Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Wheel of Darkness

This series, featuring FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast, and his ward, Constance Greene, are somewhat different from the usual procedurals or thrillers in that Pendergast, and now Constance, are studying Buddhism. They have come to a remote Tibetan monastery to seek respite from the world and to study. So remote is the monastery, in fact, that the Chinese do not even know of its existence. While there, an impossible theft takes place. An ancient artifact that has the power to cleanse the earth of humanity has been stolen from the most secret and well-guarded part of the monastery. Pendergast and Constance are tasked with its return. They are hot on the trail of the thief, only to find him brutally murdered. They determine that the murderer must be one of the passengers scheduled on the inaugural sailing of the largest British ocean liner, the Brittainia. Disappearances and murders begin to accumulate on the voyage to New York city, but the captain of the ship refuses to turn back or alter course. When the officers declare him unfit for command and take over the ship, matters seem to be improving. But  the world is quickly turned upside down as the new commander sets the ship on a suicidal collision course for dangerous rocks off the coast of Canada. Anti-terrorism measures mean that once she has locked herself in the bridge, no one can gain access or change course. To top it off, Pendergast has changed personality and now plans to abandon ship rather than trying to save the ship and passengers. Can Constance bring Pendergast back to himself in time, and what is the strange force that has infected the minds of the commander and Pendergast? Those are the questions that will drive you along to the end. I would not turn down reading another book by this duo, but I also would not go out of my way to find more.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A Wrinkle in Time

Can you imagine me, voracious reader since I was 6 years old, never having read this book? And a librarian as one of my careers, to boot! For shame. But retirement is an opportunity to right the wrongs and gaping holes of my childhood, so at the suggestion of my sister-in-law, I read this Newbery-winning classic by Madeleine L'Engle. This re-issue, published in 2007 (originally published in 1962) has a lovely introduction, "An Appreciation," by Anna Quindlen that says in part, " On its surface this is a book about three children who fight an evil force threatening their planet. But it is really about a more primal battle all human beings face, to respect, defend, and love themselves" (p. 4). Since I have also been reading Florida Scott-Maxwell's book, The Measure of My Days, which  talks quite a lot about the tremendous effort required to be true to ourselves, this really smacked me in the face. Wow, this is a lot to pack into a book for youngsters! But L'Engle did not underestimate her young readers in any way--neither in what they must experience growing up, nor in their ability to think seriously about the related issues.  Meg Murry learns that what sets her apart from her fellow students, and even to some extent her own siblings, can be her strengths, even if the world at large does not necessarily endorse being different. In the battle for the mind and heart of her younger brother, Meg finds that her love and loyalty can beat back the darkest evil.  Definitely worth a read or a re-read. And since this was the first of the "Time Quintet" there is more to come when you're done.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Sepulchre

I know I read an earlier work by Kate Mosse, Labyrinth, some time ago but I don't seem to have posted a review. There is also a sequel in this "Languedoc Trilogy," Citadel, which I have not yet read. If you like the supernatural, this will certainly appeal as it has elements of Tarot card reading, evil spirits, and languishing ghosts. The time frame moves back and forth between the autumns of  1891 and 2007. Each heroine, Leonie in 1891 and Meredith in 2007, start out in Paris and end up in Rennes-les-Bains, or more specifically, Domain de la Cade, in the mountainous region bordering the Pyrenees. Leonie's story focuses on the vendetta of an evil man, Constant, growing ever more diabolical as he is consumed by syphilis. He feels jilted by Isolde, who is Leonie's widowed aunt-by-marriage to her mother's older half-brother. Leonie's brother, Anatole, has rescued Isolde from the disastrous affair with Constant, only to be hounded by him and slandered through a rumor campaign in the Paris press. Finally, Anatole and Isolde--who have become lovers--concoct a plan to fake her death and funeral, but Constant eventually sees through the ruse and takes up the pursuit once again, eventually resulting in both their deaths. Leonie has her revenge on Constant in the end, summoning dangerous spirits to kill him.
Present tense, Meredith is writing a biography of Debussy and also looking for the ancestors of her mother. Meredith was adopted by an aunt because her mother was mentally unbalanced and eventually took her own life. She has only a photograph of a young solder, taken--she thinks--in southern France, and a piece of music titled "Sepulchre" as legacies from her mother. She starts in Paris and then heads to Rennes-les-Bains, ostensibly to look for archival traces of Debussy's wife, Lily, but also because she believes she will find her own family's history there. The Domaine de la Cade has been turned into a high end hotel and Meredith finds more evidence of her ties to the ancestral owners.
If I have done the complex plot a disservice, I apologize. There is rich description and decent character development. I was actually a bit put off by the supernatural elements, which is not usually true for me. I love historical mysteries generally, but found myself a bit impatient with this one. I also just don't like books--or real life for that matter--where it appears that one really bad person can wreak so much havoc and get away with it. Constant essentially destroys the Vernier family, although Anatole and Isolde's son does survive and turns out to be Meredith's ancestor. Constant murders Leonie and Anatole's mother, drives Isolde slowly insane, and spreads rumors about evil spirits being housed at Domaine de la Cade, causing a mob to burn the place down. Yes the devil gets him in the end, but there is just too much death and destruction before that happens--for my taste.  For a more informed review, here is one from The Guardian.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Bones of Paris

