Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mystery Novels Provide the Staging for Grisly Murders

Charlie Carpenter is determined to make her vintage clothing store, The Old Hat, a success. Part of her campaign to entice people to shop at The Old Hat involves getting to know the rich socialites in her small town. Joining the Agathas's mystery book club was part of the plan in spite of the fact that she feels out of place and doesn't enjoy the bitchy gossip.

On her way to an Agatha meeting, she comes across a grisly scene. Someone has been murdered. The police are out in force, including Detective Marcus Trenault, her nemesis. When she arrives at the book club meeting, shockingly, she discovers that she knows the woman who has been murdered.

A second murder raises the stakes, particularly when the murders appear to replicate murders in the books the club has been reading. Charlie can't resist the challenge of besting Marcus by solving the murders, which leads to some action-packed sleuthing.

Charlie is a heroine you have to but admire. She's stubborn and feisty, and she won't let Marcus tell her what she can and can't do. Marcus is equally stubborn and arrogant. Their encounters make the sparks fly. The other characters are also well done. Dimitri, the hair dresser and one of her best friends, is Charlie's staunch supporter and a real hero. The book club ladies are delightfully snobbish and bitchy.

The plot will keep you guessing. The author manages to put the spotlight on several characters, so it's hard to decide who the murderer is. If you like a cozy mystery with a romantic twist, you'll enjoy this book.

I received this book from Alibi for this review.  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Twisted Lives Intersect in a Small Florida Town

Maggie's life is falling apart. She lives with Cole and their son, Hunter, in Crooked River, Florida, but Cole is becoming increasingly violent. He works for Teddy Mink, the local drug lord, as a mule and is more and more caught up in the brutal side of the business.

Dieter comes to town. He's drifting. Taking a room at the rundown hotel, he wanders around the town making friends, but not giving away his secrets.

Maggie, Cole, and Dieter intersect in a drama that changes their lives.

If you enjoy character driven books with a southern background, you may like this book. Once you get into the novel the complex plot unfolds, but it's not an easy book to get into. Dieter is a very withdrawn character. We know he has secrets, but following him around for pages can become tedious.

Maggie's scenes are more action oriented, but aside from the opening, it takes awhile to get to them. Cole, likewise, has scenes that push the action. Eventually, we do find out what is troubling Dieter, but it takes time.

Personally, I like to connect with the characters up front, particularly in a character driven novel. Because of Dieter's withdrawn personality, I found this difficult to do and when the plot takes time to develop, it's hard to stay with the book.

The writing is good and the descriptions of the small town are well done. However, I can't recommend this book unless you want a very leisurely start to a somewhat predictable plot.

I received this book from PR by the Book for this review.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

A Legendary Chinese Heroine

Sai Jinhua's father was beheaded by order if the Emperor for telling him the truth. With the death of her beloved father, Sai Jinhua became an outcast. She was the daughter of her father's concubine and was bitterly resented by his first wife. With his death, Timu, his first wife, wants to be rid of the burden of the child. When the opportunity presents, she sells the girl to a brothel keeper.

The first third of the book is devoted to Sai Jinhua's childhood and is relatively horrific.The training to become a prostitute is presented in detail, and the foot binding is given in excruciating detail. She was rescued from this existence and married to Hong Jun, a high ranking official of the Qing Dynasty. She traveled with him and met many famous Europeans. After his death she returned to China and was caught up in the Boxer Rebellion.

The book is a fascinating look at China during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. I particularly enjoyed the first third about her childhood. When she marries and moves to Europe, the book becomes more fanciful. The author admits it is unlikely Sai Jinhua had all the encounters described in the novel. I would have liked a more extensive treatment of the Boxer Rebellion, but it was interesting to see the interaction between the Chinese and the Europeans, particularly her friend, Edmund Backhouse.

Although the author has taken liberties with the history of Sai Jinhua's life, the novel gives a good view of China and to some extent Europe during that time period. I did find that the novel dragged in the middle sections, but it's worth reading for the historical interest.

I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Myron and Win Solve a Decade Old Kidnapping

Myron is happy. He's back with Terese, the love of his life, and they're getting married. The moment is shattered when Win, his best friend, calls needing help. Ten years ago Win's nephew, Rhys, and Patrick, Rhy's seven-year-old friend, were kidnapped. Now Win has located one of the boys, but waiting to grab both he let the boy get away. Because he was injudicious in the way he dealt with the thugs who were advancing on the boy, he needs Myron's help to continue the search.

