Monday, January 26, 2015

No Mark Upon Her, by Deborah Crombie

Deborah Crombie is the remarkable author from McKinney TX who writes a perfectly British murder mystery, and to prove it's not a fluke, she does it over and over and over. 

This time Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kinkaid and his long time partner and newly minted wife Gemma James must resolve the mysterious death of long odds Olympic hopeful Rebecca Meredith.  Ms. Meredith is a world class rower who missed her first shot at an Olympic medal when a skiing accident resulted in a broken wrist.  Now years later she is prepared to put her Metro detective career on hold while she prepares for a comeback.  But it is on the Thames, very near her home, that her sleek boat is upended and her body is found underwater a short distance away.

Could it have been an accident?  Not according to one of the Search and Rescue team, who had seen a suspicious person on a remote area of the riverbank very near where her boat was found.  The problem is, he is a loner with PTSD who has no confidence that his report will be believed.

 Kinkaid's superior officer seems a little too anxious to close the case quickly by blaming Rebecca's ex, but as Kinkaid and his team learn more about Rebecca, the list of her potential enemies broadens.  Maybe the murder has less to do with the Olympic team selections and more to do with her professional life.  Kinkaid continues the investigation, but avoids opportunities to inform his superior of the investigation's progress, lest he be pulled off the case for getting too close to some very powerful people. And when the beleaguered Search and Rescue volunteer has a Molotov cocktail thrown through his workshop window, the investigation suddenly becomes broader and more dangerous for those who may be digging too deeply into sordid secrets not intended for the light of day.

Riders of the Purple Sage, by Zane Gray

Zane Grey first published this Western novel back in 1912, and it has become the standard by which others are measured. I don't know that it would survive a politically correct editor today, but it remains a great and exciting read, with John Wayne-type good guys, some really sinister bad guys wrapped in religious privilege, and a strong and godly young woman as the protagonist.

Jane Withersteen has inherited a vast ranch with huge herds of cattle from her Mormon pioneer father. She is successfully managing the ranch and her employees as well as helping poor families wherever she sees a need. But the Mormon elder who has been courting her determines to break her financially when she rejects his offer to become one of his several wives.

Jane's help comes from some Gentile (non Mormon) Cowboys who are not intimidated by the Mormon leaders, though even they may not be able to overcome the many wiles of the Mormon leadership, which holds strong spiritual and psychological authority over the Mormon families who make up the community as a whole.

Greg's descriptions of the wild and rugged plains, high cliffs and deep valleys of Utah transport the reader back so effectively that one can almost smell the sage, feel the speed and power of the horses they ride, and the raw fear and excitement engendered by stampeding cattle. Oh, and there is a love story or two as well to enrich the adventure. Thoroughly enjoyed it and think you will too!

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist is set in a country called The United Isles in a world eerily similar to our own. In fact, author Brandon Sanderson has created a fascinating alternative world that is powered, not by electricity or oil, but by gears. Instead of a single land mass, the western hemisphere is a cluster of large islands including Nebrask, Dakote, New France (think Louisiana), and Georgiabama, to name a few. The setting is a private school on the eastern island state called New Britannia.

Armedius Academy focuses on training young Rithmatists in the skills associated with a powerful magic; a magic which can mean the difference of life and death. These students use chalk and their geometry skills to wage battles against animated two-dimensional chalk figures which can be manipulated by their creators to break down defenses drawn by other rithmatists.

Joel is a scholarship student at the Armedius Academy.  His deceased father was a revered chalk maker and his mother remains at the Academy where her husband worked as a cleaning lady.  Joel has a fascination with Rithmatic principles and an impressive knowledge of strategies used in the animated battles of chalklings, the name given to the chalk figures, though he longs to be a rithmatist, he is not.

But Joel's knowledge and skills are needed when bright young rithmatist students begin to disappear and unusual and unexpected events begin to occur.  Ominous traces of blood remain, but no bodies... Are they still alive?  Why is this happening? A gifted rithmatist professor is tasked with resolving the mystery and surprisingly, he chooses Joel as his assistant.  Sanderson uses some clever plot twists to keep the story moving toward a stirring and exciting conclusion.  It ends like the first of a series needs to end, with the beginning of a new and exciting plot line introduced.

