Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blue Monday by Nicci French

Dr. Frieda Klein is a psychotherapist who practices in London.  Intensely private and reclusive in her private life, she is insightful and able to help those few patients she agrees to take on. 

London is abuzz with the latest crime story--five year old Matthew Farraday has been kidnapped from the street and is missing.  The police are trying everything they can, but Matthew has just vanished into thin air.  Drawing on his years of expertise, Chief Inspector Karlsson believes that this crime may be related to one that occurred twenty years ago where five-year-old Joanna Vine was also taken from the street. She was never found, her body never identifed although common wisdom says she is long dead.

Frieda meets Karlsson when she is moved to break a patient's confidence; something she has never done.  This man, a new patient, has recurring dreams of having a child; specifically a son.  That son looks exactly like Matthew Farraday.  Dr. Klein is disturbed enough by the resemblance that she has her patient checked out.  His alibi for the time of the disappearance is solid, but as Frieda continues to probe she uncovers the shocking secrets of his life.

This is the first book in a new series by the writing team of Nicci French, the writers Nicci Gerrald and Sean French.  Readers will be immediately drawn to the reclusive Dr. Klein and interested in both the Chief Inspector and the flow of the investigation.  The writing is brooding, mysterious, compelling.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Wide Open by Deborah Coates

Hallie Michaels is home from Afghanistan, but not for a good reason.  She has been given ten days compassionate leave to come home to bury her sister, Dell.  She arrives home full of grief and straight from the war zone where she was recently involved in a firefight that left her dead for seven minutes.  Hallie was brought back to life, but you can't say it didn't affect her.  She can now see and feel ghosts, and her combat friend and Dell both go with her everywhere.

Hallie doesn't understand anything, it seems.  She doesn't understand why or how Dell died, and there seems to be controversy about it at the sheriff's office.  Some people are saying that Dell committed suicide and Hallie knows that can't be true.  She doesn't understand why there are a series of mysterious fires in the area; fires that seem intentional and focused like arson but are started by lightning.  She doesn't understand how a man she dated a few times before entering the military is now the head of a new company that is employing more and more people in the area, but none of the employees can describe exactly what the company does.  She can't understand whether she likes or dislikes the new deputy in town, Boyd, who seems a part of it all.  Most of all, she can't understand why so many women in the area have gone missing in the last few years while she has been away.

Deborah Coates has written a knock-your-socks-off story in this debut novel.  It is hard to characterize, as there are elements of feminism, of magic, of life on the ranches and farms of South Dakota.  Coates has created one of the strongest heroines imaginable in Hallie, a women who has seen a lot and is not ready to roll over and give in to despair.  It has crime and fantasy, all the elements mixed into a glorious tale that grabs the reader by the throat and won't let go.  The story builds to a gripping finale, one that leaves the reader gasping.  This book is recommended for both mystery and fantasy readers.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Shore Excursion by Marie Moore

Sidney Marsh left Mississippi for the Big Apple and has never looked back.  She spends her time as a travel agent and a lot of her travel agent time is spent shepherding tours throughout the world.  Sidney's specialty is acting as the tour specialist for senior citizens tours; specifically the High Steppers.  She has been on several tours with this group of friends.

This trip they are headed to the northern European countries; Denmark, Sweden, Russia.  But someone else has boarded the cruise ship and they spell danger.  One of the High Stepper women is killed, although the cruise ship tries to hush it up.  Then another High Stepper, this one a male, is killed.  Who is trying to kill these innocuous senior citizens, and why would they be targets?  Sidney is determined to find out since the authorities don't seem interested in anything except sweeping the murders under the rug so that the tour can go on.

There are plenty of suspects.  There are some younger men who are touring with the group, and why would interesting, attractive young men want to spend time with those of an older generation?  Then there is the cruise ship captain.  One minute he seems to be interested in Sidney, the next he is ordering her around and thwarting her investigations.  There's the blonde bombshell who flirts with all the men, and even Sidney's best friend Jay is acting suspicious.  Can Sidney find the killer before anyone else is killed?

