Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls is historical fiction based on the lives of individuals who lived through this incredible period of history in and around World War II.  Author Martha Hall Kelly has spent years researching lives and events, creating a literary tapestry that transports the reader from New York City to Poland,  to Germany and back. She unveils strikingly different perspectives of tragic events, graphically illustrating the capacity of a people's inhumanity toward others, and thankfully, the endurance of unselfish love, kindness and redemption.

It's 1939 and thirty-seven year old socialite Caroline Ferriday works tirelessly at the French Consulate in New York City, providing aid to French nationals in the US and sending care packages to orphans in France, where the threat of German aggression is creating chaos all over Europe.

In Lublin, a small town in Poland, sixteen year old teen Kasia Kuzmerick and her family are experiencing the sad and frightening encroachment of the German war machine on their beloved Poland. Before long Kasia finds herself working with the Polish Underground, which leads, unfortunately, to her being noticed by the Nazis.

At the same time Herta Oberhauser, a 25 year old German girl in Dusseldorf, longs to work as a doctor and is frustrated by the fuehrer's demeaning attitude toward women in a men's world. She accepts without much question the superiority of the Aryan race, and thus accepts the degradation and abuses of the Jewish Germans in their midst as justified. She feels stifled in her current family and work situations in Dusseldorf, so when she sees a classified ad in a medical journal for a doctor at a new Women's facility, a reeducation camp in a beautiful resort area, she quickly applies.

These three women will  eventually impact the lives of one another, not to mention friends and family members, in ways none of them would ever have imagined.

The title comes from a remark Caroline remembers her father making about the lilacs in their garden.  "But it's fitting in a way--Father loved the fact that a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter."  The women who survive the ghastly medical procedures at Ravensbruck certainly demonstrate strength and courage in the way they deal with life as survivors. Caroline also demonstrates great strength and determination in spite of hardship and heartbreak in her own life.

I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley so that I might review the book.  I highly recommend the heart rending story, and the great writing resulting from thorough research.  I had not heard of Caroline Ferriday or Herta Oberhauser, but they are actual, not fictional, characters. Kasia is fictionalized, an amalgamation of several women who spent time in the concentration camp at Ravensbruck, but the events described actually occurred. Author Martha Hall Kelly has excelled like nobody's business in a debut novel.  I eagerly await more from her!

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Unnatural Death, by Dorothy Sayers

This witty period piece features an amateur sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, whose disarming charm helps him to gather clues right and left when the police are not even sure there is a case to solve as yet.  Dorothy Sayers is fun to read, but be prepared for some ethnic slang in the conversations of her characters. It serves to remind the readers that we live in different times now.

In this case, a young doctor friend of Lord Peter has complained to him about a patient who died under his care.The lady was elderly and had been previously diagnosed with cancer. She had seemed to be in remission when she died, which led the doctor to request an autopsy. The autopsy provided no cause to rule anything other than natural causes. The small community lost faith in him, believing he had brought unnecessary stress into the life of the woman's surviving niece/caregiver, and his practice had fallen off to the extent that he was moving out of town.

In the meantime Wimsey notices that villagers he feels like might have some helpful information to offer seem to be disappearing only to be found dead a short time later.  Lots of twists and turns, not to mention disguises and various daring forms of skulduggery.

In the end, Wimsey saves the day and has fun along the way while he's doing it. Sayers published this novel in 1927. It is a witty murder mystery featuring the upper crust of British society. It reminds me of the P. G. Wodehouse novels in its broad and humorous look at the privileged set.  If you come across any Wimsey books as you stroll through Half Price bookstores, I believe you'll be glad if you snap it up for a quick fun read.

The Doll's House, by M.J. Arlidge

M.J. Arlidge continues the chilling series featuring Detective Inspector Helen Grace with a scary tale called The Doll's House. DI Grace, as you may remember if you have read seriously edge-of-your-seat scary Eeny Meeny, has some pretty serious issues personally, but she mostly keeps her personal life separate from her work. This case opens with a young woman coming to in a small room that is furnished with "pretend" furnishings, things that might be found in a child's play house. When Ruby wakes up, she has no prior memory of this room or of how she might have gotten there, and no idea of how she will get out.

