Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Forest of the Night by David Stuart Davies

A fan of the PBS series, Foyle's War, I grabbed my copy of David Stuart Davies' Forest of the Night, the first installment in a new series set in WWII London, featuring private detective Johnny Hawke, with high hopes. Were my expectations met? Yes, and no -- and I'm not being purposefully coy here. The mystery subplot made for a very absorbing and intriguing; however, the history bits -- period detail, atmosphere, etc. were a bit paper thin, and the language seemed a bit heavy and clunky at times. All in all, though, I was happy with Forests of the Night.

When a jammed rifle causes ex-police constable Johnny Hawke to loose an eye and ends his grandiose plans of performing feats of glory for King and country, Johnny decides to use his detecting skills and become a private detective instead. Things start off slowly at first, that is until a rather dreary middle class couple, Mr. and Mrs. Palfrey hire Johnny to find their missing daughter. Plain and frumpish Pamela, who seemed to spend a lot of time daydreaming about film stars, had left home to move in with a girl friend, but now, Pamela seems to have disappeared. No one at her place of work seems to know where she has vanished to, and the girl that Pamela claimed she would be rooming with seems not to exist at all. Johnny starts his investigation immediately, and one of the first things he discovers is that Pamela was leading quite the double life -- remaining quiet and plain and frumpish for her parents, while blossoming into quite the glamour girl while at work. It is little wonder that Pamela decided to move out and leave no trace for her parents to track her down. Johnny thinks he knows what this case is all about, that is until this missing persons case suddenly becomes a case of murder and the list of suspects includes a well known film star. And even though the police have made a quick arrest, Johnny is quite sure that they have arrested the wrong person, and is determined to use all his detecting skills and ingenuity to nab the real killer...

Forests of the Night was a fairly quick and easy read. The plot wasn't too complicated and there were really very few plot twists, even though there were quite a few red herring suspects. Personally, I had anticipated a more complex plot and so was a little discombobulated by the straightforwardness of the novel. What I really missed though was the period details and atmosphere. Perhaps this was because I had Foyle's War at the back of my mind. This, of course, was not fair to David Stuart Davies and the book. However, while some of my expectations were unfairly laid on, I have to own that I did find the author's prose style to be heavy and clunky and jarring at times; and this really did not lend itself to very smooth reading. Not a bad read, though, when all is said and done.

The Three Kings of Cologne by Kate Sedley

There are truly very few mystery series where the author is able to delver a solid, well crafted, and absorbing read with every single installment; Kate Sedley is one of those authors. Whenever I settle down with the latest Roger the Chapman installment, I know that I'm about to enjoy a compelling and riveting read, and this was definitely true of The Three Kings of Cologne.

Alderman John Foster (soon to be Mayor of Bristol) has purchased a piece of land from the Magdalen Nunnery with plans to build a new almshouse and chapel dedicated to the Three Kings of Cologne. However the alderman's charitable plans take a setback when a body is unearthed on that very piece of land. It turns out that the remains are those of Isabella Linkinhorne, a beautiful if somewhat wild young lady who mysteriously disappeared about 20 years ago. At the time of her disappearance, everyone, her parents included, believed that Isabella had runaway with one of her suitors. But now it is beginning to look as if she may have been murdered by one of her suitors. Determined that his gift not be tarnished, the alderman hires Roger the Chapman (who is well known for his abilities to solve mysteries and ferret out the truth), to discover who murdered Isabella and to bring the murderer to justice. Always willing to embark on an investigation, Roger takes to his latest task with alacrity. But will he be able to solve a murder so old? All Roger has to go on are rumours and the faded memories of those who knew Isabella. But Roger is determined to do his utmost to solve the murder nevertheless...

The Three Kings of Cologne was a well crafted and engagingly written mystery novel that was intelligent and full of wonderful period colour and details. On top of it all, The Three Kings of Cologne was a real puzzler as well -- the suspense and the mystery were so capably layered on that I had to stay up till the early morning hours in order to finish the book. It was that riveting. Suspenseful and full of intriguing plot twists and turns, The Three Kings of Cologne is one mystery novel that I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looming for a good, absorbing read.

The Memory Game by Nicci French

I'll preface this review by noting that I have enjoyed Nicci French's other novels immensely, and have always considered French's books as auto buys (or auto-borrows) as the case may be. French's novels have always been, in my opinion anyway, well written and quite gripping and suspenseful. Which was why I was dismayed to find myself growing quite bored with The Memory Game very quickly. What was going on here?

While working on an extension to her ex-husband's family home, architect Jane Martello is shocked when the workers unearth human remains in the garden. But her shock soon turns to grief when the realisation hits home that the remains are of her best friend, Natalie Martello, who went missing 25 years ago, and that Natalie was pregnant at the time of her murder. Grief-stricken, Jane decides to channel her energy into discovering who murdered Natalie and why, even going so far as to seek psychiatric help to unlock some long suppressed memories of the fateful day that Natalie went missing...

The main trouble with The Memory Game was that it lacked energy and continuity. This is especially fatal when the storyline is a very familiar and oft used one. The book was simply all over the place -- there were too many subplots and the subplot involving Natalie and her mysterious disappearance sometimes got lost as it jostled for attention with these other subplots. As a result that atmosphere of suspense and tension you would expect of a really good mystery novel was quite absent, in my opinion. Another factor that detracted was that there were (literally) too may characters, and not all of them were really necessary to this novel at all. Obviously, this was French's first novel, and equally obviously, French has gone on to write much, much more exciting and compelling novels. As a fan, I wonder about French's publisher decision to republish this plodding and not very exciting novel

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fatal Cut by Christine Green

This is a very well written mystery novel and makes for very engrossing reading. Christine Greem does a very good job at depicting the various characters and their lives and miseries.