This is a fast paced thriller with lots of twists and plenty of violence. The plot is hard to figure out until the end. Ten-years-ago something went terribly wrong when the boys were playing together. They disappeared, presumed kidnapped, but where were they taken? The parents heard nothing until Win received an email which set him off on the trial of the boys.

Win and Myron have a special relationship dating back to college days. Their personalities are quite dissimilar, but that makes them engaging. Their repartee keeps the dialog spirited and makes the book hard to put down. I particularly enjoyed the contrast between the chapters where Win is the main character and those where Myron leads. It highlights their differences, but shows the strength of their friendship.

The secondary characters like Big Cyndi and Zorra, the crossdressing Israeli agent, are colorful and add a delightful dimension to the novel.

Although this is not the first book in the series, I found it easy to read as a standalone. There are references to the past, but the author doesn't dwell on the previous cases so the action keeps moving.

I highly recommend this book if you enjoy a good thriller. You may even be inspired to look at the rest of the series.

I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Moving Beyond the Personal Search for Glory

David Boudia is a world class diver and Olympian. Growing up he was a talented athlete, but diving was where he excelled. However, David saw his exceptional talent as a road to wealth and fame rather than a god-given talent that could be used to bring glory to God.

In his first Olympics in 2008, he was sure he was the best and would bring glory to a flagging US Diving Team. The result was the opposite. He won no medals and felt practically suicidal. However, he pulled himself together, continued diving, and at the end of high school accepted a place at Purdue University.

Struggling with his use of marijuana and alcohol, he finally went to his coach, Adam Soldati, for guidance and was helped to find Jesus. It was a turning point in his life and led to a much different Olympic experience in 2012.

The book is told with candor and shows David's deep commitment to Christian values. It also contains a very interesting description of competitive diving. Even if you don't find his embrace of a Christian lifestyle interesting, the book is well worth reading for the descriptions of the Olympics and diving. It also shows the pitfalls of doing something for the personal glory it will bring you.

I received this book from BookLookBloggers for this review.   

An Eighth Grade Tragedy

Cally is having a difficult year. Her mother's illness has disrupted the family. When Tristan, a social outcast, sends her a long serious note, she asks her friends for advice, which is no substitute for adult guidance. Their advice leads to tragedy.

The book follows the lives of the students involved in the incident through their high school careers focusing on Junior and Senior years when the tragedy begins to take it's toll on their lives. A young teacher, Molly Nicoll is caught up in the lives of the students. As a young teacher, she has trouble finding her place between the experienced faculty and the students and tries hard to befriend the students wanting them to like her.

The teenagers are well portrayed. The author manages to bring out the pitfalls of adolescence when teens have too much money and time and little guidance from their busy parents. I found the portraits of the older teachers and school administrators stereotypical. Some teachers are burnt out, but others have enthusiasm and are able to communicate a love of learning to their students. The parents in the book were uniformly unavailable either through illness, work, or pleasure. Being consumed with their own lives left little time for their children's needs.

The book is appropriate for older teens, although I'm sure younger teens will also be fascinated by the view of high school. Teachers could profit from reading the book. It tells the story of children at risk very well. However, the group I think would benefit most from reading this book is the parents of teens. Parenting is not an easy job and when you slough it off through preoccupations with your own life you are risking tragedy for the whole family.

I received this book from Penguin Random House for this review.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Realistic Tale of Knights, Queens, Wizards, and Norse Invaders

Ten years after Arthur's death, Sir Percival, the last surviving knight of the Round Table, returns from his quest for the grail. He is accompanied by Capussa, who he befriended when they were captive gladiators. As they travel through Albion, Percival is saddened by the devastation. The Norse raiders have plundered and killed leaving the people without resources, terrified, and hungry.

Queen Guinevere escaped to a remote castle. She is served by a remnant of her former staff, badgered by the Bishop, and wishing she could do something to ease the plight of her people. Although he is hoping for peace, Percival decides to take on one more quest to find Guinevere and free Albion. To do this he will have to fight, not only the Norse invaders, but the evil Morgana.

This is a beautifully told story of Percival's return to Britain. The characters are true to the original legend, but fleshed out into believable people. The setting is not the magical kingdom so often used as a background for the Arthur legends, but instead, a historically accurate depiction of Britain under the thrall of the Norse invaders.

I enjoyed this book recommend it to anyone who loves the Arthur legends.

I received this book from Net Galley for this review.  

Truth or a Reasonable Doubt

When Jackie Whitney, an auto-parts heiress, is found dead in the closet of her Chicago apartment, the police think they've got the killer. Kate, a girl from Appalachia, was Jackie's assistant, and the police are convinced she was stealing money from Jackie.