Around the same time a family playing at a remote beach, digging ditches and having fun, suddenly uncover the face of a young woman. The police are soon on the scene and have no idea who the woman is.  Though the cold damp sand has kept her body fairly well preserved, the pathologist estimates she has been dead around three years.  They get a break when the coroner discovers a pacemaker with an identifying number on it. When the police approach the victim's family, they are shocked to find out she is dead, as they have been receiving texts and tweets from her regularly since she had left town.

In the meantime Constable Sanderson, a coworker of DI Grace, has been sent to check on a missing person's case.  Ruby's parents had reported her missing, though they had gotten a text from her saying she was going off on her own, and was disappointed in the treatment she had gotten from them.  It didn't make sense since they had been working on moving Ruby back into the family home when she disappeared. Sanderson met the parents at Ruby's apartment, which she noticed had not been broken into.  Sanderson was sure the girl had left of her own accord til her mother pointed out her inhaler.  Ruby would never have willingly left that behind, her parents assured the detective. The missing persons case has turned a bit more sinister.

Before long similarities in the two cases lead DI Grace to suspect that the cases may be connected, but she is not ready to publicize that yet.  She has a new supervisor that is quick to throw up roadblocks to prevent Helen Grace from getting any more publicity because of potentially high profile cases. In fact, the supervisor refuses to give Helen classified information which might help Helen find her nephew, who has been missing for months. Helen is faced to go around the supervisor's edict in her desperation to recontact her missing family member.  And that might cause her not only to lose her job, but destroy her career...at least that is what her supervisor hopes will happen.

The climax, when it comes, is fast moving and exciting.  There seemed to be a few unanswered questions as the story wraps up quickly, but it is followed by a preview of the next book in the series, Liar Liar, which should be available in June of 2016.

I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. It definitely lives up to it's billing as an exciting thriller with plenty of twists and potential suspects to choose from.

The Swans of 5th Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin

Author Melanie Benjamin is no stranger to historical fiction or to The New York Times Best Seller List. She has more than met her own high standards with this candid retelling of historical events in the lives of the 1960's most glamorous, richest, and elite women of New York City society. Ms. Benjamin explains to readers that the key events are verifiable, though the conversations among the protagonists are imagined.

Babe Paley was married to William S. Paley, who had the good sense to get into television in it's infancy and the skills to rise and remain at the top of the industry for decades. Babe was the recognized leader of high society and someone who took the role seriously. She was a tall slender fashion icon and one element of a key power couple in society. Her husband admired and appreciated her, but she longed to enjoy the intimacy of marriage. He however, sought out other women frequently, and Babe, though aware of it, was too well bred to make it an issue.

That was true until young Truman Capote came to town.  Ms. Benjamin details the way Truman inserted himself into that world, telling outrageous but highly entertaining stories about other people, and then soliciting the secret stories of these society women within the guise of friendship, promising that he would never tell.

Babe Paley was lonely for emotional intimacy and found the perfect partner in the flamboyant Truman.  The story is mesmerizing, even as the reader watches Truman spiral downward from fame, praise and literary acclaim as his inner demons begin to take over in the form of alcohol and drugs.  He no longer could call up his creative skills to pen the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood.  So he took to writing the stories his friends had told him about their own lives, changing the names, but telling their secret, sometimes humiliating stories so accurately that people easily recognized themselves and others in his magazine pieces. The fallout was a scandal that sent shock waves across the sea.  Seemingly all at once, Truman went from being the darling of society to a pitiable (almost) pariah.

It's a page turner, folks...you'll be glad you read it!  It has just hit the shelves so take advantage of it's availability before there is a waiting line.

Try Not to Breathe, by Holly Seddon

Amy Stevenson is a 15 year old teenager who loves rock music, her boyfriend Jake, and gossiping with her best girl friends. It is 1995 and Amy is walking home from school in a small community in Great Britain. Amy has a secret she dares not share.  She has attracted the attention of an older guy, and she is very interested in him too. She knows she could never tell Jake, and will only breathe a word to her girl friends IF this guy helps her win the contest they have going...which one of them will lose their virginity first.

In 2010 journalist Alex Dale is touring a hospital ward at the Tunbridge Wells Royal Infirmary doing research for a profile story she hopes to write for the local newspaper's weekend supplement. Doctor Haynes has been doing research on the communication possibilities of patients who not so long ago were called brain dead.  Alex is stunned to glimpse a face she recognizes in one of the infirmary beds.  It is Amy Stevenson, a girl her own age who had disappeared 15 years prior and been the subject of a massive search before she is stumbled over in a remote park, more dead than alive. 

