Sunday, July 13, 2014

Supreme Justice (Book Review and Giveaway)

Publication Information:  Thomas & Mercer, Trade Paperback, 2014
Genre: Suspense/Political Thriller
Plot: When one conservative Supreme Court justice dies in a seemingly random robbery, it is shocking enough, but when a second conservative justice is murdered, it is clear to former Secret Service agent Joe Reeder that some enemy of the Court has an agenda and could be planning a dramatic reconfiguration of the court.  Reeder once saved the president’s life by taking a bullet but that heroic act indirectly led to his retirement.  Now his friend, Gabriel Sloan, is the FBI’s agent in charge of the case and asks for Joe’s help investigating the crimes that threaten to bring DC to a standstill.

Audience: Fans of suspense, legal thrillers, and readers like me who wish they had clerked for a Supreme Court justice.

What I liked: This is a fast paced thriller with several interesting characters, and although they are not fully developed, it is a fun if predictable summer read which I will share with my father.  Reeder is an interesting protagonist: someone who was dedicated to his job as a Secret Service agent and respected the presidency although not the incumbent whose life he saved.   Unfortunately, he shared his feelings too openly so while he was admired for his dedication to duty he was pushed into retirement.   Now that I have thought about it, I would prefer that those who guard the President avoid political partisanship as I had to do when a federal employee.  However, in fiction, I found the differing political viewpoints of the characters interesting.   I am reminded of something I read earlier today - that we should not be divided into conservatives and liberals but haters and non-haters (of course, I can't recall where I saw it or I would provide a link).  

I particularly enjoyed the quotations from Supreme Court justices which begin each chapter.   This is billed as a standalone by prolific author Collins but I would read another book about Reeder and FBI agent Patti Rogers.   

What I disliked: The author’s research on Supreme Court justices was incomplete: even if Patti is clueless enough to call the Chief Justice “your honor,” Reeder had met him before so would have known to address him as “Chief Justice.”   Moreover, the justices are guarded by a special police force in DC and by federal marshals when they travel so perhaps would not have been quite such sitting ducks as implied (although the book is set slightly in the future so I suppose security cuts could have been made).   And, given that Justice Venter’s invitation to his clerk, Nicholas Blount, (which results in his death) was spontaneous, how did the killer know they would be at the bar in time to set up the attack?   Perhaps Amazon’s new imprint does not include any actual editors who could have provided some suggestions to Collins and Clemens.

Giveaway:  Thanks to the publisher, I have a copy to give away.   If you are interested, please leave a comment telling me something you have enjoyed reading recently and I will pick a name.

Source:  I received Supreme Justice from the TLC Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what other reviewers had to say about this book.   

Max Allan Collins’ TLC TOUR STOPS:

Monday, June 16th:  5 Minutes for Books
Wednesday, June 18th:  FictionZeal
Thursday, June 19th:  Kritter’s Ramblings
Monday, June 23rd:  Reading Reality
Wednesday, June 25th:  No More Grumpy Bookseller
Thursday, June 26th:  Mockingbird Hill Cottage
Friday, June 27th:  A Bookish Way of Life
Monday, June 30th:  Bookchickdi
Tuesday, July 1st:  Bookish Ardour - excerpt
Wednesday, July 2nd:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, July 7th:  Bibliotica
Tuesday, July 8th:  Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Wednesday, July 9th:  From the TBR Pile
Thursday, July 10th:  Traveling with T
Wednesday, July 16th:  Literally Jen

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blade of the Samurai (Book Review)

Title: Blade of the Samurai
Author: Susan Spann
Publication Information: Minotaur Books, Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Mystery
Plot:  June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the Shogun’s cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the Shogun’s palace.  The murder weapon: Kazu’s personal dagger. Kazu says he’s innocent, and begs for Hiro’s help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi’s claims.

When the Shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Jesuit priest under Hiro’s protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor.

The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the Shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda’s enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the Shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo’s wife, and the Shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the Shogun demanding the murderer’s head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time … or die in his place.

Audience:  Fans of mysteries, historical fiction, those interested in Japan or Jesuits

What I liked: This is a fun and completely different mystery.  It was also very well written.  For someone like me who has been fascinated by the 16th century since childhood, it was intriguing to read a mystery set in an unfamiliar culture, rather than the England, France and Italy so familiar to a Ren/Ref major.  Hiro is the Jesuit’s bodyguard and they form an amusing detective duo.  Hiro is sometimes a little condescending of Father Mateo’s seeming cluelessness about Japanese and samurai culture but he often has insightful observations and is an essential part of the team as they investigate a murder at the shogun’s palace.  There is added pressure not usually found by amateur sleuths – a threat that if they don’t find the killer, their lives may be forfeit so the Shogun has a scapegoat, even if they are innocent.