This is a debut mystery from Marie Moore.  It is written in the cozy, light-hearted style of a Joan Hess or Carolyn Hart.  The narrative is written in first-person style from Sidney's perspective.  Along with an engaging mystery, readers learn tidbits about successful cruising.  Shore Excursion is the first novel in a series, and readers will be interested to see what Ms. Moore serves up next.  This book is recommended for mystery readers interested in light crime dramas. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Girl With The Crooked Nose by Ted Botha

In The Girl With The Crooked Nose, Ted Botha follows the career of Frank Bender and his forsenic sculpting work.  Frank was a commercial photographer but his love was sculpting.  As with most sculptors, he hired models to try to determine how human anatomy worked to make his pieces more authentic.  This desire to know about human anatomy eventually led him to the Philadephia medical examiner's office.  There he started to study corpses.

After several visits, the police approached Frank about a murder victim who was unidentified.  They explained that they had mimimal luck with sketch artists producing a likeness in such cases that helped with identification, and wondered if Frank could produce a bust that would be better.  Frank didn't know anything about forensics but was persuaded to make an attempt.  He created a bust that led to an identification, and found his life's work. 

Over the years, Frank worked on multiple cases.  He was successful in finding identities in many cases.  The ones that he was proudest of were the children, often found in suitcases or boxes, thrown away after being murdered.  Frank's work was able to give them back an identity, and to let them be buried under their own name instead of being sent to an anonymous grave. 

Frank's biggest case was that of the scores of Mexican women who were murdered in the early 2000's.  The Mexican government brought him in, along with an FBI consultant, but it was soon clear that there were politics at play and forces that did not want this case solved.  While Frank went back to Mexico several times and created multiple busts, the cases still remain a mystery, although many believe either the Mexican police or the military had a hand in these deaths. 

Another area Frank's expertise was used in was age regression and advancement.  He was the sculptor that created the bust of John List that was used on America's Most Wanted to identify this man who a decade earlier had killed his entire family and disappeared.  That case led to the government using Frank for several other busts to identify fugitives who had been missing for many years.

Ted Botha has outlined the life history of a fascinating man.  Bender loved the work he did, but never made enough money at it to support his family.  He had to take side jobs throughout his life to make ends meet.  Frank lived life on his own terms, and his work was so valuable that he was able to live life as he wanted while still fitting in with the highly structured world of police work.  This book is recommended for readers of true crime and those interested in forensic work.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Collecting Innocents by C.K. Webb and D.J. Weaver

Something is very wrong on I-10.  Parents who encounter car problems while riding on the interstate are disappearing along with their children.  The parents all make 9-11 calls from callboxes along the interstate and that is the last contact anyone has with them.  The bodies of the parents are found in a few days or weeks but the children are never found.

The police are slow to put together the cases as they happen in different jurisdictions.  That's where The Saving Angels Agency comes in.  The agency was started by Sloanne Kelly and her fiance, Shawn Taylor, two years ago.  They were involved in a similar case and Sloane's goddaughter was kidnapped and murdered.  When that killer was apprehended, the couple swore that they would spend their lives working on missing child cases.  Two years later, they not only had helped put that killer behind bars, but had reunited multiple children with their parents.

Many of the individuals from the earlier case work on this one.  Jake MacKenzie was a detective in the earlier case.  He moved to Louisiana where the most recent kidnappings are taking place and is the first to make the connection.  He calls in Sloanne and Shawn along with their friend Birney Sullivan.  Sullivan is a reporter with the ability to take a news story nationwide.  Together this team, along with the sheriff in Louisiana and his men, work to discover the killer and try to locate the missing children.  Can they be successful against such a diabolical killer?

C.K. Webb and D.J. Weaver have created an interesting cast of characters.  Collecting Innocents is the second book in their series, but is easily accessible without having read the first.  The Saving Angels team is an interesting mix of people who have been affected by those who prey on children and have determined to devote their lives to making children safe.  This book is recommended to mystery lovers looking for a new series to follow.

