Friday, June 28, 2013

The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

The year is 1791, and change is in the air.  In country after country, the population is rising up against the idea of being ruled by the nobility.  Sweden is no different.  King Gustav is popular but some of his political moves are creating dissent.  He has given rights to the common man and while they eagerly accept, those who have been in power due to their birth are definitely opposed.  Soon there are two camps and individuals who never thought much about politics must decide which camp they belong to. 

One is these individuals is Emil Larsson.  He has fought his way up to become a bureaucrat in the Customs Office; a position that offers the potential for outside income.  He is also a man about town, seen frequently in the company of the card players at the town’s premier gaming house, that of Mrs. Sparrow.  When Emil is forced to consider marriage by his boss who wants to see his employees married, he seeks Mrs. Sparrow’s help.  She introduces him to a method of determining his fate he had never heard of; The Octavo.  The Octavo is a set of eight positions that each player must fill with the individuals around himself.  When the players are in place, their decisions and moves will impact the seeker’s fate, and often the fate of others.  Emil’s Octavo soon has him right in the middle of the conflict between the opponents and the supporters of King Gustav. 

The book is full of other interesting characters.  The Uzanne is a woman who is the social arbitrator of Stockholm society.  With her connections, a debutante cannot hope to advance without her approval.  The Uzanne uses a collection of fans to communicate her approval and influence those around her.  Johanna Gray is one of her protégé’s, a young woman who has made her way to Stockholm to seek her fortune and who has extensive knowledge of potions.  There are the fan creators, newly arrived from France, and the man who is the only one the nobility trusts to create their invitations and other printed material.  There are various nobles, some of whom are firmly under the Uzanne’s influence, and others who oppose her.  Which side will win the battle to determine the fate of Stockholm’s government and place in the world going forward?   

Karen Engelmann has created an entrancing collection of characters and a story that will capture the reader.  There are alliances and betrayals, plots and counterplots, gambling, fights for social position, and maneuvering for rewards that would rival any moves made on a battlefield.  The plot is delightfully complex, and the resolution is a satisfying ending that ties together all the disparate threads.  The history behind the Octavo is fascinating, and the slice of life that was Stockholm at this critical time is well-researched and portrayed.  This book is recommended for readers of historical or literary fiction. 

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Restrike by Reba White Williams

Cousins Coleman and Dinah Greene came to New York to take the city's art world by storm after their college educations.  Coleman bought an art magazine, ArtSmart, that quickly became known as the place for witty relevant articles about all that was happening in the art world.  Dinah opened a gallery after her marriage to Jonathan, specializing in art prints.  Things seem to be going well.

But trouble has a way of entering paradise.  Coleman's magazine is being targeted by a California upstart that somehow seems to find out all her article ideas and get them to print before she can.  She must have a spy, as unseemly as it is to suspect the staff that helped her build the magazine.  Dinah's galley is in financial trouble, a victim of a poor location and customers who are scarce on the ground. 

Things are also brewing in the art world.  A reclusive billionaire, Heyward Bain, has come to town to start a print museum.  Both Coleman and Dinah get involved with him due to their careers.  It becomes evident that the man Heyward hired to bid on exclusive prints for him, is cheating him as the prints he uncovers turn out to be stolen.  An art dealer no one has heard of is murdered, and then one of Coleman's editors is also killed.  Soon Coleman and Dinah seem to be targeted as well, and it's unclear if their sleuthing is the reason.  Can they uncover the mysteries before they are brought down?

This is the first Coleman and Dinah Greene mystery, and Reba White Williams has created a delightful pair of detectives.  Full of Southern charm, gutsy and resourceful with tons of contacts, this pair can uncover crimes that the police don't have the resources to understand.  The differing lifestyle choices of the cousins and their strong relationship make this book a jewel to read.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The Thief lives his life on the outskirts of society.  Living in a small room in Tokyo, he has no family.  He steals what he needs, robbing the rich men and women around him, sometimes for profit but more often just to prove that he can.  The Thief loves no one and no one loves him.