This is the second in a series, and can be read alone but I instantly went looking for book 1, Claws of the Cat (you know I hate to read out of order).  Minotaur Books can always be relied upon for good mysteries!

Susan Spann is a publishing attorney, which intrigued me when I first heard about this mystery.  Her interest in Japanese history, martial arts, and mystery inspired her to write the Shinobi mystery series featuring Hiro Hattori, a 16th century ninja who tries to bring murders to justice with the help of Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest attempting to convert the Japanese.   You can read her blog or follow her on Twitter.

What I disliked: I never forgot the setting but if it hadn’t been spelled out, I am not sure I would have guessed when the book took place.  The characters were not anachronistic exactly (my frequent complaint) but  I would have liked a stronger historical feel, not just a sense of different culture.
Source: I received this book from the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what other readers had to say about this book.   

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What I'm Reading

Currently Reading

Boston and the Civil War / Barbara Berenson – my talented friend Barbara has followed up her successful Walking Tours of Civil War Boston with a book that reveals to Revolutionary War-obsessed fans that Boston was actually the hub of a second revolution that ended slavery.  My mother has a friend who is a descendant of William Lloyd Garrison so I was always aware of the role of the abolitionists – this provides a close look at those "dedicated to ending slavery and honoring the promise of liberty made in the Declaration of Independence."
Divergent / Veronica Roth – although tired of dystopian novels and unable to get into this in print form, I was curious enough to try it on CD a year later, and am now enjoying it (although why do heroines have to get beat up so frequently in this type of novel?).

Country of Broken Stone / Nancy Bond  - Next week I am heading to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia to visit Fort Louisbourg, the setting of Bond’s Another Shore, which shows what a big fan I am of this talented Massachusetts author.  Somehow I had been unaware of this book, set near Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, about a girl dealing with a new stepmother and stepsiblings.  Bond is gifted at making historical places seem magical.

In preparation for the Starz adaptation, I reread Outlander / Diana Gabaldon, which is just as amazing as when I first snagged an ARC on my last day at Bantam Doubleday Dell in 1991 (and after numerous previous rereads).  Of course, that meant I had to reread Dragonfly in Amber (despite all the library books waiting for me), and I just reclaimed my copy of Voyager (book 3) from my mother.  Here is a link to the forthcoming miniseries - I have put away my usual skepticism because it really appears to be a good and respectful production. The production company has really chosen actors who look the part, even if Jamie's hair isn't as red as I expected.

Just Finished

The Eyre Affair / Jasper Fforde – a belated thank you to Sessalee Hensley who gave me a copy of this book when it was brand new.  Somehow I got distracted; perhaps I found the beginning slow or maybe I was in the middle of law school exams.  However, once it got going I was completely captivated.  I would describe it as the Phantom Tollbooth for grownups, and what higher compliment could there be?

We Were Liars / E. Lockhart – which I liked but did not love.   Intriguing but ultimately too much prolonged melancholy and the ending seemed abrupt.  I didn't like the characters and maybe I just don’t care for unreliable narrators.   I prefer her Ruby books and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau but admire her for trying something new.


I’ve Got You Under My Skin / Mary Higgins Clark – predictable but this was a good book to listen to on CD during a stressful week because it was extremely repetitive (you would think she was writing a Dickensian serial) and undemanding.  However, the characters were mostly unlikeable and the killer unconvincing.  Not one of her best.

(Outlander image copyright to Starz)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Mackenzie's Cross (Book Review)

Publication Information: Topaz Publishing, 2013, ebook and paperback
Genre: Historical Romance
Setting:  Medieval England
Plot: Mackenzie, a modest kitchen maid in the household of the Duke Kensington, is plunged into intrigue when the Duke is murdered.  Her only friend, Adilla, the head cook (think Daisy and Mrs. Patmore), is arrested so Mackenzie is forced to seek answers among the nobility, most of whom regard her with suspicion.  Only visiting knight, Sir Patrick of Chester, trusts Mackenzie enough to join her in seeking answers.

Audience:  The style and prose seems more targeted to a teenage audience than the adult historical romance market, although the plot involves torture, betrayal and violent death.  The heroine’s sweet personality and determined loyalty might be appealing to teens who should appreciate the mixture of romance and suspense.