This is a Young Adult fantasy that is a pleasure to read.  And how cool is it that the kids who are best at drawing and geometry have the edge on the battlefield?


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

A Desperate Fortune, by Susanna Kearsley

Sara Thomas has always been good with numbers but lots less effective with large noisy groups, not to mention being pretty much oblivious to the social cues that most others take for granted.  As a young adult she is finally diagnosed with Asperberger's syndrome, and that is due to her older cousin's almost obsessive interest in helping Sara cope with her unique take on her environment. 

Cousin Jacqui works in book publishing and is working with an author/historian who needs an old diary decoded. Jacqui immediately thinks of Sara, who has just quit her programming job because she wants to work alone, not as part of a team.  In short order Sara finds herself in Paris, where the owner of the old diary lives.  Sara is to stay in the lovely old home where the owner Claudine, an accomplished professional photographer, sets up a room which Sara can use as a private office. 

Before long Sara has broken the cipher and begins to translate the story of Mary Dundas, a woman born in France early in the 1700's to a Scottish father and French mother.  Her father was apparently one of the Jacobites, whose lives and fortunes were given over to helping King James retake the throne of Great Britain.  Mary's story is captivating, and the reader is instantly drawn into a tale of drama, danger and mystery.

In the mean time, loner Sara is getting slowly involved with her host Claudine, Claudine's  housekeeper and her young son Noah, as well as the boy's father, who lives very near by and is already part of the family. Both Sara and Mary find themselves at dramatic turning points in their lives.  Sara even draws strength and insight from the tales Mary tells to her traveling companions. They are fictional fairy tales, but have multiple layers which can impart deeper messages to the more perceptive in her audience. Some of Sara's Paris "family," pick up on nuances that she had missed when originally translating, and share those insights with her.  Each of the adults monitoring Sara's deciphering progress are very interested in how Mary's diary will end.

The story within the story is actually a prominent feature of fiction written by women of that era.  Kearsley is very adept at working in the culture, the literature and the social mores of this time in history as well as developing a thrilling drama and sweet romance within the structure of history as it actually happened.

The Scots of Mary's diary, one in particular, might remind fans of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of  the remarkable Jamie, and Mary's growing inner strength and quick-witted cleverness may remind readers of the Outlander heroine Clare. I found this book just as compelling, and recommend it  highly to those who enjoy historical romance, drama and mystery.  You have it all within these pages, so sit back and enjoy...that is, as soon as it hits the shelves in April, 2015.

I received a pre-publication copy from the folks at Sourcebooks Landmark, and have become a serious Susanna Kearsley fan myself, as a result.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The City of Blood, by Frederique Molay

This French murder mystery/police procedural novel, The City of Blood, was first published in France in 2012 and translated into English by Jeffrey Zuckerman in 2014.  Ms. Molay has already shown her talents in another Le French Book, Crossing the Line. Both books feature Chief Nico Sirsky and his hard working team of talented investigators.

This time the crime is set in a cultural park encompassing science, technology, a museum and modern art.  But in this instance the park is discovered to be the site of a 30 year old crime when a body is discovered in a modern art excavation. The dig had been scheduled to take place back when the event was originally staged. A pit had been dug 30 years earlier, tables and chair were set out for the elite of the French art world. After the meal and party,  the pit,dug in the area of the original slaughterhouses of old France, was then covered in dirt until it was time to be uncovered and evaluated.

The statute of limitations for murder has passed for this old crime, as the time starts clicking when the crime is committed, not when it is discovered.  But Sirsky knows that the family of the deceased will receive the closure that has evaded them for 30 years, even if the legal system can not punish the perpetrator, if they can discover who did it.  However, a quick series of fresh murders, in or very near the park, in the next couple of days indicate that the murderer may still be alive and active.