Denise Parks is a throughly unpleasant woman. She doesn't like men much and she definitely doesn't approve of her sister's latest boyfriend, Mike. In fact she seems bent on putting an end to that relationship and airs her disapproval at any given opportunity much to Janine and Mike's frustration and anger. Denise's one joy seem to be going to the salon for a beauty treatment, not only for the care but also because she loves eavesdropping on the gossip. She is then able to drop little barbed statments based on the gossip she has overheard to the person concerned, letting them know that she knows all their little foibles but passing it off as some mysterious power she has, rather than as gossip she overheard. Therefore it is no surprise to many when she is found murdered in the beauty salon. But which one of the staff or clients committed the crime? Definitely everyone has their own little secrets that they are determined to protect much to Chief Inspector Connor O'Neill and Detective Sergeant Fran Wilson's dismay. Connor and Fran find that delving into Denise's life, means stepping into a past that is horrorific and perhaps better left alone. And before this case is over, both Connor and Fran will discover more than they are comfortable with about a woman like Denise Parks...

What really made this novel was all the characters connected with the beauty salon. Christine Green gives us characters that are memorable for their strengths and weaknesses, and actually provides us with some rather nice resolutions for these characters by the novel's end. Quite often minor character/suspects are marginalised in a mystery novel, so it was refreshing to find these characters getting a little more attention than they are usually given.
This was definitely engrossing reading.

Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer

No one can compare to Georgette Heyer. Many try to emulate her style,but practically no one has mastered it. And in spite of her troublesome tendency to marry off naive young girls barely out of the schoolroom to older sophisticated men of the world; and her frequent portrayal of the middle and merchant classes as uncultured, uncouth and grasping, perpetually trying to curry favour with the upper classes; she is still one of my favourite authours.

In Cousin Kate, Heyer abandons somewhat the comedy of manners that she is so well known for and enters the darker realm of the Gothic novel. The heroine of the piece is Kate Malvern, a penniless orphan, who has just lost her latest job as a governess and her home. An aunt that she knows little of offers her a home at Staplewood Manor. Her aunt, Minerva Broome, wants Kate to act as a companion and friend to her young cousin, Torquil, who happens to be a charming and clever young man but who is troubled by frequent mood swings and bouts of depression. All too soon Kate discovers that all is not well at Staplewood Manor. There is an atmosphere of secrecy and deception. And Kate soon finds that she doesn't know whom to trust or what to do.

In Kate Malvern, Heyer has created a witty, courageous and gallant heroine that engages the reader. The avid Georgette Heyer fan may miss the lively light hearted romps she is most famous for, but I can recommend this book as a wonderful read, especially for its gallant heroine.

Illigally Dead by David Wishart

This fast paced and engrossing Marcus Corvinus installment finds Marcus and his wife, Perilla, visiting the small town of Castrimonenium, in order to figure out whether or not a local lawyer was murdered.

When Marcus and Perilla receive a letter from their adopted daughter, Marilla, intimating that a murder may have been committed in the town she's currently residing in, they immediately make for Castrimoneium in order to get more information. It turns out that the lawyer, Lucius Hostillius has succumbed to a heart seizure and has passed away. But Lucius' doctor, Hyperion, is not satisfied and fears that someone may have tampered with the dosage. The trouble is that in accordance of Roman law, if Hyperion voices his suspicions, Lucius' household slaves would be rounded up and tortured in order to prise information from them. And Hyperion would rather not say anything unless the evidence that Lucius had been "helped" to his death is conclusive. And so he asks Marcus Corvinus to look into the matter. But Marcus will have to work on the quiet so as not to arouse the interest of the authorities. Can our intrepid investigator pull this off?

I've been a fan of this series ever since I read Ovid. But I have to admit that fan though I am, I haven't read every single installment in this series. What I have read I have liked immensely; finding the books to be well written, finely paced, taut and full of wonderful historical detail and ambiance. This is all true of Illegally Dead. David Wishart does a first rate job here of executing and fleshing out this tale and of keeping one guessing as to what exactly is going on and who the guilty parties are. All in all this was a very engrossing and absolutely riveting read -- even as I confess that a couple of thing grated: namely that Marcus seemed to jump to some rather premature assumptions about his suspects based solely on his reactions towards them (and had to be talked around to sense by Perilla); and that I found Marcus' 'tough' street voice to be a little incongruous and a little false. Would a patrician have such a narrative voice? I'm going to have to reread Ovid in order to find out.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Other People's Rules by Julia Hamilton

This is a rich, dark novel, brilliantly written by Julia Hamilton, in a style that is reminiscent of Nancy Mitford and L. P. Hartley. Like Mitford, Julia Hamilton presents us with the insular and enclosed lives of the British upper class; all the while dissecting it with flashes of ironic humour -- coming across Margaret Thatcher describes as "Mad Maggie" is something I shall always personally treasure! And like L.P. Hartley, Julia Hamilton presents us with a sympathetic protagonist, Lucy Diamond, whom we first meet as a unsure sixteen year old, the outsider to the magical world of Gatehouse, who seems to absorb the unpleasantness and the secrets that swirl around without actually registering them until too late.