What I liked: Barthel does a good job depicting the busy life of a castle, although I doubt kitchen maids had as much free time and privacy as Mackenzie.  And everyone enjoys a plucky heroine! My two favorite characters were the young squire, John of Chester (despite his anachronistic comment, “I don’t believe in treating the lower classes like they are  -- well, lower.  They are the foundation we stand upon.”), who befriends Mackenzie in the kitchen and his older brother, Sir Patrick.

What I disliked: I felt there were some holes in the plot and at time the heroine was irritatingly na├»ve.  Mackenzie suspects the Duke was murdered, thus believes a killer is on the loose, but persists in confiding in the wrong people and wandering around alone, outspoken and vulnerable.  Also, why is the Duke of Kensington referred to as Duke Kensington (none of the dukes in this book get an ‘of’)?  Why isn’t his wife the Duchess instead of Lady Evelyn (just an error in title usage?)?  Who was Mackenzie’s father?  Is it likely a group of jealous nobles would accept a bastard daughter as heiress to a deceased duke than his legal wife?  Admittedly, I am sure they would prefer to usurp the land or marry the widow or daughter to acquire it more conventionally.  There is also a confusing subplot involving a character with leprosy, except that it turns out she doesn’t have leprosy.  I was hoping the leper would be revealed as Mackenzie’s mother, which would have made just as much sense as the inadequate explanation of her origins.

Source:  I received this book from the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours and urge you to stop by the tour to learn more about the author and see what other bloggers had to say about this book.   You can also purchase the book:

Amazon CA (Kindle)
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Barnes & Noble 
Book Depository

Virtual Book Tour Schedule:

Monday, May 12
Review at History From a Woman’s Perspective
Tuesday, May 13
Excerpt at Peeking Between the Pages
Wednesday, May 14
Review at SOS Aloha
Friday, May 16
Spotlight at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, May 21
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, May 22
Excerpt at Let Them Read Books
Monday, May 26
Review at Book Nerd
Friday, May 30
Guest Post at Susan Heim on Writing

Giveaway

To win one of two copies of Mackenzie’s Cross, please complete this form: Rafflecopter giveaway.  Giveaway is open internationally but ends at 11:59pm on June 4th so enter quickly. You must be 18 or older to enter.  Winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter on June 5th and notified via email.  Winner has 48 hours to claim prize or a new winner is chosen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Garden Plot (Book Review and Giveaway)

Title: The Garden Plot
Author
: Marty Wingate
Publication Information: Alibi, Random House, 2014, ISBN 978-0-8041-7770-2 (ebook original)
Genre: Mystery     Setting:  England
Plot: 50ish Pru Parke has always dreamed of living in England, her mother’s country, so after a failed relationship, she moves from Dallas to London hoping to get permanent work as professional gardener.  Giving herself a year to find a full time position, Pru makes ends meet through small projects so is pleased when she is hired by Vernona Wilson to tidy up a garden.  But when Pru finds a body in the garden shed, she is plunged into a police investigation.  Although intrigued by Detective Chief Inspector Pearse, Pru can’t help following up a few leads on her own, even though the handsome detective warns her she might put herself in danger…

Audience: Anglophiles, gardening fans and fans of cozy mysteries.  Remember that you don't need to own a Kindle to read an ebook.

What I liked: This is a charming debut mystery with an appealing heroine whose melancholy is understandable in someone basically alone in the world and living in a new city.  One yearns for Pru to alleviate her loneliness by making more friends, and DCI Pearse’s interest seems like more than enough reason for Pru to extend her sojourn in England.  There aren’t a lot of books about women of a certain age which is another plus for what I hope is the beginning of a new series.

Each chapter begins with a letter declining her services from one of the gardening positions Pru has applied for – I wish my job rejections were that funny (not that Pru is amused).

What I disliked:  I know a plot involving an amateur sleuth requires that she pursue her curiosity but I get tired of heroines who withhold information from the police and gratuitously put themselves in danger. It works better if there is some plausible reason other than pique to pursue leads on one’s own.   This was a good read although the whodunnit seemed a bit obvious.