Perhaps they can not only discover the killer's identity, but see that justice is done for the benefit of a family which has dealt with unresolved grief for 30 years as well as the families of those who have just been so brutally victimized.

Frederique Molay not only builds a many layered murder mystery, but creates characters who have depth and complexity, whether they be police, victims or family members.  She also has many modern music references and great descriptions of the Parisian architecture, cultural centers and wide ranging neighborhoods.  Zuckerman has created a naturally flowing translation that is easy to read.  I really enjoyed it!

The Beekeeper's Apprentice, by Laurie R. King

The first of the Mary Russell mystery thrillers, The Beekeeper's Apprentice recalls the unlikely saga of Sherlock Holmes' second sidekick (post John Watson), young Mary Russell.  When they meet, Holmes has already retired from sleuthing and moved out to the countryside with his faithful housekeeper Mrs. Hudson.  He cares for several bee hives as a hobby, but still dabbles in special cases for Scotland Yard from time to time.

Though Mary is only 15, she owns a farm near Holmes and stumbles across him as he observes his bees gathering pollen.  She is in the habit of leaving the house early to avoid her unpleasant guardian aunt.  Mary is reading as she walks out through the middle of nowhere, literally stumbling across the gentleman crouched quietly by a flowering bush.

Though their initial meeting is awkward, Sherlock soon realizes that this girl is bright and intuitive, though she is also troubled and mistrustful. Their relationship slowly grows and he finds himself tutoring the girl in problem solving and critical analysis.She is able to assist him in a local case or two. Later she more or less shames him into taking her as an assistant on a kidnapping case in which Scotland Yard has requested  his help.

Eventually though, she is accepted into Oxford, and continues to immerse herself in learning, making a few friends along the way, but eventually she is once again working with Sherlock because she herself has been threatened dramatically.  A bomb left at her dorm room door is disabled in the nick of time, and she soon learns that Sherlock has been seriously injured when a bomb explodes in one of his bee hives.  Before long Mary is deep into a case more baffling than anything she has seen in her short career as an amateur sleuth, and it may be more than the recovering Sherlock can manage to resolve this time. Another good mystery with the surprising twists and turns fans have come to expect in a Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell tale.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dreaming Spies, by Laurie R. King

Years ago, Laurie R. King spent an inordinate amount of time absorbing all that had been written about Sherlock Holmes, who did his most well known work in the late 19th century.  As Ms. King pondered, her imagination took her to a "What If" situation, which resulted in the meeting of a young woman, untrained but as intuitive as Sherlock, with the retired Mr. Holmes himself.  Almost immediately, Holmes  recognizes her rare intuitive skills, and informally takes her on as an apprentice.  (That particular story is told in The Beekeeper's Apprentice.) Since then, Ms. King has enthralled her literary public with best selling suspense novels featuring Mary Russell and the older man to whom she is now married, Sherlock Holmes himself.

Dreaming Spies is set in 1925 on a cruise ship, in Japan and in London. Ms. Russell and Mr. Holmes had planned for this time to be restful and restorative after a recent harrowing adventure in India, but the plan goes awry when they recognize another passenger as a blackmailer with whom Holmes is familiar from a previous case.  Other passengers on the cruise ship raise mysterious issues that must be resolved, including a diminutive Japanese woman who is so much more than she seems.

Before long Russell and Holmes are on the case to salvage the reputation of the son of the Japanese Emperor, as well as to restore the precious Japanese heirloom being held for ransom, to the Japanese Royal Family.  So Russell and Holmes must call out all their tricks including disguises, martial arts skills and the occasional breaking and entering escapade, all in the cause of righting the wrongs in which they have become players.

King is wonderful at layering a detailed plot, introducing a myriad of unusual and intriguing characters and showcasing the skills and teamwork of the unlikely pairing of Russell and Holmes, and finally building to an exciting and satisfying conclusion.

I hope Arthur Conan Doyle would be pleased; not to mention Dr. Watson himself!  There is no doubt that the reading public is quite happy with the opportunity to enjoy the continuing adventures of Russell and Holmes.