But that state of affairs changes when he sees a young boy and his mother in a supermarket shoplifting food.  They are clumsy and about to get caught so he takes them under his wing.  He becomes attached to the boy who looks up to this man who is the only one to show him any care. 

A former acquaintance comes back into the Thief's life, and talks him into working with him on a simple robbery for a mob boss, Kizaki.  Kizaki needs some loners to fill out his crew for this robbery and offers a fortune for their help.  The robbery is successful, but The Thief is now under the control of Kizaki.  Will this lead to his downfall?

Readers will be compelled to read and finish the story of The Thief.  It is bleak in a way that seems to echo the underside of Japanese society, and in a way that American mysteries rarely exhibit.  The reader emphasizes with The Thief, although he lives an amoral life.  This book has received many awards.  It as one of the Amazon Best Books Of The Month in March 2012.  It was a Wall Street Journal Best Mystery of 2012, and won the prestigious Oe Prize for literature in Japan.  This book is recommended for mystery and suspense readers.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Altarpiece by Sarah Kennedy

The year is 1535, and King Henry's martial issues and his defiance of the Pope and Catholic Church is having far-reaching consequences for his people.  As he sets himself up to be the religious power, he decides to break the settings of the Catholic Church and orders the nunneries and monasteries to be closed; their inhabitants required to renounce the vows they made before God to now shift their allegiance to the King.

The Altarpiece tells the story of one such convent.  The nuns are faced with soldiers in their holy house.  All the treasures that were used to honor God in their ceremonies are now forfeit, either going to the Court or to the local landowner who will receive the land.  Most of the nuns are frightened enough to take the renunciation oath and be turned out to find work as servants or even to marry if a man will have them.  Others take to the roads, begging for their food.  Four nuns refuse the oath and attempt to salvage part of the treasures given to them to watch over. 

Tensions grow higher as the soldiers demand the nuns comply.  The village folk, who revered the nuns, now curse them and accuse them of witchcraft, blaming them for bringing the soldiers to their village.  An epidemic of smallpox erupts, killing some and laying others low.  The nuns are the ones with medical knowledge, especially the young nun Catherine.  While asking for her services, the locals and the law also accuse her of using witchcraft to heal.  Then several individuals die of what looks like poison.  How will this all be resolved?

Sarah Kennedy has written a well-researched history of this turbulent time when vows were broken and allies became enemies overnight.  The reader is taken to a time when nothing is sure and anyone or anything could mean death and destruction.  This book is recommended for historical fiction readers.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

Vampires In The Lemon Grove is a collection of eight stories by Karen Russell, whose novel Swamplandia was a major literary event, nominated for the Orange Prize and selected as a New York Times Best Book of the year as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

The book's title is also the title of the first story in the volume, a tale of two vampires who have loved each other for decades and who now reside in a lemon grove as their love dissolves.  In "The New Veterans", a massage therapist has a soldier back from the Iraqi War as her client, and his experiences there seem to transfer to her through her contact with his skin.  In "The Graveless Doll Of Eric Mutis" a group of young teen boys discover a scarecrow created to look like the boy they spent a year bullying, and they relieve the experience and wonder if retribution is about to find them.  "Reeling For The Empire" tells the story of a group of young women torn from their homes and forced to spend their lives creating silken thread the empire can sell. 

The other stories in the collection share the same characteristics as those above.  They all show the creative imagination that Karen Russell is known for.  Readers either love or dislike her writing intensely; there is no middle ground.  The world she creates is one just below the surface where things are not as they appear, and fantastical images and events are commonplace.  The reader is drawn into her imagined worlds and emerges from them knowing that what they have experienced is different from what is experienced from reading most literature.  An excellent anthology from one of the best of the young American writers, 'Vampires In The Lemon Grove' will prove an unforgettable experience.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Golem And The Jinni by Helene Wecker

A golem is a creature of Jewish folklore, an inanimate being made of clay who is created and brought to life to serve a master and have no desires or thoughts of its own.  A jinni is another spelling for the more common word genie, as in a genie in a bottle; a magical being who can sometimes be trapped to serve another's desires.  Helene Wecker has employed these two fabled creatures to create a magical novel that will enchant readers.

