of Blake's wide range of skills, not least of which are his fluency in the local languages and an uncanny ability to disguise himself as a native in order to blend in and gather intelligence. The cult of Thugee--real or manufactured--plays a prominent role in this elaborate plot which involves betrayals from unexpected sources. An excellent and engaging read and I will track down the sequel featuring Blake and Avery, The Infidel Stain. Favorable reviews from Kirkus, The Washington Post, and The Independent.

His Majesty's Dragon

Would that be HMD as opposed to HMS? Capt. Will Laurence of HMS Reliant has been in the navy since he was 12 and steadily moved up the ranks due to his competence and leadership. Having recently defeated a French frigate, he is shocked to find that their cargo includes a dragon egg--a rare enough commodity--that is due to hatch before they reach land. The captain asks for volunteers because the dragon will imprint when it hatches and then is bonded to that person as his aviator for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, the dragon bonds to Capt. Laurence himself, thus potentially ending his career in the navy and his prospects for marriage. The air corps is a slightly undisciplined and isolated group within the military structure. But once Laurence goes flying with Temeraire, he is hooked. When the Reliant reaches land, the appropriate officials are contacted and efforts are made to remove Laurence from the equation to be replaced with a trained aviator. But Tereraire will have nothing of it and so the air corps must take Laurence on with his magnificent young dragon in the middle of the Napoleonic wars. Temeraire, it turns out, is a rare Chinese breed of dragon and nobody really knows what special skills he will have. He was born fluent in French and English, having picked those languages up in the egg, and proceeds to have Will read to him every night about subjects even Will does not understand but that Temeraire grasps with ease. Of course Temeraire talks to Will and is by far the most interesting character. There is a rather cloying use of terms of endearment between the two, and a lot of French types of dragons thrown in during battle scenes. There is a nice little glossary of the various dragon family lines appended to the text. This is an alternative history of those wars, with very detailed descriptions of strategies, and the first of an intended trilogy by Naomi Novik (although the series has gone way beyond that). I did not like this book as well as the one I previously read, Hugo-nominted Uprooted. However, if you are a dragon fan, you will love this book.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Weirdness

Not sure how I got onto this book by Jeremy P. Bushnell, but it certainly lived up to its name. Billy Ridgeway is a bit of a space cadet, holding down a job making sandwiches while maintaining that his real vocation is as a writer. Unfortunately, nothing he has written has ever gotten wider approval, or even Billy's own. Fellow writer Anil, who also works at the sandwich shop has been Billy friend for a long time and puts up with his philosophical maunderings about things like where bananas come from. Waking one morning with a bad hangover, Billy finds a well-dressed man in his living room who claims to be Lucifer Morningstar, and he offers to make Billy a famous novelist if Billy will just retrieve his lucky Neko cat from a dangerous warlock. Billy IS smart enough to resist--at first. But Billy's life nevertheless begins to unwind in serious and dangerous fashion and it turns out that the devil may be the least of his problems. I was not sure I was going to finish this, but eventually I did get hooked. Billy is not exactly a character it's easy to empathize with or even feel sorry for--he just seems so aimless. But the cast of characters and the plots developments are unpredictable and entertaining, so I would give it a thumbs up.