This is not a mystery novel, it is more of a psychological novel. Almost from the very beginning we are told that the murder of Katie Gresham probably did take place on Gatehouse land, the home of Ivar Gatehouse, the Earl Gatehouse. Ivar Gatehouse is one of the rising stars of Margaret Thatcher's government. He is rich, charming and handsome. Unfortunately for Ivar, his family seems to be completely screwed up. Luca Diamond is introduced to the rich, glamorous world of the Gatehouses through Ivar's youngest daughter, Sarah. And in spite of Lucy's mother's reservations, Lucy is completely seduced by that world. And it isn't too long before Lucy is seduced by Ivar as well. And this is where young Katie Gresham enters the novel. Unlike Lucy, Katie is part of Ivar's upper class world; and unlike Sarah and Lucy, Katie is no insecure teenager. Ivar seems to be completely taken with Katie much to Lucy's and Sarah's chagrin. And then after a party one night, Katie disappears. Her body is never found; and when a sociopath who has been kidnapping and torturing young girls to death is caught, Katie's disappearance is tied to him as well. However years later, on his deathbed, he claims innocence over Katie's death. The police reopen the case and this time around the focus is on Ivar and all the unsavory rumours concerning his penchant for teenage girls and his infamous murderous rages. Lucy Diamond, now a successful divorce lawyer is again drawn to the happenings at Gatehouse. But it takes an almost tragedy before Lucy is able to look objectively at what happened all those years ago and break the wall of silence that the Gatehouses and their kind have constructed to keep the outsiders at bay.

This novel is superb on so many levels: the brilliant manner in which the authour has layered all the characters and all the events; the clean lines along which the plot is written -- no extraneous characters or events here; and most of all the portrayal of the deeply troubled and confused protagonist, Lucy Diamond. Another point I appreciated was that Ivar Gatehouse, even by the end of the novel, remains a question mark -- perhaps monsters should remain that way so that the horrors of what they have perpetrated remain in place. One other thing that struck me all over again while reading this novel was how similar the world of the upper class was to that of the village working class -- both are close-knit, insular, deeply suspicious of outsiders, and both are liberally peopled with eccentric characters.

This is not a novel with a deeply intricate plot. Rather, the story is a sadly simple one of what happens when there is a sociopath in your life. It is a rich and dark tale, liberally peopled with memorable characters. Definitely a novel that is worth reading and rereading.

The Monk Who Vanished by Peter Tremayne

The stakes are high indeed in this seventh installment in the Sister Fidelma mystery series, because this time she is fighting to protect her brother's claim to the kingship of Murman.

The Ui Fidgente, a major clan of Murman, have been adversaries of Cashel for a long time, and indeed they have long challenged Cahsel's right to the kingship of Murman, refusing to pay tribute. Now however the current prince of Ui Fidgente, has decided to put all the bad blood between the two clans behind him and to negotiate a treaty of peace with Cashel. To this end, he and his retinue have come to Cashel in a gesture of goodwill in order to hammer out some form of an agreement. However, just as the two princes are about to exchange greetings, an unknown bowman shoots at them, wounding both men. He is later found dead, wearing the emblem of the Golden Chain, which identifies him as a member of Cashel's elite bodyguard. This proves to be a bad sign for Fidelma's brother, for if he is found guilty of the attempt of the prince of Ui Fidengente's life, the kingship of Murman would then be forfeit to the Ui Fidengente! Another bad sign: in the abbey at Imleach, the relics of the holy man Ailbe, has been stolen. Legend has it that if ever the relics were stolen then the kingship of Murman would fall from Cashel and chaos would ensue. It looks as if the two incidents are tied and that Fidelma will have to do some rather nifty detective work to discover who exactly is behind this move to take the throne away from her brother and start a war.

This historical mystery series is a really good one even if Peter Tremayne's writing style is a little to dense and dry. However he has struck gold in his creation of Sister Fidelma. In Fidelma, Tremanyne has created a brilliant and charming heroine, with a thirst to see justice done and set things right. The plot of this mystery novel is intriguing and a little convoluted, full of red herrings and sub-plots that have sometimes very little to do with the actual problem at hand. However the final denouncement where Fidelma finally lays all her cards on the table makes everything worthwhile: the somewhat dry and dense prose, the convoluted plot with all its red herrings, and the somewhat ranting style of communication that nearly everyone save Fidelma and Brother Eadulf seem to employ. A book well worth reading in spite of the few nit-picking problems I had with it.

The Torment of Others by Val McDermid

While not as heart-stoppingly suspenseful as The Mermaid's Singing, this Tony Hill/Carol Jordan mystery novel proved to be a very riveting and compelling read, that will (need I say it?) keep you completely glued to your chair until the very last page.

When a prostitute is found brutal murdered in a manner similar to a previous case from a few years ago also involving murdered prostitutes, DCI Carol Jordan and her team think that they've a copycat on their hands. But this, according to criminal psychologist, Dr. Tony Hill, is not the case. His belief is that the same person who was responsible for those murders, is responsible for this one as well. The problem is that there was irrefutable forensic evidence as well as a confession for that first case, and Derek Tyler is currently serving time in a mental institution for those first murders. Tyler's claim, hitherto dismissed as the fantasies of a deranged mind, was that the "voice" had told him what to do and how to do it. Could his fantastic claims be true? Could there be a sinister, twisted personality out there who derives pleasure and satisfaction from manipulating others to commit, vicious, brutal murders against women? As the body count rises and pressure to make a quick arrest mounts, Carol's newly formed Major Incident Team begins to fall apart as the different personalities clash -- some even begin to question if Carol is up to the job given that she's still feeling raw and vulnerable from having been assaulted a few months ago. Carol must now put her personal qualms aside in order to bring her team together so that they can work as an integrated unit as well as get them to trust her instincts and leadership again. Fortunately, she has Tony Hill backing her up in more ways than one...