The golem is created in Poland in 1899.  The young man who comes to the rabbi who knows the incantations to create such a being is about to emigrate to New York.  He wants a wife to accompany him and is not the kind of man who can attract one.  The rabbi creates the golem and tells the man how to activate it, and how to destroy it if necessary.  For if a golem has reason to become violent, it is almost impossible to stop it and it becomes necessary to destroy it.  The man activates the golem, then doesn't survive the trip.  The Golem is set adrift in New York, a new being who must make her way as well as learn the ways of humans and hide her nature.

The jinni has lived for hundreds of years in the desert.  He is lured by boredom to get involved in the lives of the humans who share the desert with him, and his involvement leads to his captivity at the hands of a wizard.  He is entombed in a brass vase which ends up buried in the desert.  It is found and becomes a kitchen utensil, used and passed down in a family until it makes its way to New York City also.  When it needs repair, the owner takes it to the local metalworker. In the process of repairing it, the jinni is released.  A master metal worker, the jinni starts a life as apprentice/partner to the man who released him.

Two magical creatures, both in New York, both desperate to hide their different natures from those who surround them.  Unlikely as it seems, they meet and begin a friendship of sorts.  What follows is sheer magic and readers will not soon forget their story. 

This is a debut novel, and readers will be anxious to read Wecker's next work, to see if she can possibly create another work that is as wonderful as this one.  It is imaginative, creative, and the reader will not be able to pull away from this world she has created.  This book is recommended for fantasy readers and for anyone ready to believe there is more in this world than the prosaic humdrum that makes up most of our lives. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Blood Moon by Teri Harman

Willa has always felt different.  As long as she can remember, she can sense and even speak to the ghosts she feels all around her, and as long as she can remember, she has had to hide that part of herself.  Simon has also always felt different, his ability to read minds and heal injuries a secret he kept in order not to be shunned by others who just wouldn't understand.

When Willa and Simon meet, it is like a homecoming, the sudden sense of belonging with each other.  As they become closer, they slowly reveal their secrets to each other and find that it is one more thing they can share.  The stakes become higher when Willa senses that someone is being held in captivity.  She sees a slender woman, chained to a basement wall who is being slowly tortured.  Against all odds, she discovers the location and she and Simon manage to free the woman.  That's when their world collapses, what they called normal never to return.

For Simon and Willa are witches, as is the woman they rescued.  The Blood Moon is coming soon, the only chance for a witches covenant to be formed.  The Dark Witches and the Light Witches are vying to see who can collect the requisite number of members to form the covenant, and both sides want Willa and Simon to join them.  They will have to make a decision which side they will fight on and their decision will impact their survival.

Teri Harman has written an engaging first novel in what will be called The Moonlight Trilogy.  YA readers will relate to the young protagonists and paranormal readers will be interested in the storyline that pits Good against Evil.  This book is recommended for those two categories of readers.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

Claire Roth has a decision to make.  While she was in graduate school, she became embroiled in a scandal over whether she or her professor/lover had painted a picture considered his greatest success.  As a result, she has been shunned for several years.  Her work gets no consideration from the critics and she has resorted to making high-end copies of famous art for a reproduction company so that she can pay the bills and continue to paint her own pictures.

But things might change now.  The owner of a successful galley has come to Claire with a proposition.  Twenty-five years ago one of the most famous art thefts in the country occurred in Boston at the Gardner museum where pictures of unimaginable value were stolen, never to be seen again.  It is the biggest mystery in the art world.  Aiden Markel, the galley owner, comes to Claire and asks if she would be willing to make a copy of Degas' After The Bath.  He claims to have the original that was stolen and wants Claire to make a copy that he can sell while keeping his copy.  Along with the money, there is the promise of her own show at the galley, a way she can redeem herself.

