Book Review: The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

The Italian Party
Christina Lynch
St. Martin’s Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-14783-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany’s famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.

When Scottie’s Italian teacher―a teenager with secrets of his own―disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael’s dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.

Scottie and Michael are children of their times, as they say, and those of us who remember the 1950’s will certainly recognize them. They scream “American” with their enormous, flashy Ford Fairlane, their marriage is something of a convenience and they barely know each other, and they’re much, much wealthier than the Italians they want to live among. Michael is undoubtedly the head of the household and Scottie is the demure wife who follows her husband’s lead; in fact, Michael appreciates that she knows how to be a good, supportive wife. After all, her education at Vassar led to her Mrs. degree and she upholds it beautifully.

Unlike the “Leave It to Beaver” scenario, these two are not exactly the salt of the earth but, perhaps more importantly, neither one has a clue who the other one is and major secrets begin to come out as soon as they get to their destination, Siena. On top of everything in their personal lives, Communism is nipping at their heels.

All of that sounds kind of dismal, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s true to an extent but the joy in this novel comes from watching this young couple come to terms with themselves and each other while they’re in the midst of a most unlikely spy story of their own and there are a lot of laughs to be had, the kind that make you think “caper” and “adventure”. All in all, this was totally fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes spies, international intrigue, comedy, romance, adventure, history, Italian food…you get the idea 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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About the Author

Photo credit Stacy Brand

Christina Lynch’s picaresque journey includes chapters in Chicago and at Harvard, where she was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. She was the Milan correspondent for W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, and disappeared for four years in Tuscany. In L.A. she was on the writing staff of Unhappily Ever After; Encore, Encore; The Dead Zone and Wildfire. She now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She is the co-author of two novels under the pen name Magnus Flyte. She teaches at College of the Sequoias. The Italian Party is her debut novel under her own name.

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Book Review: The Great and the Good by Michél Deon

The Great and the Good
Michel Déon
Gallic Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-910477-28-1
Trade Paperback

Originally published in 1996 as La Cour Des Grands, this translation of Déon’s Gatsby-like tale by Julian Evans tells the story of Arthur Morgan, the son of a poor French widow. He has a scholarship to an Ivy League university to study business law, and his mother spends money she can ill afford to purchase a first class cabin for him on the Queen Mary. Aboard the ship he meets Professor Concannon, who is on the faculty of university and is drinking himself into a stupor, and Allan Parker, an advisor to President Eisenhower, who becomes a valuable contact for Arthur. But of more importance to Arthur are the three beautiful young people he meets and becomes infatuated with.  There is Elizabeth Murphy, a carefree  wealthy bohemian with aspirations to become an actress, and the sultry and mysterious Brazilian Augusta, who immediately captivates Arthur. Complicating matters is Augusta’s brother Getulio, a fellow student at the university who is involved in gambling and a host of illegal schemes. Arthur becomes entangled in the lives of these people, and is slowly drawn into their circle. This coming of age story, set in the 1950s, reflects on Arthur’s choices and regrets, and the paths that his friends take lead to surprising consequences.

Déon is the author of over fifty books, including The Foundling Boy and The Foundling’s War.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, March 2017.

Book Review: Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald

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Book Review: The Long Way Home by Ann M. Martin

The Long Way HomeThe Long Way Home
Family Tree Book 2
Ann M. Martin
Scholastic Press, November 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-35943-6
Hardcover

The story begins in 1955 when Dana and her twin sister turn seven years old. Dana loves New York City where her family lives in a spacious townhouse and they all get to dress up for taxi rides to fine restaurants and glamorous parties in honor of her famous writer father. She attends a private school and excels in art. In fact, her father persuades his editor to let her illustrate one of his novels.

In the first third of the book, accounts of important events in Dana’s life are told with childlike optimism and revolve around typical childhood problems. (Even the reverse attributions—said Dana rather than Dana said—remind one of children’s books of yore.) Each chapter is dated several months apart as the reader follows Dana and her family from year to year.

Then, tragedy strikes, and Dana’s charmed life takes twists and turns that turn her life upside down. During her teen years, Dana must use all of her inner resources to adapt and survive as she makes her way home, in all senses of the word. Right along with Dana, the reader cringes when the world tosses her a curve and smiles when she zips back with force.

Ann M. Martin skillfully weaves all kinds of life issues into this story. The flawed characters and real-life situations let each reader form opinions about the characters’ actions and approaches to life. At the same time, the historical setting is well-drawn and the coming-of-age story believable. Preteens and up will enjoy this story and want to read other books in the series.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, March 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Now You See It by Jane Tesh and The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

Now You See ItNow You See It
A Grace Street Mystery #3
Jane Tesh
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0196-7
Hardcover

Delightful, pleasant, encouraging, a fine summer read. This is the third episode in Ms. Tesh’s third series of mystery fiction novels. Praise for Stolen Hearts and Praise for Mixed Signals are the first two. Magic, magicians, jealousy, competition, theft and murder. All served up in carefully proportioned amounts with just the right amount of suspense, suspicion and sanguinity. What’s not to like?

In brief, private investigator David Randall is hired to search for an artifact that may have historical significance. A local night club that features magic acts on its stage is the scene of the apparent theft. The missing object once may have belonged to the legendary Harry Houdini. While our earnest PI begins his search for clues to the missing object, he begins to encounter a surprising array of jealous actors, off-beat club workers and assorted hangers-on.

