Monday, July 28, 2014

The Girl You Left Behind, by JoJo Moyes

JoJo Moyes has created yet another heartwarming and thought-provoking tale.  The Girl You Left Behind follows the unlikely fate of a portrait of a young Frenchwoman painted by her husband in the years preceding the German occupation of France during World War I.  Artist Edouard Lefevre has left his young wife in the small town where she grew up while he is serving in the French Armed Services. 

In 1916, Sophie is helping her sister run the family hotel in a small village now occupied by the Germans.  The villagers are completely under the thumb of the occupiers and experience all kinds of suffering and deprivation at the hands of the Germans.  The portrait now hangs near the cafe in the hotel and comes to the attention of the German Kommandant. He is an art connoisseur who is taken with the strength and spirit that emanates from the girl in the portrait.  Sophie comes to realize that she can use the portrait to gain a reunion with Edouard, who has now become a prisoner of war, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to be reunited with her husband.

Nearly one hundred years later, Sophie's portrait is given to a young British woman by her husband and is treasured by her in a special way since her beloved husband has died suddenly and unexpectedly after giving her the gift. She is stunned when, some years later, the painting is subject to a request from the heirs of Edouard Lefevre, who claim that the painting was looted by war criminals and should rightfully be returned to the estate.

Liv Halston honestly doesn't know the history of the painting, doesn't know it's value, but her gut feeling is that it belongs to her.  The battle for ownership of the painting becomes public, and gets ugly as the publicity paints Liv in a most unfavorable light. 

This novel is a portrait of women who are willing to risk everything for love, as well as the complex and sometimes shadowy provenance of art works which change hands during war time.

A really good story with an excellent and ultimately very hopeful ending, in my humble opinion.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has been raised to be The Queen of the Tearling as soon as she comes of age, but there are some doubts whether she will survive the trip to her coronation.  Some of her subjects stand to lose power and prestige if she ascends the throne; most of those who might benefit don't have the power to act.

She would not have survived childhood had she not been secreted far away to be raised by foster parents.  At age 19 she is taken again by soldiers.  They hope to return her to the castle, but other soldiers and mercenaries are just as determined to stop her.  She wants to rule with integrity but has no idea how deep her country has slid into corruption.  It may already be too late to turn the tide.

Kelsea is apparently sadly lacking in the beauty her mother was renowned for, but makes up for it in cleverness and courage. 
She has a pendant that affirms that she is royalty, but it takes awhile for her to realize it's potential for magical power.

I enjoyed the fantasy as well as the plot twists, not to mention how refreshing to encounter a heroine with limited glamor to entrance her subjects, but plenty of the characteristics that inspire loyalty and may make her a great leader.

Werewolf Cop, by Andrew Klavan

Andrew Klavan has written a thought provoking treatise on the battle between good and evil in a supernatural crime novel. The title Werewolf Cop suggests a Young Adult focus, but the novel has a  much greater audience potential in my opinion. 

The protagonist is Zach Adams, an elite police detective on the trail of an international crime boss, Dominic Abend. Originally known as a member of  a German crime syndicate, Abend has apparently moved to the US after pretty much taking over Europe.

Adams is a  good man who struggles with the spiritual concept of grace and his own capacity for receiving forgiveness for wrongs he has committed.  He is a family man who loves his wife but he violated his vows to her just once.  On top of this guilt burden, he is concerned with suspicions which his supervisors articulate against his trusted partner.  He wants to trust him but begins to harbor doubts about who in the department he can really trust. In addition to grisly crimes in his pursuit of taking over crime syndicates run by local thugs, Abend is apparently buying the loyalty of some police officers.

He follows clues to Europe in the pursuit of the mysterious Abend, but is attacked unexpectedly by a wild animal. After very nearly dying from the attack he returns to police work, not really realizing at first the far reaching consequence of the attack.  But after the next full moon, there can be no doubt. He has killed without even considering his actions because of the overriding urges of the beast within him. How can one ever be forgiven for that? 

But on the other hand, who will suspect him? And he seems to be getting ever closer to the elusive Abend, so he doggedly pursues that case, even as he realizes the hopelessness of his own situation.

A thoughtful tale, much to reflect on, and I do recommend it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Wilder Rose, by Susan Wittig Albert

This book is quite the spoiler for died-in-the-wool Little House on the Prairie fans, who feel like they know Laura Ingalls Wilder personally.  Author Susan Wittig Albert has done a great deal of research on Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, Rose Wilder Lane.  At the end of the day, as the saying goes, it seems pretty clear that the compelling stories of life on the prairie were pretty heavily edited, okay, rewritten, by her daughter to make them the charming and heartwarming stories they became.

Rose was already a successful and oft published journalist when she moved back home to help her parents, Laura and Almanzo. Her mom was 61at the time.Rose had traveled and lived internationally for awhile, earning her living writing for magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post. She knew what the editors and the readers expected and knew how to shape a story that would appeal to the readers.  She encouraged her mother to write down some of the family stories, not realizing how much of her own time they would eventually absorb. Rose's goal was getting her mom's work published so the subsequent royalty checks could help support her parents financially.