The Art Forger tells the story of what occurs once Claire agrees to the deception.  There are layers upon layers of misdirection and lies, of loyalties betrayed and truths uncovered.  The reader is caught up in the story and eager to turn each page to determine the truth of what happened twenty-five years ago and what will happen now with Claire and her career.

B.A. Shapiro has written an engaging, well-researched novel of the art world and its players.  Readers learn about famous paintings, famous collectors, famous artists and famous forgers.  The craft of making a forgery that can pass testing is explained in intricate detail.  Along with the knowledge, the story is compelling; a race to see whose version of the truth will be the winner.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction, for mystery lovers and for art lovers. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Guest Post by R.T. Kaelin

I asked R.T. Kaelin, the author of Progeny and Prophecy, as well as short stories about his imagined world, to write a guest blog this week and he was gracious enough to agree.  His topic?

Hiking through the Wilderness 

“I don’t know.”

That’s my response whenever I get one of two what has come to be frequent questions:
1.       Where do you get your ideas?
2.       How do you come up with all this?

It all sort of…just…happens. The ideas come whenever they feel like it. When I’m driving, standing in the grocery store line, lying in bed before I go to sleep, in the midst of writing guest blog—hold on, I’ll be right back…
Hey. Now, where were we?

Ah, that’s right. I don’t know my ideas’ origins. I’m just glad they come. What I can (semi) intelligently speak to is how I take those ideas and process them into stories.

In my view, there are two vastly different ways to approach writing. You can do extensive research, outlining of scenes, setting descriptions, character profiles, etc. before ever writing word one of the manuscript. I call this sort writer (rather unoriginally) “The Planner.” 

Imagine you’re hiking down some beautiful mountain trail, on your way to have lunch at some outcrop with a majestic vista. Planners are the sort with map clasped tightly in hand who, when they spot something interesting off the trail, ignore it and keep going on the path. They’ll reach their destination long before the other hikers, but they might have missed something truly spectacular in the process.  

The polar opposite of The Planner is a writer who sits down at the keyboard with a (hopefully) general idea about what they will be writing and…off they go! Thinking ahead? Bah. Waste of time. This type of writer I have dubbed (slightly more originally) “The Pantser.” As in flying by the seat of their pants. 
Imagine you’re back on that mountain trail. Smell the pine trees?  

A Pantser is the sort who you’d find meandering about the wilderness, forging a trail as they go. They risk never getting to that vista, they more than likely will need to backtrack numerous times because they’re quite lost, but their journey is full of surprises. Some may be wonderful (Hey, look!! Sasquatch!) some may be utterly mundane and uninteresting (hey, look…a rock).  

When I started writing, I was mostly a Pantser with a rough map scrawled out on the back of a napkin. In the case of Progeny (and the series), I knew where I was starting and where I would end. The rest? Well, it sort of just happened. Still is happening. I’m editing the third in the series now. 

An example of those happy surprises that come from pantsing (look, it’s a verb, too):  

Nundle Babblebrook, many people’s favorite character and rather important part of the series, was an accident. I started writing a chapter from the point of view of what I thought was going to be a throwaway character, only I liked writing him so much that I completely rearranged things to incorporate him. Had I been a Planner at that point, poor Nundle might not have made it. 

Now, as time has gone on, I’ve found myself slowly migrating along the spectrum toward being a Planner. While pantsing it can result in a more organic, natural story, the process to get there is a lot—a lot—of work. A lot of edits. A lot of rewrites. A lot of time. The adage about not wanting to see how the sausage is made? It applies to books that have been pantsed, too.  

Just how far have I evolved? A while back, I had an idea for a new novel (and no, I don’t know from where the idea came). As of this moment, I have 17k words of notes, 48 chapters descriptions, 14 character synopses, 20 settings, etc. Seems like I’m a total Planner, right?  

Well, I can guarantee the moment I see a shiny object flashing off the hiking trail, I’ll be crashing through the underbrush to investigate. Like most things in life, the best approach rarely exists at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. 

Good days ahead. 