Taut and fast paced, The Torment of Others was an incredibly engrossing read that really kept me guessing for quite a while. At some point, a few readers may get an inkling as to what's going on and who the guilty party may be; fortunately, the author took great care to make plausible suspects of a few key characters, so that if you enjoy trying to solve the mystery along with the lead detectives, you're in for a treat. And by filtering in Tony's and Carol's complex and unresolved feelings, Carol's still raw feelings about her rape, and Tony's feelings of guilt, Val McDermid also makes The Torment of Others a much more multifaceted and more textured read. Chilling and horrifying, The Torment of Others definitely is a very well written and clever mystery novel. And while Val McDermid has written more suspenseful thrillers, The Torment of Others rates high as a very satisfying and chilling police procedural. Definitely a "not-to-be-missed" thriller.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Venetia by Georgette Heyer

Venetia has the distinction of being the last Georgette Heyer I read before I had to settle for rereads. And while it is a novel that has all the Heyer trademarks of quality -- a good story, memorable and well developed characters, and a truly sparkling and witty prose style -- it is also somewhat different from most of her other novels, in that, as another reviewer on (bookjunkiereviews) has put it, in that the novel's heroine, Venetia Lanyon, has a rather realistic yet sunny approach to life.

The storyline for Venetia is simplicity itself: the very beautiful, intelligent and sunny natured Venetia Lanyon had long resigned to herself to spinsterhood -- afterall here she was, at the ripe age of twenty-five, living in the country, running her brother Conway's estate, while he was off playing at being a soldier, keeping house for her sickly but brilliant younger brother, Aubrey, and with two improbable country swains as suitors. Enter the roguish Lord Dameral: neighbour of the Lanyons, this rakish and jaded aristocrat is surely the very last person anyone would expect sheltered and virtuous Venetia to become good friends with. But this is exactly what happens much to the consternation of those who love Venetia...

This is a very "grown-up" kind of novel, about the relationship between two adults of very different upbringings and two very different temperaments, from friendship and a sincere admiration to something more (in fact as several other reviewers have already mentioned, the attraction between Venetia and Demeral fairly sizzles and yet there is not one sexually explicit scene! goodness!!). Georgette Heyer does a fantastic job of charting this blossoming relationship from its incipience to the painful parting to the satisfying and triumphant end. And while I'm ashamed to own that I didn't enjoy this charming novel as it so fully deserved all those years ago, I'm happy to relate that I have enjoyed Venetia, more and more with each subsequent read, ever since. I've read a great many romance novels, but I don't think that I've ever read anything quite so romantically satisfying as Venetia.

Mosaic Crimes by Guilio Leoni

I don't know if it was because I read the translated edition of this novel, or if the author and his publishers have a very different idea of what a mystery novel entails, but this was, probably one of the most painful reads I've ever had to do. And no one forced me to read on either! Sheer stubbornness made me read on the bitter end -- I just had to discover if things got any better. Unfortunately, it never did.

In the summer of 1300, the city of Florence is tense with fear that the Guelphs and the Ghibellines are about to clash again in another titanic struggle for power. In the midst of this, Dante Aligieri, poet, scholar and newly appointed prior of Florence, finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation. The body of a master mosaicist is found, his head covered in quicklime, next to a mosaic he was working on in a church that is being restored. And when Dante discovers that the dead mosaicist, Ambrogio, was part of a secret group of scholars who had all come to Florence to set up a university, and that their funding seemed to be coming from Rome, a suspicious Dante wonders if this group of scholars are in actuality secret spies for Pope Boniface, and if the Pope has sinister plans to control Florence through this college. Why then was Ambrogio murdered? Was there a falling out amongst the scholars that led to this murder? And does this murder affect the future of Florence at all? Determined to solve this murder, Dante begins the business of prying and probing into the affairs of these foreign scholars, in spite of the many apparent dangers that lie before him...

Personally, I didn't find Mosaic Crimes to be a very engaging book. Perhaps this was because I was reading a translated edition, and things were not as they would have been in the original. The version I read seemed a bit flaccid and sterile -- the plot meandered all over the place between subplots that dealt with the horrific murders and the threat of fresh hostilities between the Guelphs and the Ghibbetines. Also, for a novel where so much was going on, and where there was a plethora of suspects and action, Mosaic Crimes was just not very suspenseful. Again, this may have had something to do with the prose style. And there was the subplot involving the heirs to the Swabian throne-- a little more background as to how the throne was lost and why the Vatican was hunting down the remaining heir would have been nice. As it was, I spent a lot of time trying to infer things before I broke down and consulted my bookshelf. However, the biggest problem I had with the book was the author's decision to choose Dante of all people as his chief protagonist. Especially since he'd decided to portray Dante as realistically as possible, warts and all. Dante, in this novel, is an arrogant, small minded, peevish, short tempered and paranoid character, with few redeeming traits and who was just plain unlikable. It is truly difficult to loose yourself in a book when you find the main protagonist to be so annoying that you start rooting for the murderer(s) to get the better of Dante!! However, for me, the most disturbing thing of all was the language used to characterise and deride practically the only female character in the novel, Antilia. A tavern dancer of bewitching beauty and mystery, Antilia both tantalises and repels Dante. So much so that he keeps referring to her in very derogatory terms. Whether or not you decide that this character deserves the "accolades" Dante heaps on her, I can tell you that as a woman, I was quite discomforted by the savagery of language used here. The history bits are good, as is the period detail and the vividly colourful descriptions of scenes. But the storyline took too long to unfold and the sudden dipping into philosophy was too distracting at times. All in all, Mosaic Crimes was a very disappointing read indeed.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Gone to Ground by John Harvey

Loath though I am to say it I have to say that I wasn't very impressed with Gone to Ground. True, the prose style is exquisite, but I didn't think that the mystery at hand was very suspenseful at all, and found the two police detectives to be rather bland characters. What really saved the book for me was the subplot involving the murder victim's reporter sister -- that subplot was well developed and rather interesting, and gave Gone to Ground the energy the book truly needed.