I have been a big fan of Laurie King's work for years (the Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli series, as well as her stand alones) so was happy to see this new (2013) morsel. It grabs you right away and does not let go, keeping you guessing abot who is going to be next and who did what to whom. Set in late 1920's Paris, it is a detailed portrayal of the expat American community and the art scene in particular. The surrealists were making a statement about art-- above and beyond realism and above and beyond conventional mores and morality.
Harris Stuyveysant is a former Bureau agent (as in J.E.Hoover's bureau) who became disaffected and is now working as a solo investigator, roaming around Europe. There are hints sprinkled throughout the book that a bombing played a significant role in that decision--as it cost not only lives, but also the loss of the left hand of the woman he was in love with, Sarah. He has not seen or heard from her in several years, although he stays in touch, via postcards, with her brother, Bennett Grey. Grey has the unlucky distinction of having died in the war but being brought back to life with an out of control sensitivity to everything going on around him. He can tell a mile away if someone is lying and of course the government (British) would very much like to use that skill. He would very much like not to, and he lives as a hermit in Cornwall. When Harris sends Bennett several photographs of women who look terrified and asks if they are real or staged, Bennet feels compelled to come to Paris and this precipitates the climax of the book.
Leading up to that, Harris has come to Paris to try and locate a missing person, Philippa Crosby, at the behest of her uncle and mother. She is a young American woman who has been living in Paris for several years, but has now been out of contact for several months. By happenstance, Harris encountered Philippa in Nice prior to her disappearance and had a brief sexual fling with her, so he is motivated by more than money. When Harris goes to the Paris police to let them know he is pursuing the case, he finds out that the inspector, Emile Doucet, thinks there might be an emerging pattern to several recent disappearances. When Harris fails to turn up any evidence that Philippa is alive, he begins to believe she has come to a bad end. Meanwhile, pursuing Philippa's contacts in the art community, Harris learns about a surrealist theatre, the Grand Guignol, which ostensibly seeks to heal those traumatized by war by offering cathartic experiences of terror on the stage. Harris is not favorably impressed and, in fact, comes to believe several people associated with the theatre and the surrealist community (e.g., Man Ray) are potential suspects in Philippa's disappearance. When he drunkenly blunders into a confrontation with Man Ray and the theatre's patron, Comte Charmentier, he is stunned to find that Sarah Grey is working for the Comte. And to confound issues even further, she is engaged to Emile Doucet.
When Sarah disappears, Bennett and Emile Doucet go to talk to Charmentier, but are attacked by a gunman in an alley. Doucet is shot and now in a coma; Bennett has disappeared. Harris gets himself thrown in jail after confronting Ray in the hunt for Sarah, and then is accused of shooting Doucet. You don't know until the very end if Sarah is alive or dead, and whether or not Bennett will survive. King is a writer of great skill with complex, well-realized characters, vivid sense of place and compelling plots. A great read! King's book Touchstone, published in 2007, precedes this one with two of the characters, Stuyvesant and Bennett Grey.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Brat Farrar

I have heard a lot about Josephine Tey (a pseudonym used by Elizabeth Mackintosh) over the years. She is one of that pantheon of distinguished English (Scottish actually) mystery writers who has gone down in legend, so I grabbed one of her books to take to England! Brat Farrar, also published under the title Come and Kill Me, first appeared in 1949.  Brat Farrar, a relatively poor young British expat who made his way working with horses in America, has returned to England. He is accosted on the street by a man, Alex Loding, claiming Brat is the spitting image of the long-dead (supposedly) heir to a reputable stable, Patrick Ashby. He persuades Brat to "return" to the farm and dispossess his twin, Simon Ashby, who is set to take over the stables on his upcoming birthday. As Brat gets more and more enmeshed in the family, he comes to suspect that the missing Patrick's death was not a suicide as many believed, but a murder by his brother Simon. Of course if Brat shares what he finds out, he will be revealed as an imposter and lose the only family and home he has ever known. Simon of course cannot tell the family of Brat's identity without giving away his own guilt, but he might just try his luck a 2nd time. Intriguing and tightly crafted plot, believable characters, and an English setting all served to make this a satisfying read.