By Blood by Ellen Ullman

It is the 1970's and a disgraced professor has come to San Francisco, awaiting the judgement of his college. A tenured professor, there is an allegation of improper student contact, and now he must wait for the wheels of collegial justice to grind out his fate. Knowing that it will take months, he has fled to another city where he is to work on research and papers. It is an unsettled time in San Francisco. The peace and love generation has given way to terrorists similar to those who kidnapped Patty Hearst. The Zodiac killer is stalking the streets. There is unease everywhere, including the professor's mind.

He takes an office in a cheap location, and there he finds his solace. He is placed next to a psychiatrist's office, and the construction is so cheap that he can hear through the walls. Not everyone; for most patients there is a white noise machine. But one patient, the one that the professor begins to think of as 'his patient' wants the machine turned off and he can hear everything she says.

The patient is caught up in the same identity crisis the professor has fought his whole life. Both feel they don't belong anywhere, that there is something unique about them that sets them apart and makes them unlovable. The patient believes it is her past as an adopted child. The professor comes from a family rife with mental disease and suicides. Both struggle to determine if they are a product of their genes, fated at birth to become what they are, or if they have the strength to define themselves apart from their heredity.
The professor has spent years in therapy and has removed himself from that setting. Yet he finds himself drawn into the struggle of the patient as she confronts her adoptive parents. He uses his research skills to find her birth mother and the truth of her background and mails the results to her pretending to be a clerk at the adoption agency. He then sits back and waits to see what will happen, if his gift will enable the patient to move forward with her life or if the truth of her background will swamp her.

Ellen Ullman has written a brooding tale that draws the reader in hypnotically. Set in short chapters, the hour long therapy sessions are juxtaposed with the actions of the professors. The story rackets up the suspense as the truth is revealed a bit at a time. Will the therapist have the skills to free the patient, and the professor who looms in the background and is just as needy? This book is recommended for all readers, an atmospheric tale that will not soon be forgotten.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

In 1953, the millionaire Cyrus Ott, head of a large corporation with far-flung interests, comes to Rome to make a proposition.  His former lover, Betty, now lives in Rome with her husband Leo.  Cyrus suggests that he will found a daily newspaper in the city and leave it to Betty and Leo to run it as editors.  They agree and the newspaper is founded.

Tom Rachman's debut novel, The Imperfectionists, follows this newspaper over the next fifty years along with the lives of the many people who make up the work force that creates a daily newspaper.  He structures the novel so that each person gets a chapter that shows his life, both at work and at home.  Each character ties to the other people at the newspaper, yet each remains separate.  This is the way of corporations and most large enterprises.  Each individual has their own agenda yet somehow, if lucky, these agendas are chained together to create a complete structure which none could have done alone.

Along with the short glimpses into individual private lives, Rachman portrays the dying days of the newspaper.  This is a fate that seems to be inevitable for most newspapers as readers' expectations are for instant information which they can get on the television news channels and the news on various Internet outlets.  There is little time for the leisurely exploration of topics that newspapers were able to create in years past.  The Ott corporation forgets about the newspaper in Rome, with few visits or inquiries from the home headquarters, and the newspaper is left to flounder and lose its way.

Rachman has done an impressive job.  His own background is as a journalist and an editor on foreign newspapers, so he knows the territory he writes about.  His slice-of-life vignettes are cunningly constructed to shed light on individual lives while typing them together to make a united whole.  This book is recommended for readers interested in modern fiction and for those interested in the writing industry.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant

Fred and Elly Bulkington are the luckiest couple alive.  They have won a genuine Irish pub in a contest, lock stock and barrel.  All they have to do is open the doors and their new lives will begin.

But this is not the Ireland of sunny skies, laughing children and warm communities.  This is the Ireland flung out on the outskirts of civilization, a dark, brooding, inbreed place where anyone not born there is called a 'blow-in'.  A place with secrets that outsiders only catch occasional glimpses of.  A place that is ruled by one family and where everyone else bows to that family's wishes.  A place of menace, contrasted with occasional flashes of casual violence.

Fred opens the doors, but customers are few and far between.  The only tourists who come here are birders, as this is the first landfall for migrating birds.  Elly is a distance swimmer, the kind of swimmer who only feels alive in the water.  She spends her time swimming in the ocean, an occupation that the natives view suspiciously.  To them the water is a necessary evil, a force that gives livilhoods but in return may demand a life in payment.  The couple is ostracized, not overt acts but just treated as if they don't exist.  The strain mounts with Fred falling into the bottle and their marriage starting to crack.  Will they be able to make a go of things in this remote, desolate place?