Jules Landeau is contacted by Debbie, Kate's pubic defender. Debbie isn't sure it's a good idea to hire Landeau, but Kate is able to pay, and Debbie is okay with the situation as long as he keeps his activities to finding a reasonable doubt. The isn't something Landeau is comfortable with. He wants the truth: who is guilty?

This is a typical old time detective novel. Landeau works alone looking for clues and following up leads. I enjoy this type of detective story. It lets you play along and try to solve the crime. The only problem I have with this novel is that it was quite easy to figure out who was involved in the murder. It took longer for the motive to come out.

Landeau is a likable character. It's hard not to empathize with his need to find the truth. The breaks in the action where he pursues Tamar, the baker with whom he wants more of a relationship, don't detract from the action and provide a chance for Landeau to recap the latest developments.

If you enjoy a good detective story, I recommend this one.

I received this book from Alibi for this review.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Lincoln Assassination's Effect on the Women in Booth's Life

After assassinating President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth escaped but only got as far as a barn in Virginia. His death affected the four women he was closest to probably more than his life.

The early part of the story is told by his mother Mary Ann. Although not married to John's father, Junius Brutus Booth, an acclaimed actor, Mary raised their children and kept Junius from his self-destructive tendencies for many years. John Wilkes was Mary's favorite although she knew he was capable of great accomplishment or destructive evil

Asia, John Wilkes' sister, was devoted to him. She adored her brother and tried to help him achieve his goal of being a great tragic actor.

Lucy Hale, daughter of a senator, was supposedly John Wilkes' finacée although historical records are not clear. She is portrayed as a naive girl flattered by the attention of a famous actor.

Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where the plot to kill Lincoln was hatched, appears to have been skeptical of John Wilkes and more concerned for the safety of her son who had joined Wilkes in the plot. After Wilkes' death all of these women suffered, but Mary paid the ultimate price.

I found the story of the four women who were closest to Booth fascinating, although I had been expecting to see more of him in his role as conspirator. We have only one chapter where we see the action through his eyes. The book starts with his parents' romance and later his childhood and adolescence. It's interesting to see what the author believes molded him into the person he was, but if you're expecting to dive into the conspiracy you have to get through most of the book first.

I enjoyed the book, but recommend it only if you're interested in how Wilkes affected the people around him.

I received this book from Random House for this review.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

An Alternative to Being a Pantser or a Plotter

Traditionally, there are two types of writers: those who just start writing, and those who plot and outline. Lisa Cron offers a complex alternative. Her thesis is that how the main character perceives the world, his beliefs or misbeliefs, drives the action when he responds to external events. This sounds remarkably similar to the character driven novel.

In order to understand the main character's beliefs, Cron believes it's important to delve into his backstory. Much of this book describes the importance of backstory in designing both the character and the plot. The first half of the book focuses on defining protagonist's beliefs and provides a structured method to nail down the beliefs and how they drive the external action. The second half of the book describes how to use the information generated in the first half to structure the plot.

Throughout this book, Cron engages the help of a friend, Jennie, who has the idea for a novel. In each chapter, Jennie follows Lisa's advice and at the end has a substantial idea of the plot of the novel and some useable scenes.

For me, the major difference between this book and other writing books is the structured method Cron has for nailing down backstory without using the first half of the novel to describe it. Her method is very structured and time consuming. This may be right for some writers, but will cause others to give up. She does acknowledge that some published writers do very well as pantsers, if this is you, the method described here may bog you down.

I like the idea of knowing your protagonist's beliefs before trying to make her come to life on the page, but following all Cron's methodology seems a bit too structured. The book is repetitive and large sections are taken up with Jeannie's attempts to use the method.

If you need help defining your character, this book may be useful.

I received this book for Blogging for Books for this review.  

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Glamorous Coming of Age in the 1930s

Jane Hall began life in an Arizona mining town. She loved the freedom and adored her father who wrote humerus fiction for the Saturday Evening Post. However, her father's death and the subsequent death of her mother, sent Jane and her brother East to live with her mother's sister. The mining town life couldn't have presented more of a contrast to the Manhattan lifestyle of wealthy families and debutante parties.

Although Jane became a debutante and enjoyed the glamour, she craved independence and wanted to be successful on her own. She achieved this through writing stories about the debutante life for Cosmopolitan. Her success led to an offer to write for Metroo-Goldwym-Mayer where she met famous writer and formed a friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The war changed the public taste for light fiction, and Jane succumbed to family pressure to marry the right man from a social perspective. From then on, her writing suffered much to her dismay.