At first glance, the brutal murder of Stephen Bryan looks like a robbery gone very wrong, but as Det. Insp. Will Grayson and Det. Sgt. Helen Walker take in the scene of the crime, they begin to wonder if it might have been a case of murder masked to look like something else. Both detectives have a suspect in mind, but trying to pin this suspect down is proving a lot more difficult than expected. And then Stephen's sister, Lesley, discovers that a manuscript that Stephen was working on, about the life of a 1950s film star, has gone missing, and that the film star's family was less than thrilled about Stephen's interest. Have Grayson and Walker been concentrating on the wrong suspect?

Part of the problem with Gone to Ground was that I didn't find either Grayson and Walker to be very engaging characters, and you really need for the chief protagonists to be charismatic enough to carry the story. And then there were the bits of the book having to do with Grayson's family problems and Walker's personal life -- they weren't very interesting either. The other thing I found disconcerting about Gone to Ground was the plodding pacing of the book -- I didn't find the book to be very suspenseful or riveting, a reaction I was not expecting given how absorbing and compelling I've found Harvey's Frank Elder and his Charlie Resnick books to be. The subplot that saved this book for me was the one dealing with Lesley's investigation into what Stephen was researching. Not only was the subplot a very intriguing one, but Lesley as a character was a very compelling and engaging one as well, giving the book the kind of zip and energy is seemed to be lacking. And that, together with John Harvey's exquisite prose is what saved Gone to Ground for me.

The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

It's been brought to my attention (thanks K. Gilligan & Natalie S.) that my book review that I posted on for The Other Boleyn Girl has been plargairsed. You can read it on Needless to say I am not Edson Financial Group! The whole thing is baffling and a little sad -- who would want to pass on someone else's book review of all things as they're own? I mean, it's a book review for goodness sake! Obviously, I'm misssing something here. And while it can be construed as flattering that someone would choose to pass off my work as their own, I'd advise future plagarists to change a few words here and there, a few sentences or two, some phrases -- anything that doesn't scream theft!

I've posted the notorious review in question for others to read. And as you will see, it's a competent review, nothing incredibly wonderful or special about it, which really makes the whole plargarism thing really, really sad.

I had more or less given up reading historical novels when I ran out of books by Jean Plaidy to read. For me, she was one of the truly rare authours (saving Sharon Kay Penman of course) who got the feel, tone and character of her subject matter right. So that I had more or less stopped looking out for new books in this genre to read. And then I saw The Other Boleyn Girl at my local bookstore, and after sampling the first chapter, I realized that I had to buy this book. And I'm awfully glad that I did. What a simply wonderful read!! Phillipa Gregory did a really splendid job of evoking the splendor and turbulence of Henry VIII's court. I also thought that her choice of narrator, Mary Boleyn (the elder of the Boleyn sisters) was an inspired as well. Most historians (and perhaps I've only read the those that espoused this majority view) tend to dismiss Mary as an empty headed good time girl because she was used and cast aside with very little ceremony; and because she never rose as high as her sister, Anne. But you have to wonder: Mary was also the only Boleyn sibling to survive the vicissitudes of Henry VIII's reign, and the fall of the Howard-Boleyn fortunes; she also managed to marry for love (and a happy and lasting marriage it proved to be too) the second time around. So perhaps there was a lot more to the other Boleyn girl than everyone credits?

Gregory's novel opens and closes with two executions -- it begins with the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, and ends with the execution of Anne Boleyn in 1536. With this rather grim events framing her book, the novel proper starts in 1522, with Anne arrival at the Tudor court, where her elder sister, Mary, is already lady-in-waiting to Henry's wife, Queen Katherine. From the very beginning we see that while there is a bond that ties the Boleyn sisters together, there is also a deep rooted rivalry between them. It is a tense time at court: the queen (already quite a few years older than her husband) has yet to produce a male heir to the throne, and people are beginning to question if the aging queen will ever be able to bear children again. Some of Henry's advisers are even began to gently hint that he should put his Spanish wife aside and look for a younger more fecund wife. In the midst of all this intrigue, Mary soon catches the king's roving eye. Although she is married and still quite loyal to the queen, her family (her ruthless parents as well as her uncle, the powerful and equally ruthless Duke of Howard) decrees that she put her marriage and loyalties aside and cater to the whims of her king. Bedazzled, it doesn't take Mary very long to fall in love with both her golden king and her role as the his 'unofficial' wife. A few years and two royal by-blows later however, Mary is shunted aside when the king begins to loose interest in their relationship and her ambitious family fearful that they will lose all the power that they have gained, throws the more ruthless and seductive sister, Anne at the king's head. From then on Mary, her eyes finally wide open as to how low her family will stoop in order to gain power, watches from the sidelines as her family, led by Anne, begins their high stakes play for the queen's crown. Finally realizing that she can only depend on herself for her own future, Mary is inspired to take a few risks herself in order to gain some measure of happiness and security.