Ms. Albert, the author, used Rose's journal to capture the sometimes tense moments between mother and daughter.  Mrs. Wilder was innately managing and manipulative; Rose was quietly resentful but always hoping to please her mother.  The journal also revealed all the famous and near famous folks that Rose counted as friends.  Shaped somewhat by her life experiences during the stock Market Crash and the Great Depression, Rose became almost libertarian in her views.  She is generous, but weaves her own web of family and friendship by being generous with her money.

Rose's life is certainly significant and her resume is extensive.  The irony is that the works that will live far beyond her were the ones she "ghost wrote" with her mom, the books where her name never appears at all.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Blieberg Project, by David S. Khara

Another winner from the Le French Book team, this time the story is a modern day espionage thriller with roots in the Nazi regime of WWII.  Jay Novacek is a Wall Street trader who has met with enormous financial success but is seemingly defined by self-destructive behaviors in recent months.  That changes when a knock on his apartment door reveals the Air Force team which has come to inform him of his absentee father's death.  Soon he is overwhelmed with new information about his past and his father's true identity, information that will change his life forever.

His Wall Street boss turns out to be a CIA operative who knows more about Jay's dad than he had ever revealed.  The action begins to move very quickly, as it seems his father has left a trail that both the good guys and the bad are eager to follow, and we can't always be sure which is which. 

The fast paced action in the present is interspersed with back story chapters that reveal the beginnings of a conspiracy in the Nazi laboratories. Many lives were callously sacrificed in the pursuit of facilitating the mutation of humanity into a race of Ubermensch, or Super Men. Not all the researchers in the lab were loyal to Nazism above all.  Their loyalties lay with a shadowy mysterious international group called the Consortium, which manages to survive the fall of Nazism and spread into other countries at the end of WWII.

It seems Jay's dad had gotten too close to revealing the sordid ties of  the Consortium to his own government and they took his life, but not before he was able to leave the key to revealing the evil plans and scary progress of the Consortium.  That is,  if Jay and his compatriots can only get to the information first. There is a lot of hand-to-hand to fighting, an explosion here and there, all to keep the excitement level racing in this fast-paced book.

This is the first in a series of Consortium thrillers, so be on the lookout for more excitement to come.

Treachery In Bordeaux by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noel Balen, translated from French by Anne Trager

Both wine and mystery aficionados will love this book! It is first of a planned series of Winemaker Detective stories, and it has already been adapted for television in France.  And you don't have to know a lot about'll know even more after you have read the book anyway. 

The protagonist is a wine connoisseur, steeped in the arts, the culture and the history of the Bordeaux region of France, and though he doesn't fancy himself a detective, he can't help but ponder a mystery when he finds it.  The mystery is presented to him as a problem to solve, and an urgent one at that.  The wine that is aging in the barrels of a local vintner/friend of Benjamin Cooker has somehow become contaminated with a bacteria.  The conditions in the winery are could it have happened?

The book is enjoyable, easy to get caught up in as one learns about great wine, good food, and the  intriguing history of the region along the way.  I am thankful that an excellent translator, Anne Trager, has taken on the task of sharing French mysteries with English readers. I'd hate to have missed out on the growing library of the Le French Book portfolio!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Bird Box is a psychological horror story set in the near future. The dismal setting is not caused by a war or nuclear meltdown, or even global warming.  Instead, bizarre reports of suicides and murders begin to be reported, first over seas, then Alaska and then even closer to home.

Apparently there is some alien creature that the mere sight of will cause insanity, always resulting in the suicide of the viewer and the murder of any people who might be near enough to be killed by the crazed victim.  Those who have only heard reports or who have experienced the loss of a loved one to the madness, begin to be governed more by fear, seeking out others who might help them to survive. 

Malorie is one such individual.  Weeks earlier she has seen an ad in a local paper advertising a house whose owner is inviting others to come live with him so that they can face the unknown together and perhaps discover how to achieve long term survival together.  For weeks more and more people have started covering their eyes outside, covering their windows and even the windshields of cars if they feel they must travel. 

She has discovered that she is pregnant from a one night stand, but she has her sister as roommate and built in support system.  That is, she does until her sister apparently looks beyond the blanket-covered window, goes insane and kills herself in the home they share.

Now all alone, Malorie gathers her courage, checks the ad again and strikes out to find the address.  She is finally admitted into the house where she will live for the next several years. She and her housemates share the canned food that they have gathered in forays into abandoned grocery stores, always blind folded when they leave the house.  The water no longer runs in the house but there is a well in the back yard. They must overcome their fears of the unknown creatures every time they leave the house.  Sometimes they hear them (is it them, really?) but they never allow themselves a look beyond the interior of the house. Their food supply is dwindling; new people come requesting to join them.

But are the housemates all worthy of the trust that they must show one another if they are to live together? Malorie's only hope may be to abandon the house and strike out for a new place, a place where safety and security for herself and her children have been offered by a stranger whose voice she has only heard over the land line phone, which somehow continues to work.