Time and Chance

I picked this historical novel by Sharon Kay Penman from the sale table because I had liked a couple of her historically based mysteries (e.g., The Queen's Man). Penman is a competent historian (an Author's Note details the liberties she has taken with history and discusses some of her sources) and a fine craftswoman as a writer. I became absolutely engrossed in this story, which begins two years into the reign of Henry II, 1156, and continues until 1171, shortly after the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry and his equally famous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, come to life as flesh and blood people with charismatic and strategic skills, as well as human failings. Eleanor is as astute a politician as Henry and so it chafes her and echoes down the years when Henry ignores her advice against elevating Thomas Becket from Chancellor to Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and Thomas have been of the same mind for years and made a nearly irresistible alliance in bringing a fragmented England, as well as significant parts of France, into a more cohesive kingdom. Henry desires to bring the Church to heel in his quest for control and lawfulness, and sees putting his ally Thomas into the most powerful position in England as a brilliant strategic move. Eleanor has never trusted Thomas, and when he experiences a religious conversion after taking holy orders, her distrust is validated. Henry feels betrayed and the feud between the two men continues to escalate until Thomas is living in exile. When the Pope pressures for reconciliation, Thomas returns to England, not the least bit repentent or conciliatory and immediately takes actions that enrage Henry once more. In the heat of the moment, Henry speaks rashly against Thomas and some young noblemen take it upon themselves to rid the king of this troublesome man. Eleanor is the mother of Henry's eight children--the 2nd oldest of whom, Richard, is to become the Lionheart. She is also the force that holds the kingdom together when Henry is off fighting. Eleanor and Henry have shared not only a bed, but ambition and visions for empire, and she feels betrayed by Henry's installing a young concubine in their favorite home in England, Woodstock. As her friend Maud advises, you must take Henry as he is or learn to love him less--and Eleanor chooses the latter. They have lived mostly apart when Henry was off putting down various rebellions, now they live separately because she can hardly bear the humiliation he has foisted upon her. There is apparently a previous novel about Henry and Eleanor, When Christ and his Saints Slept,  as well as a sequel, Devil's Brood. Penman has a substantial body of work, including a 2-part series about Richard the Lionheart, several other tales of English rulers, and her mysteries. If you like historical novels, you can't go wrong here .

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top Secret Twenty One

I know Janet Evanovich solicits titles from her readers for the Stephanie Plum number series, but I do not know if the titles come first --stimulating plot ideas--or she writes the book first and then picks the title that best matches the plot line. In any case, there are some new elements and some of the more familiar plot devices in this latest installment. Ranger and Stephanie are still dancing around each other, although Stephanie remains sexually faithful--in behavior if not in fantasy--to Joe Morelli. Another car gets destroyed, although not burned up--this time while Lula is sleeping in the front seat. One of Stephanie's old contacts, height-challenged Randy Briggs, is being targeted by his boss, Jimmy Poletti, one of Stephanie's FTA's. She plans to use Briggs as bait. Polletti and Randy are persons of interest because they are key players in a drugs and sex slaves ring operating between Mexico and New Jersey. Someone has sent a missile into Briggs' apartment, leaving him homeless and now he is camped out with Stephanie--a highly undesirable situation for all kinds of reasons. Meanwhile, someone is also targeting Ranger with intent to harm and with deadly nuclear materials, so now the FBI is involved. Worse yet, the material, designed to be placed into the ventilation system at Rangeman headquarters, may just be a trial run for a larger target. Stephanie gets enlisted to help Ranger smoke out the would-be assassin and, in the process, becomes #2 on the hit list.  Last but not least, Grandma Mazur is at war with Morelli's Grandma Bella. But wait, I forgot the pack of feral chihuahuas guarding another one of Stephanie's FTA's. Yikes! A bit more complex and a little less formulaic than recent entries in the series, and still lots of fun.