The sheer scope of this novel is gigantic -- there were so many things that were going on both on and off stage and the number of people that were involved in all these shenanigans! So that it was a treat to find that the novel unfolded smoothly and effortlessly, and that Gregory did not drop the ball once. She kept each chapter short and succinct, and yet still managed to give the reader an enthralling and exciting account of what was going on. I also liked the manner in which she depicted all the characters in this novel. From Queen Katherine who was portrayed not only as a loyal and loving wife, but also as an intelligent woman who saw and understood what was going on around her, even as she clung to the hope that the king would recover from his obsession with Anne; to the authour's chilling portrayal of the Boleyn family (father, mother, Anne and George). With a few well chosen words and phrases, she's paints them as wildly ambitious, ruthless and pettily cruel individuals, willing to use each other in order to achieve a particular goal. But the authour's characterization of Mary Boleyn was probably the best thing in the novel. Here we see a young and intelligent woman with a heart and a sense of morality that is constantly at war with her feeling of familial obligations. How Mary struggles with this dueling feelings and the decisions she makes -- sometimes good, sometimes bad -- is what makes this novel worth reading.
All in all, I'd say The Other Boleyn Girl is a rich and rewarding read.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Shanghai Tunnel

Perhaps one has to live in Portland, Oregon in order to be able to appreciate Sharan Newman's The Shanghai Tunnel, or perhaps one just has to be discriminating enough to appreciate this slower paced but finely nuanced mystery novel. As you have probably guessed, this is going to be a review in praise of The Shanghai Tunnel.

With her husband's sudden death, Emily Stratton finds herself facing several options: returning to China, where she had spent most of her life, establishing herself in San Francisco as a rich widow, or proceeding to Portland, Oregon, her dead husband's home town, and settling down there with her teenaged son. Having no illusions about the kind of man her husband was and the unscrupulous business practices that he probably participated in, Emily is determined to detach her son and herself from anything illegal and sordid, and the first step is to examine her husband's business papers. To her dismay, her husband's business partners seem reluctant to surrender his papers to her, protesting that she should trust them to have her best interests at heart, and that she wouldn't be able to understand the complexities of the business enterprises anyway. Used to being completely dominated by her husband, Emily is not about to allow her husband's business partners to treat her the same way; and anyway their reluctance to deal with her only confirms her suspicions that there is something untoward about her husband's business dealings. Determined to discover all, Emily presses on and soon finds herself wondering if she has bitten off than she can chew...

Like Sharan Newman's excellent Catherine LeVendeur series, The Shanghai Tunnel is an excellently researched historical novel, full of wonderful and detailed period details and fairly reeking of atmosphere -- I'll confess that The Shanghai Tunnel has inspired me to read up more diligently about Portland's history. But to get back to the somewhat reserved response so far to Sharan Newman's latest novel; it is true the book did unfold a tad slowly, juxtaposing between Emily's investigation into what's going on, and her responses to life without her brutal husband, and her new life in Portland. For readers who prefer more dynamic, forceful heroines, Emily's retiring and reserved ways may frustrate; however, I'd advise everyone to keep an open mind. The Shanghai Tunnel is a very different kind of mystery novel -- the type that almost requires slow and careful reading so that one can not only appreciate the mystery at hand but also slow transformation of Emily Stratton from a downtrodden wife into someone who comes into her own. All in all a very rich and absorbing read.

Heartsick by Chelsea Cain

When I read the rave promos for Heartsick and realised that the book was written by a fellow Portlander, I naturally rushed off and looked for a copy of the book on the shelves. A book set where I live and all about the hunt for a serial killer? I had to read it at once! The very first page was promising and I happily settled down to enjoy the novel. Alas, the book did not live up to it's first page, and I was left feeling completely short-changed.

When another teenage girl turns up missing, Detective Archie Sheridan finds himself once again heading the task force to hunt a serial killer. The last time he had been involved in such a hunt, it had been for the Beauty Killer, Gretchen Lowell, and Sheridan had ended becoming one of Lowell's victims. And even though Sheridan has survived that ordeal and Lowell is currently serving time for her crimes, the experience has left him psychologically scarred, estranged from his family, addicted to painkillers, and, inexplicably, tied emotionally to Lowell. Will things be different this time? Will Sheridan be able to cope with the pressures of supervising the task force? Or will his obsession with Gretchen Lowell take up all his care and attention?

A good thriller needs a few key ingredients: a good and compelling plot, an enigmatic killer that captures the attention even as (s)he repels, and a central character -- usually the detective who is trying to stop the killer before (s)he kills again -- that is charismatic and engaging. Unfortunately, Heartsick lacked all of the above. The central plot -- the hunt for the killer who is kidnapping and murdering these teenage girls, gets lost between the subplots involving Sheridan's obsession with Lowell, and the one involving the other central character, reporter Susan Ward's, search for a good story. It almost felt as if the hunt for the current serial killer was a bit of an afterthought. Also, I didn't really find any of the characters all that engaging or compelling. This second point, I'll concede as a matter of personal taste and that other readers may not have the same reservations as I had. Most damning of all, thought, was that I didn't find Heartsick to be a very suspenseful read. I actually read the book over three days, and I don't usually take so long to read thrillers! There just was no tension, no "the-edge-of-your-seat" feeling. And what is a thriller without a few chills?

The Chapel of Bones by Michael Jecks

While this latest West Country mystery featuring Keeper of the King's Peace, Sir Baldwin Furnshill, and his good friend and fellow crime solver, Bailiff Simon Puttock, may not be as suspenseful or as edgy as previous West Country installments, it still did make for a rather engrossing and compelling read. One piece of advice though: read author Michael Jecks' note at the very beginning of the book carefully because the murder of Chaunter Walter de Lecchelade at Exeter Cathedral in 1283 lies at the center of The Chapel of Bones, and would help many readers understand better what's going on in the earlier chapters.