No one had ever discovered who had done this to her and then left her for dead. Alex hadn't thought of her in years, but suddenly realizes Amy's story needs to be told and she really wants to be the one to write it. Over the long 15 year period Amy has had one consistent visitor.  It is Jake, her high school boyfriend.  Alex knows she must find out more about him as well as what  he knows about what happened to Amy.

But Alex has issues of her own.  She has been a functioning alcoholic for years but lately has been sliding faster down the slippery slope. Her once acclaimed journalistic potential has tanked, her marriage is over, her health is compromised, her friends are few and she is pretty much unemployable...thus she gets by on writing the occasional feature story.

This is a psychological thriller that incorporates medically significant information based on communication research with patients who are aware, but are existing in a twilight area. Unable to communicate in conventional ways, some doctors and patients nevertheless are able to exchange information in verifiable ways.

Against all odds, Alex slowly begins to take better care of herself because she is researching Amy's background and family, trying to find out what had happened. It takes time to interview and do research, so she is drinking less.  Author Holly Seddon does a great job of building tension as she tells the story, past and present, from multiple points of view, including Amy's. 

Maybe the two young women will actually be able to help one another resolve the mystery and find peace in spite of tragic circumstances.It's a well written story that stays with the reader for awhile.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Deadly Stillwater, by Roger Stelljes

McRyan and his seasoned team of detectives are good, but can they move fast enough to find not one, but two young women, kidnapped separately, by mysterious predators with revenge on their minds?

The kidnappers are bafflingly efficient, leaving no clues even as they take their victims off public streets in broad daylight.  And when they contact the prominent fathers of the girls, they fail to mention a ransom amount.

Author Roger Stelljes has written several books in this police procedural series set in St. Paul, Minnesota.  In Deadly Stillwater, he gets many opportunities to describe the city, towns and countryside in the region, as the kidnappers cover wide territory to keep the police off balance.  Eventually the detectives realize that the kidnappers have a mole within the department and must continue their quest without sharing their every move with the larger team, which has grown to include the FBI and the Mayor's office as well as the police department. This book is not the first in the series, but it is the first I've read.  I would be interested in reading the earlier thrillers, but this is a stand alone story that is complete within itself.

Tension, suspense. and lots of action in this police procedural to enjoy.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Dangerous Place, by Jacqueline Winspear

A Dangerous Place is the 10th Maisie Dobbs novel.  It continues the saga of Maisie's life in the unique circumstances of the beginning of the 20th century, the Great War, and the expanding rights and expectations of young women. In this novel, grieving Maisie has just lost her husband in a plane crash and shortly thereafter, the child they were expecting.  Her husband's life ended abruptly in Canada.  Maisie's parents and her in-laws want her to return home to England and she finally decides to comply.

But as the ship on which she travels nears England she begins to dread the return to the places where she shared so much happiness with her husband.  She debarks at Gibraltar in spite of the disapproval and warning from the ship's captain.  This is a time, 1937, when there is much unrest in Europe and a Spanish Civil War in progress.  Gibraltar is full of refugees, spies and special agents from any number of countries. In short, it is no place for a lady traveling alone.

Maisie never goes looking for trouble, but nevertheless she always finds it.  In this case, she is wandering in the gardens surrounding her hotel one evening when she literally stumbles across a dead body.  Maisie is disturbed to learn that the local police ascribe the death to an unknown refugee and do no further investigation.  Maisie is sure that the victim's family deserves to know who killed him and why he died.  She sets about to gather what information she can, not realizing the investigation is just what she needs to help in her own grieving process.

As she gathers information she realizes that someone is following her, and that further, the police are very annoyed at her continuing investigation.  She comes to realize there is far more undercover investigating going on than she had suspected and there could be international ramifications.

Jacqueline Winspear strikes just the right touch as she describes Maisie's grief from the loss of her husband and unborn child, and the healing that begins as she sees a way to help others in ways that only she can.  Winspear also excels at invoking historical eras that we may have overlooked or forgotten.

Reading the books in order is probably ideal, but it makes a good read as a stand alone as well. So, whether it is the first or the 10th Maisie Dobbs novel that you read, I know that you will enjoy the story as well as getting to know the strong and intelligent woman who is Maisie Dobbs.