Source: I received this book from TLC Book Tours (via the publisher and NetGalley) and urge you to stop by the Garden Plot tour.   This tour includes a giveaway for a Grand Prize of a $30 egiftcard to the ebook retailer of the winner's choice, and a First Prize Mystery Prize Pack of three mystery mass market paperbacks and a gardening title from Random House.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Garden Plot Tour
 Monday, April 28th:  5 Minutes for Books
Wednesday, April 30th:  Reading Reality
Thursday, May 1st:  Patricia’s Wisdom
Monday, May 5th:  From the TBR Pile
Monday, May 5th:  Kelly’s France Blog 
Wednesday, May 7th:  A Chick Who Reads
Thursday, May 8th:  Bibliotica
Monday, May 12th: Under a Gray Sky
Wednesday, May 14th: A Bookish Way of Life
Thursday, May 15th: Joyfully Retired
Friday, May 16th:  Kahakai Kitchen
Tuesday, May 20th:  Serendipity Reviews
Wednesday, May 21stMom in Love with Fiction
Thursday, May 22nd:  Stitch Read Cook
Thursday, May 29thNo More Grumpy Bookseller

Monday, May 12, 2014

Northanger Abbey (Book Review)

Publication Information: Harper Collins, Hardcover, 2014
Genre: Fiction
Setting: 21st century Scotland
Plot:  Giddy teenager Cat Morland, a minister’s daughter, is invited to accompany affluent and generous neighbors, the Allens, to Edinburgh for the Festival.  Homeschooled and naive, Cat has spent more time obsessing over Twilight than preparing for a career.  She longs for drama and adventure and finds both when she makes two friends: vivacious Isabella Thorpe and charming Henry Tilney, a young lawyer who teaches her how to dance.  She is fascinated by Henry and his sister Ellie, but is distracted from pursuing their acquaintance by the unexpected arrival of her brother James, who is involved with Isabella.  Thrown into the constant company of Isabella’s obnoxious brother John, Cat has difficulty extricating herself from his boorishness and possessive John tries to scare away the Tilneys.  As in the source, Cat is invited to visit the mysterious Northanger Abbey, and is welcomed by General Tilney, then unexpectedly sent home in disgrace, left to wonder if any of her new friends cares enough about her to follow her back to Dorset.  

Audience: This book is part of a project commissioned by Harper Collins in which six noted authors will recreate Austen’s work in contemporary settings.  Purists may object but I think casual fans of Austen and GeorgetteHeyer, as well as those who are reading/buying all the Austen imitations will enjoy it and appreciate some of the twists McDermid concocts.  It is still a comedy of manners to some extent, as well as a coming of age story, and the reader can't help but sympathize with Cat's growing pains.
What I liked: The original Northanger Abbey is a parody, and McDermid pokes fun at the craze for Twilight as Austen did with the gothic bestsellers of her day (there is one clever bit where John makes fun of a fantasy series Cat likes and she silences him by revealing the author contributed to a video game John plays).  Northanger Abbey is not one of my favorite Austens so in many ways I felt that McDermid’s reworking was an improvement on the original and I raced through it with great enjoyment. 

Yet it seems just as much as waste of McDermid’s talent as Joanna Trollope’s in Sense & Sensibility, as I observed recently (although it is also a way to expand one's audience).  McDermid’s writing is usually dark and angst-ridden; here, she is arch, and this book is memorable primarily because of its inspiration (although the characters are well done, particularly Isabella – everyone has just such a friend who seems charming until one realizes she never listens or cares about anything but herself). Of course, while I like McDermid’s crime novels, it was relaxing to read this and know no one was going to be tortured or raped!  In addition, the descriptions of Edinburgh were very appealing and my desire to visit is even stronger now: the Edinburgh Festival sounds like so much fun.

Source: I got this from the library, and despite my quibbles I look forward to reading other forthcoming books in this series.

Monday, April 28, 2014

So Great a Love (Book Review)

Title:  So Great a Love
Author: Gladys Malvern
Publication Information: Macrae Smith Co., 1962, Beebliome Books 2013 (ebook)
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Setting:  17th Century England
Plot:  It is 1641 and lovely Lady Henrietta Wade, known as Hal, is lady in waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I of England (the cover actually comes from a portrait of the Queen).  Hal was named for the Queen, who is her godmother.  French and a devoted Catholic, the Queen is resented by many of her husband’s subjects, particularly by the Roundheads/Puritans who blame her for her religion as well as for the King’s determination to retain the unlimited power of an absolute monarch. 