Robin Cutler has done a good job bringing her mother's era to life. The major focus of the story is on how girls, particularly from the upper and middle classes, were pressured to become wives rather than independent career women. The struggle to please her family, but also be independently successful permeates Jane's story.

Although the early chapters about Jane's life in Arizona and as a debutante move quickly, the book loses momentum when the author describes in detail each of Jane's literary works. The problem is that they are very similar and the retelling becomes tedious.  

I enjoyed this trip back to the era of our parents and in some cases grandparents. The book emphasizes how much has changed in the opportunities available to women, but we're still our mother's daughters and often for the older generation, the mores of the 30's drive their desires for us.

I received this book from Net Galley for this review.  

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Mitfords: A Remarkable Family

Growing up before WWII at the top of Britain's aristocratic society, girls were destined to be the wives and mothers of the next generation. Some of the Mitford girls tried this avenue, but it was too narrow for their political ideas.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the six girls is the diversity of their political leanings. Unity was a close friend and admirer of Hitler. She committed suicide when Great Britain declared war on Germany. Diana left her traditional family to become the wife of Oswald Mosley, head of the Fascist party in Britain. Jessica was a Communist sympathizer and member of the American Communist Party. Nancy was a novelist whose novels depict the upper-class before WWII. Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire and was instrumental in restoring Devonshire house.

The diversity of the girls lives and interests reads almost like a novel. Even the parents and grandparents were unusual characters. I enjoyed the portion of the book recounting their exploits. To highlight manners and morals of upper-class society, the author contrasted Nancy's book, The Pursuit of Love, which was largely drawn from her own family, to highlight the way the way this eccentric family interacted.

Although I enjoyed the book, I found some parts difficult to follow. The author jumps around giving time to each sister and the parents. I also found the book quite repetitious. Some of this is due to the use of Nancy's book to illustrate the lives of her family. We end up reading essentially the same things more than once. The author is also quite intrusive breaking into the narrative to offer her own opinions. However, if you are interested in the Mitfords, this book is very comprehensive and presents a good background for their way of life.

I received this book from Net Galley for this review.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Train Your Brain for Success

Your mind plays the critical role of leading you to success or failure. This is the opening argument in Dr. Beecham's book. Specifically, he talks about the importance of the unconscious. It's where our beliefs reside, and it's our beliefs that are responsible for how we respond to a given situation. To put it simply, if you believe you can't do something, your unconscious will find ways to keep you from doing it. On the other hand, you can retrain your mind and bring your beliefs into line with the success you want to achieve.

The book is structured in three parts. Part One is about understanding your mind. This section discusses the importance of the unconscious in driving your actions. Part Two discusses how your mind can fail you. Fear can keep you from attempting to reach for the goals you want to achieve. Part Three discusses how to become the person you want to be. I found one of the most inspiring sections summarizes Viktor Frankl's idea of when you're at your best. You can't pursue success and expect to achieve it. Success comes as a by product of focusing your attention on doing something worthwhile. 

I enjoyed this book. It's interesting to see the number of psychology books today stressing the importance of the mind in determining behavior and even curing the body. I highly recommend this book, if you're interested in the interaction of mind and body, or if you want to achieve success and want some pointers.

I received this book from Net Galley for this review.    

Murder at am Elite Newport House Party

Emma Cross, a reporter and distant relative of the Vanderbilts, is thrilled to receive an assignment to write about an artist's retreat. Rough Point, a Newport cottage owned by Frederick Vanderbilt, is leased to the artist's group for the retreat. Rough Point is one of the first mansions built in Newport, but Frederick his wife grew tired of it and began leasing it.

When she arrives, Emma is surprised to be greeted by Edith Wharton, who befriends her and insists that she stay at Rough Point for the retreat. Even more surprising, the guest list includes Emma's mother and father who have been living in Paris for years. Something mysterious is happening with her parents, and Emma almost wishes she hadn't accepted the invitation to stay at Rough Point.

The retreat takes on a grim turn when one of the guests is found dead at the bottom of the cliffs near the house. Storms arrive and the party becomes more isolated as the guests die one by one.

The plot in this cozy mystery is interesting, but the best part of the book is the description of the setting at Rough Point. The author is captivated by the Newport mansions and does a good job bringing the setting to life. The afterward about the history of Rough Point is a must read.

Emma is a sympathetic character. She's poor, but she has enough money to live on and her own home in Newport. She cherishes her independence and wants to be taken seriously as a reporter. The cast of unusual characters at the house party adds life to the novel with a baronet, an opera singer, and others adding their peculiarities to the mix.

I enjoyed the book. This is the fourth book in the author's series of murders in Newport mansions and one of the best.

I received this book from Net Galley for this review.