Matt Bondurant has written a stunning book, one that grips the reader, insinuating its way into thoughts at strange times, leaving behind an impulse to drop whatever is being done to get back to Elly and Fred's story.  The language is brooding, building suspense with each vignette the story unfolds, leading to a climatic finish that won't be soon forgotten.  This book is recommended for all readers who are interested in connection and remoteness and how we find our way in the world, clinging to others to save us from the cruelty we encounter. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

The Stranger's Child follows two British families, the Vances and the Sawles, from before WWI to the present. Both families were in the British upper class, with the Vances a bit higher, having a title. The sons of the families, Cecil and George, become friends at college, and the book begins with Cecil Vance's visit to George Sawle's family home on a weekend. Daphne, George's teenage sister, is infatuated with Cecil, too innocent to understand that the young men are sexually involved with each other. Cecil, a budding poet, dashes off a poem in Daphne's autograph book before he leaves. This poem becomes his most famous, and the one by which he is forever known.

The next section occurs after the war. Daphne is now Lady Vance, but is not married to Cecil. Cecil is killed in the war, and Daphne has married his brother Dudley. George is now married and teaching. The section follows their married years and their friends and acquaintances. They are part of an artistic circle with poets, authors and artists.

Fast forward a generation. The Vance family home has now become a boy's school, and Peter Rowe is a schoolmaster there. He begins an affair with Paul Bryant, who works as a bank teller in Daphne's son-in-law's bank. The circle of connection moves forward with Peter being invited to play duets with Daphne's daughter, Corrine, at gatherings at their home.
Another generation. Now Paul has become an author, specifically a biographer. He trades on his acquaintance with the Vance and Sawle families to ferret out their secrets and create a best-seller. George became the author, with his wife, of a famous historical textbook that became the milestone of every British child's education. Daphne spends her old age living with her son, who guards her jealously.

Alan Hollinghurst has created a fascinating book that looks at an era in British history where there were only a limited number of people who 'counted' and they all knew each other in some way, or had some tangential relationship or acquaintance that brought them into the charmed circle. He also plays with the idea of memory, how we are remembered when we are no longer here, and whether memories are ever true or are instead tinged and shaped by what we want to have happened. Families rise and fall, fortunes and titles come and go. The sections are tied together interestingly, with minor characters tieing back in unexpected ways to the two main families. This book has been nominated for the Mann Booker Prize in 2011, and is a well-deserved nomination.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Paris My Sweet by Amy Thomas

Amy Thomas fell in love with Paris on a trip in her late teens.  She dreamed of living there, and after years of work in the advertising field, she was offered a dream job.  She could take a contract to work on the advertising of Louis Vuitton, but would have to move to Paris and work there.  Amy jumped at the chance as it was her dream come true.

Amy's other passion was quality desserts.  She had, as a side interest, created a blog about sweets and where to find the best ones in New York.  She dreamed about expanding this with all the wonderful new sweet shops and French confections she would find in Paris.  Amy spent her first weeks there touring the famous shops and discovering new ones. 

Paris My Sweet combines both the story of Thomas's two years in Paris and her love of anything sweet.  Each chapter talks about an issue common to those starting a new job, moving to a new city, or being a woman on the cusp of middle age who is still single and adventurous but starting to wonder about love, marriage and children.  Each chapter also features a category of sweet such as the madeline or cupcakes or macarons.  At the end of each chapter is a page outlining the best places to find that category of sweet, both in New York and in Paris.

Paris My Sweet will appeal to a wide variety of readers.  It is great travel writing.  Foodies will be thrilled to read about the variety and intensity of flavors available in the dessert category as well as the guide to the best places to find specific categories.  Overall, the book will appear to women working on finding their place in the world, finding that mix of work and family/love that works for them.  Throughout the book, Thomas is revealed as a woman questioning her life but ultimately satisfied with her choices, a woman with a zest for life and who loves to share with others.  This book is recommended for all these categories of readers.