In 1283, the Chaunter of Exeter Cathedral, Walter de Leccehlade is brutally murdered, along with the churchmen loyal to him, by churchmen who opposed him and by certain townsmen who felt hostile towards him. Some of the churchmen involved in the murder were punished, while others kept quiet and melted into the background. The townsmen involved were never betrayed by their ecclesiastical accomplices, and so they too blended back into the background, even though the then mayor of Exeter was hanged by Edward I as punishment for their crime. And for the next forty years, everyone went on with their lives and tried hard to forget that fateful and awful night. But now, in 1323, as the cathedral is being rebuilt, and three men who had left Exeter after the dreadful events of 1283 are back again in the city of their childhood. One of the men is the mason, Thomas, who had fled Exeter in guilt over his part in the murder; the other man is Friar Nicholas, who had left after being so grievously injured during the attack; while the third man is the priory's new corrodian, William, who left Exeter to serve Edward I. Many of the townsmen who had taken part in the murder and who had never left are not happy to see these men back again. And when one of the townsmen, the wealthy saddler Henry Potell, is slain on Cathedral grounds, both Sir Baldwin and Simon (summoned to help discover the murderer) naturally begin to wonder if Potell's murder is linked to the events of 1283, or if Potell, who seems to have been in the middle of two disputes with a rich German client and with his old friend, joiner Joel Lytell, was murdered over something else. But when another man who was involved in the 1283 killing is also found murdered, Sir Baldwin and Simon realise that what their dealing with is someone with a secret to hide and who is willing to kill in order to protect that secret...

Even though the plot was a little straightforward, with very few surprising twists or turns, The Chapel of Bones still made for an enjoyable read. As usual the author has written a book that is rich in ambiance, colour and historical detail. And the character development was brilliantly done as well -- each character, no matter how small was vividly and credibly rendered. I especially liked the manner in which the author showed us how the guilt that many of the characters felt over the wrongs that they had committed, coloured and affected their lives. And if I was a little disappointed that the mystery subplot was not a very perplexing one, Michael Jecks' stark accounting of how guilt and loss affects people more than made The Chapel of Bones a good and worthwhile read. Why, on why though, has this series been subtitled a Knights Templar mystery? The Knights Templar don't figure into this series at all -- or at least not since The Last Templar, and that was about 18 mysteries ago, where Sir Baldwin put his past firmly behind him. It seems rather strange to bring up the Knights Templar at this stage. Is this some kind of a marketing ploy?

The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

Not having read Jonathan Harr's previous book, (A Civil Action) I'm unable to comment on which is the better book; what I can say, though, was that I was totally captivated by The Lost Painting.

Many scholars acknowledge that there probably are several missing Caravaggio masterpieces lying about forgotten and neglected. The Lost Painting is about the search for and discover of one such painting, The Taking Of Christ. In 1989, while working on a project, graduate students, Francesca Cappelletti and Laura Testa, come across mention of the sale of The Taking of Christ in the early part of the nineteenth century by the then owner, Guisseppe Mattei to a Scotsman. The information fires up in Francesca a desire to discover what happened to the painting from this point on. She is only partially successful. In the meantime, art restorer, Sergio Benedetti, makes an astonishing discovery when a routine job nets an inexpected find...

Jonathan Harr did, I thought, a wonderful job of vividly conveying the excitement and drive of those involved in the search for (Francesca Cappelletti) and discovery of Caravaggio's lost painting (Sergio Benedetti). And if the author sometimes sounded a little detached and removed from what he was relating in the book, he more than made up for it with his clear and precise descriptions of scenes and characters -- I thought that his portrayal of the slightly gaga Marchesa was priceless; and really enjoyed his brief but telling descriptions of all the characters, both primary and secondary. My sole reservation lay in what I thought was the unnecessary inclusion of Francesca's private romantic life into the book. It struck a slightly jarring note, I thought. Fortunately, this was far and few between. I was also disappointed that neither the author not his editors thought to include picture plates of some of the paintings discussed in the book. It would have been nice to have had easy access to the Doria Pamphili St. John, the Capitoline St. John and esp The Taking of Christ without having to unearth my old art history books, still in boxes. Oh well, at least it inspired me to put up more bookshelves and unpack all those boxes of books! All in all, though, The Lost Painting was a completely riveting and enthralling read, and one I would especially recommend to art lovers everywhere.

Jar City by Arnaldur IndriĆ°ason

Jar City started off a little slowly. Fortunately, however, things did begin to pick up about half way through, and I found myself being both fascinated (how different from the British police procedurals I'm so used to) and completely absorbed by what was going on between the pages.

When 70-something year old recluse, Holberg, is found murdered in his apartment, the assumption is that the old man was murdered by a drugged out thief. But Detective Inspector Erlendur is not so sure -- esp when a message is found on Holberg, pointing to the fact that Holberg's murder was a personal one. In spite of his two fellow detectives' skepticism (murders in Iceland always have uncomplicated motives), Erlendur decides to follow his instincts. Instincts which prove sound when the detectives discovers that Holberg was once accused of rape more than 25 years ago...