When the book begins, Hal’s mother, Lady Langdon, who lives in the country due to ill health, has asked the Queen to send Hal home.  Hal’s father escorts her from London and shares his concern that the unrest in the country may lead to civil war.  Hal is concerned by the rumors but she basically thinks of Puritans as spoilsports who consider it sinful for a woman to look pretty.  She is also disappointed with her father for betrothing her to the Duke of Thewes, who is old and fat.  Lord Langdon does not understand his daughter and dismisses her concerns about the disparity of age, saying merely that she is fortunate to have secured the interest of the Duke and will outrank nearly everyone at Court.

Once at Langdon Hall in Shottery, not far from Stratford-upon-Avon, Hal is glad to see both her mother and Nancy Cheam, the housekeeper who was once her nurse.  Hal grew up with Mrs. Cheam’s grandson, Jerry Vane, two years her senior.   Lord Langdon paid for Jerry, a bright young man, to be educated at Cambridge, where he has become close to John Milton.  When Jerry returns to Langdon Hall, he is a handsome and intelligent young man whose political views are anathema to the Wades – in fact, they are appalled at his disloyalty in supporting the Roundhead cause: “How dared Jerry become a Puritan,” thinks Hal, her eyes flashing angrily.  Hal sometimes appears spoilt and willful, but she and Jerry grow close as civil war approaches, despite the fact that they find themselves on opposite sides:

“If there’s war – and there surely will be – I suppose you’ll join the Roundheads?”
“And would you expect me to join the Cavaliers?”
“It’s quite indifferent to me which side you’re on.  But you Roundheads are to blame for this trouble.”
“Are we now? It would seem to me that the blame should rest on the King.”  He refused to be put on the defensive.  His pleasant voice remained calm.  “It seems to me that liberty’s a thing worth fighting for, and you’ll have to agree that the King has forced us to it.  If he’d compromise a bit – just a little.”
She glared at him. “Oh, why don’t you go to America with the other Puritans? I wish every one of you would get out of England.  Then maybe we’d have peace!”

The rapprochment doesn't happen overnight!  It takes war and personal tragedy for Hal to mature, and escape from the odious marriage arranged by her father, leaving her free to ... well, you’ll have to read the book!

What I liked:  The English Civil War is one of my favorite periods, and like fiction set during the U.S. Civil War, it provides drama and conflict between families as different loyalties are tested.  Malvern does a good job describing the different principles of Charles I and his unruly Parliament, and a teen audience would understand the positions of the characters.  Jerry doesn’t have as much personality as some of Malvern’s other heroes but maybe I just prefer Cavaliers! A modern audience might not understand that Hal is expected to sacrifice for Charles I just as her brother is expected to fight for him.  
 Malvern does show how this war affected a young woman of noble birth as Hal tries to balance her loyalty to her monarchs and her own personal happiness. 

It is a bit odd reading an interactive children’s book as an adult.  I loved the pictures of Charles 1 imbedded in the text and I like the concept of being able to touch a word (in bold) to get its meaning.  However, when I was first reading Malvern (6th or 7th grade, I think) I certainly knew words like astride and threadbare and scullery but maybe I wouldn’t have been familiar with furlough and inveigled.  My favorite references were illustrations of locations in the book such as Pendennis Castle in Plymouth.  Once I grew used to the format, I enjoyed it.

Audience:  Pre-teens and teens, fans of historical fiction and of authors such as Ann Rinaldi, Karen Cushman, and Michelle Cooper.  Although I read every Malvern in my school and public libraries, I had never come across this one so was delighted to find it back in print and enjoyed it.
Gladys Malvern
Gladys Malvern: Known for her quality historical fiction, Malvern (1897-1962) also vividly depicted the historical and contemporary theater in her books (one of my favorites is Gloria BalletDancer, which is the first in a trilogy set in mid-20th century New York about an aspiring dancer).  Gladys and her younger sister Corinne appeared on stage in vaudeville productions from a young age, and Gladys graduated to actual theater roles as a teen (just like one of her heroines).  Later the sisters and their mother moved to Los Angeles, where Corinne must have either studied art or developed natural talent as she obtained work as a fashion artist and Gladys became a copywriter.    The sisters stayed close and collaborated on several books.  Eventually, they moved to New York, and Gladys wrote more than 40 books, including Behold Your Queen, which I highly recommend - one of several novels with a biblical theme.  I used to tell people that everything I knew about Judaism as a child came from All of a Kind Family or Gladys Malvern!

Source:  I won this book through a Twitter contest from Beebliome Books, which graciously offered me my choice of a book from their list.  There were several books that caught my interest, including several rare Malvern titles and by other classic authors such as Hilda Lewis and John and Patricia Beatty.