Monday, June 10, 2013

Special Event at Booksie's Blog!

I'm excited to announce a special event this month at Booksie's Blog.  R.T. Kaelin, the author of 2011's Booksie's Best Book of the year, Progeny, will be writing a guest post this month.  In order to give relevance, I'm rerunning the review of Progeny.  After his post, later this month, I'll review his second book in the series, Prophecy.  Haven't read his books yet?  Why not resolve to correct that this month and discover a great fantasy series and author.  Thanks, R.T.! 

With no more delay, here is the review of Progeny:

  Rarely, readers are honored to discover a book that is so entrancing, so fascinating, that they are carried away to another land.  Progeny is such a book, and those who read it will be changed by the experience.

Nikalys and his sister, Kenders leave their small farm to go swimming for the afternoon.  Little do they know their trip will change their lives forever.  Returning after their swim, they are horrified to observe a saeljul using magic to destroy their village and everyone they have known, including their parents and brother, Jak.  They flee, unsure what to do or why their village has been targeted.

Fearful, they are unwilling to trust anyone, but find themselves in the company of a giant man who somehow wins their trust.  This man, Broedi, reveals much to them as they travel.  He reminds them of the story underlying their society, that of the White Lions who came together to save humanity when the God of Chaos decided to destroy the world.  The ancient stories that tell of the White Lions also foretell of new heroes that will emerge when the world needs them--the Progeny.  Nikalys and Kenders are shocked to find that Broedi is one of the White Lions and a Shapeshifter, but totally disoriented when they come to realise that they are the Progeny of the legends.

For Chaos is again making an attempt to destroy all that is known.  As they determine to fight the forces of evil, their group is joined by others.  Wonderfully, they discover that Jak has somehow escaped the carnage that destroyed the village and is able to join them.  A tomble with magic powers becomes one of the band.  A company of soldiers that is sent by the saeljul to find and destroy them instead become part of the group.  They save a family out on the remote plains, and the surviving members of that family also start to travel with them.  Together, this small band must attempt to fight the overwhelming forces of evil that are determined to destroy everything they hold dear.

Robert Jordan.  George R. R. Martin.  Stephen Donaldson.  Brandon Sanderson.  These are the masters of fantasy and readers of Progeny will be able to discover a new voice that is destined to match those authors.  R.T. Kaelin has created a complex world that his original and creative storytelling manages to make realistic and believable.  The characters are fresh and engaging.  While the story of good versus evil and a band who comes together to fight overwhelming odds is a staple of the fantasy genre, Kaelin manages to make it seem new again.  He draws the reader along marveling at the story that unfolds and willing to go wherever he leads.  The book is very highly recommended for all readers, and especially for fantasy fans.  When the last page is read, readers are left satisfied, fulfilled and impatient for the next book in the series.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Cold Killing by Luke Delaney

Inspector Sean Corrigan is disturbed when he goes to the scene of the latest murder.  A young man whose life has been brutally ended, one of the victims Sean must encounter in his work.  But this murder is different.  The victim has been stabbed multiple times, but not in a frenzy as is often seen.  This stabbing was methodical and calculated.  The killer also left no forensic evidence behind, indicating that he planned everything.  He is what is dreaded most, a cold killer.

Sean is effective at his job since he has the ability to get inside the heads of those he hunts.  He recognizes this is a master killer, devious, organized and one who won't stop.  Soon the police uncover a suspect, and the game begins in full force.  The suspect is wealthy, successful and utterly devoid of conscience.  Even as the net starts to close on him, he plays the game showing contempt for the police, even committing new crimes.  The reader is taken inside the police investigation and the tension mounts with each incident in this cat and mouse game.  Can the police stop the killer before more people are killed?