As I have already noted, Jar City has a bit of a slowish start. But about a little less than halfway through the book, things do pick up -- the pacing becomes more swift and taut as the storyline begins to take on a more solid shape and motives and suspects come in thick and fast. Lending a certain air of austerity to everything is the author's (or indeed the translator's) precise and spare prose style and the vividly cold and icy depiction of Reykjavik. Jar City will be quite a different experience for mystery buffs more used to the British and American styles of police procedurals. This particular Inspector Erlendur (who brings to mind Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus) installment, for instance, was rather straightforward with few jaw dropping plot twists. However, it also proved to be quite an absorbing and interesting read, and was, in spite of the uncomplicated plot, it was also a rather suspenseful read. So that on the whole, I'd rate it as a worthwhile read, and I will definitely be looking forward to the next Inspector Erlendur mystery novel.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Vodka Neat by Anna Blundy

Fast paced, mesmerizing and featuring soul weary, boozy foreign correspondents, Vodka Neat was an enjoyable and exhilarating read from beginning to end.

Posted to Moscow by the Chronicle, foreign correspondent, Faith Zanetti, has mixed feelings about coming back to live and work in Russia. The last thing she expected however was to be arrested on suspicion of murder almost as soon as she'd landed. About sixteen years ago, a young couple was found brutally murdered in their apartment. Faith, who was nineteen at that time, was married to a Russian black marketer, Dimitri Sakhnova, and living and working illegally in Moscow. Then, Demitri managed to keep her out of the investigation. Now, however, the police claim that Demitri has confessed to the crime and has implicated her in the crime as well. Faith is flabbergasted; admittedly she was blindingly drunk on that fateful night, but surely she would remember killing two people with an axe? Fortunately, the police have practically no evidence implicating her and let her go. But now Faith is on a mission: to clear her name and find out what exactly Demitri is up to. Little does she know that she's about to step into a web of deceit and murderous jealously...

Fast paced and completely compelling, I finished Vodka Neat in one sitting. It was the kind of exciting and enjoyable new read that one is always relieved and thankful to find. I really enjoyed the author's tongue-in-cheek prose style and the manner in which she structured the novel, going backwards and forwards in time, showing us Moscow in the 1990s and Moscow today. Also her character portrayals were vivid and totally believable. All in all this was a first rate read. Light and almost breezy manner in spite of it's subject matter, and featuring a female protagonist that is both charming and capable and full of wonderfully intriguing plot twists, I'd recommend Vodka Neat to any mystery reader looking for something a little different to savour.

Mind's Eye by Hakan Nesser

The actual first installment in the Inspector Van Veeteren mystery novels, Mind's Eye is a treat waiting for anyone who hasn't discovered this excellent series yet. Two pieces of advice first: leave off reading the plot synopsis on the dustjacket -- it gives away far too much of the plot; and secondly, be prepared for a very different kind of police procedural. Hakan Nesser has taken the genre that the British so excel in (and which we are so familiar with) and managed to make it something intriguingly and uniquely his.

When Eva Mitter is found drowned in her bathtub, the chief suspect quickly becomes her husband of three months, Janek. With no other viable suspects and Janek's suspicious behaviour, it looks like and open and shut case. Certainly Inspector Van Veeteren thinks so. After all who could believe Janek's convenient loss of memory as to what happened that fateful night because he drank too much at dinner? But something about Janek's protestations sets Van Veetern rethinking the entire case, and before long finds himself involved in one of the darkest cases of his career...

This is the second Inspector Van Veeteren I've read (The Return being the other one); I've enjoyed both of them very much. Nesser's prose style, while economical and a little sparse at time, and his star detective, Van Veetern is a bit of a curmudgeon, impatient and condescending to boot, and seems to make connections in the case at hand that one doesn't always see and which he doesn't always share with his colleagues, but Neser's clever plotting and is brilliant character portrayals made Mind's Eye a very compelling and very engaging read. It was literally unputdownable and I simply had to read on until the very last page. A very good read indeed.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Years ago (more than I'd like to think about), one of my tutors recommended that I read Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I tried to finish the novel but have to confess that I didn't. I probably lacked the sophistication back then to appreciate the exquisite prose style and painstaking craftsmanship that went into creating that award winning novel. And truthfully speaking I rather thought that Salman Rushdie was going to be one of those many winning authours that would never make to my reading lists. But something about The Enchantress of Florence beckoned, and I decided to give it a go. And I'm truly glad that I did. What an exceptionally enthralling and compelling read The Enchantress of Florence turned out to be.

The Mughal Emperor, Akbar, is ready for a diversion away from the woes of family and ruling a vast nation, when a mysterious yellow-haired stranger arrives at his court in Fatepur Sikri, claiming to be an ambassador from England. The stranger has many tales to tell about the distant European city of Florence, and the enchantress from the East that enraptured the people of Florence with her beauty and grace, and soon everyone in Sikri is enthralled by the young storyteller's tales. But will these stories prove the undoing of the court, and will Akbar's growing affection for the storyteller cause even more strife amongst his family?

When I was a child, my mother used to subscribe to an Indian magazine for women that had recipes, articles, sewing tips and vignettes about Akbar and his wise advisor Birbal. Reading The Enchantress of Florence transported me back to those wonderful carefree days. Constructed somewhat like The Arabian Nights, with the mysterious stranger playing the part of Scherazade, The Enchantress of Florence is a series of short stories that follows the supposed adventures of Qara Koz, a grandaunt of Akbar's, and that of her greatest love, the mercenary general, Argalia. Many of the stories are based on historical fact, but are told with elements of the fantastical, so that the mood and atmosphere of the novel is really quite fairy-tale like and dazzling. Also adding to this magical tone is Rushdie's powerfully lyrical and vivid prose style and brilliantly rendered scenes. All in all, this was a very, very fascinating and beguiling read that enraptures, dazzles and seduces. Not a book to be missed -- and I think I may be finally grown-up enough to appreciate the authour's other novels.