Luke Delaney has written a chilling psychological mystery that readers will not soon forget.  A former Murder Squad detective himself, the author has the ability to transport the reader inside the police investigation to understand the process and the emotions in this deadly profession.  Effective use of the murderer's point of view is interspersed with the clues and steps in the investigation.  The tension mounts to a stunning climax which the reader won't see coming.  This is Delaney's (a pseudonym) debut novel but crime fiction has a new star.  This book is recommended for mystery readers and a second book can't come too soon.  This is an excellent example of the mystery genre.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Girl Who Married An Eagle by Tamar Myers

Julia Newton realizes she may have made a big mistake.  An Ohio native and a recent college graduate, she can't imagine anything more exciting and satisfying than serving as a missionary in the Belgian Congo.  She goes there to serve in a school set up to protect young girl brides sold to older men who have run away from their fate.

But Africa isn't anything like what Julia expected.  The natives don't seem particularly grateful; instead they are quick to let her know that the white man is ugly and has stupid customs.  The mission nurse who should have been her friend seems to hate her.  The other missionary is much too good looking for a man she'll be seeing every day; a recent widower that she can't help thinking about.  He has a precocious daughter who looks at the world with a mixture of intelligence bordering on genius and the naivete of a child. 

Buakane is one of the girls the mission is set up to help.  Her name meant perfect and her beauty from birth was just that, perfect in every way.  Buakane captures the attention of the biggest chief of her people, Chief Eagle.  Eagle decides that he must have the beauty of Buakane and that she will become one of his many wives.  Buakane is scared, as she regards Eagle as an old man and even worse, when he dies all his wives will be buried alive to accompany him to the afterlife.  She runs away during the wedding ceremony and ends up at the mission.

Soon there is strife between the missionaries and the natives.  Can the missionaries protect Buakane, or will the tug of war between the two groups set the region ablaze?

Tamar Myers, who grew up in the Congo, has written an engaging mystery that will please mystery readers.  The characters are believable yet humorous, and the conflict is set up realistically.  The denouement is satisfying and rings true.  This book is recommended for mystery readers who like their mysteries light and satisfying in their depiction of other cultures.

In A Dark House by Deborah Crombie

In this novel in Deborah Crombie's excellent police investigation series, Duncan Kincaid has been called to the scene of a murder.  A woman's body has been found in a warehouse that burned the night before.  It is unclear if the murder was the reason the fire was set, or if it was a coincidence.  It also is unclear who the victim was.  There are several women missing, and any of them could fit the forensic description of the victim.

The warehouse's closest neighbor was a woman's shelter for victims of domestic abuse.  Was the victim Laura, who was on the shelter's board of directors?  She is missing, along with her ten year old daughter.  Did someone kill her and take her daughter, as her ex-husband believes, or did Laura decide to take her daughter and move to keep her from her father?  The daughter of the warehouse owner is missing, and a street camera shows her in the vicinity shortly before the fire.  Is she the victim?  A local woman who is sick and has a roommate to help out during her recuperation reports that the roommate is missing.  As the investigation into her disappearance evolves, it turns out that she wasn't what she proclaimed she was, having multiple identities and life stories depending on her audience.   Could that be the victim?

Then there are the fires.  Does this section of London have an arsonist at work?  If so, none of the usual clues to an arsonist seem to exist, such as multiple points of origin.  But as the fire investigators work, they start to see a cunning mind behind a series of recent fires that point to a very careful setting of fires, perhaps designed to prove the arsonist is better than the fire service and police can be. 

As Duncan works through the case, his former work partner, now domestic partner, Gemma James, gets involved.  When they became a family, Duncan and Gemma split into different teams, but their cases often require coordination between them.  In the meantime, life goes on with it's own issues.  Duncan and Gemma are facing a court case where their oldest son's grandparents are suing for custody.  Will they be able to convince a judge that their family, composed of children each of them brought to the partnership, is able to care for the children, or will the judge decide that their careers make them unfit to give the children enough care and attention? 

This is the tenth book in Crombie's Kincaid/James series.  It is satisfyingly complex, while showing the inside of a police investigation.  But Crombie's real strength is the human side of police work, showing how the crimes they investigate affect family's lives and how the policeman's own life can impact the work, or how the work can impact their lives.  This book is recommended for mystery lovers.