Meanwhile, Randall’s friend, Camden, seems to be losing his voice, Cams girlfriend, Ellin, is beset on several sides, Randall’s girl, Kary has become a magician’s assistant wannabe. Confused? Well, trust me it all gets sorted out in the end in logical ways. Oh, mustn’t forget to mention a major complication, the body discovered backstage in the trunk.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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The Black-Eyed BlondeThe Black-Eyed Blonde
A Philip Marlowe Novel
Benjamin Black
Henry Holt and Company, March 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9814-3
Hardcover

John Banville, the Irish author here writing under his pen name of Benjamin Black, has written a book certain to give exquisite pleasure to the many fans of Raymond Chandler and his creation, LA private detective Philip Marlowe with a reputation as a “thinking man’s detective.”. The masterful re-imagining is evident from the first words: “It was ‘one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving. The telephone on my desk had the air of something that knows it’s being watched. Cars trickled past in the street below the dusty window of my office, and a few of the good folks of our fair city ambled along the sidewalk, men in hats, mostly, going nowhere.”

The eponymous woman makes her first appearance moments later. “Her hair was blond and her eyes were black, black and deep as a mountain lake, the lids exquisitely tapered at their outer corners. A blonde with black eyes – – that’s not a combination you get very often.” As Marlow later summarized things, he is “hired to look for a guy who was supposed to be dead. Next thing I know I’m up to my knees in corpses, and I damn near became a corpse myself.” What happens in between, taking place in a little more than a week, is laid out in Chandler-esque form, with a wholly unexpected ending. To say that Mr. Banville has “captured” the charm of that author seems inadequate.

Apparently this title was one that Chandler had listed as a possibility for a future novel, and Mr. Banville has made of it a terrific mystery. He evokes the Marlowe era perfectly, conjuring up memories with names like the Marx Brothers, Paul Whiteman, Lon Chaney, Raymond Burr, and Errol Flynn.

I highly recommend that you give yourself the deep pleasure of reading this book.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2014.

Book Review: Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Strings AttachedStrings Attached
Judy Blundell
Scholastic Press, March 2011
ISBN 978-0-545-22126-9
Hardcover
Also available in a later trade paperback edition

This is not “Sex in the City” New York.  This New York is grittier, more glamorous, more secretive and certainly more seductive.  And much, much more dangerous.

I had almost forgotten how much I could enjoy a book devoid of vampires, werewolves, dystopia and magic.  Ms. Blundell’s Strings Attached was a fabulous reminder.  This book is raw, stark and compelling, yet; oddly simple.

Most of the story takes place in New York City in the 1950s.  Some of the events are real, albeit the timeline may be slightly adjusted.  This is a time when non-traditional families lived packed together in tiny apartments.  Young men are lying about their age so that they can enlist in the military, and all men in uniform are heroes.  Adorable Irish triplets entertain with skits, song and dance.  Young, talented girls are flocking to New York to be on Broadway, or at least dance and sing in posh nightclubs.  Women do their hair in pin-curls, they add a touch of bright red lipstick, and long-distance telephone calls are very expensive.  Trusted family friends may turn out to be very high up in the mob and absolutely nothing is free.

Kit is the 17-year old girl, who, as a triplet, has never been alone in her life.  Despite her lessons, practice and obvious talent, it is still a wildly scary decision to leave her family behind and try to make it in New York City.  While dealing with these intimidating nuances, she is struggling to define her relationship with Billy, who, after a tumultuous fight, has enlisted in the military and will be deployed very soon.  These aren’t her biggest challenges.

Billy’s father, Nate, trusted family friend, begins to do “favours” for Kit, to help her get a good start in the city.  Ever the skeptic, Kit doubts his sincerity.  As she questions his motives, she begins to unravel a mystery involving the least likely of people.  Unbeknownst to her, Billy, too is learning more than he ever wanted to know about his father and his father’s relations.  As Kit and Billy, separately, begin to uncover a truth thought hidden forever, danger surrounds them each.  Will the truth set them free?  Will either of them even live to tell this tale?  The answers will surprise you.  Some questions may never be answered, and sometimes, the hero has to die.

I hope you enjoy reading about Kit’s journey as much as I did.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2013.

Book Reviews: The Cypress House by Michael Koryta, The Attenbury Emeralds by Jill Paton Walsh, and On Borrowed Time by David Rosenfelt

The Cypress House
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-316-05372-3
Hardcover

Death and corruption haunt this tale about a World War I veteran during the Depression who has a unique ability to see whether a person faces an imminent demise because of a trace of smoke in his/her eyes. Arlen Wagner in the late 30’s was a supervisor at a Civilian Conservation Corps (“CCC”) camp and was transferred to another in the Florida Keys along with several others from his detachment.  On the train he saw the sign of death in his fellow passengers and tried to warn them of impending danger, but only 19-year-old Paul Brickhill listened to him.

The two abandoned the train and found themselves at an isolated inn on the Gulf Coast, The Cypress House (a euphemism for a casket).  There they discovered a different kind of danger: a corrupt judge and a sheriff who ruled the area by sheer terror, allowing drugs to be imported from Cuba at a boat landing located near the inn.

The eerie but fascinating tale follows the efforts of the two men, along with Rebecca Cady, who runs the inn, to survive not only the massive 1935 hurricane which caused severe death and destruction, but the human forces that ruled the area.  Written with an excellent eye for describing life during the Great Depression, the novel also exhibits a deep view of human emotions, as Arlen, while wishing to depart as fast as he can, refuses to abandon Rebecca or Paul.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2011.

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The Attenbury Emeralds
Jill Paton Walsh
Minotaur Books, January 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-67454-0
Hardcover

I have a confession to make:  I never read any of the Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries.  As a result, I suppose, I can approach this novel without any prejudice about the originals written by a legendary author, the redoubtable Dorothy L. Sayers.  And I can firmly state that I have been remiss and must hasten to correct my past negligence.

The author undoubtedly undertook a dream assignment:  to bring closure to the series with this concluding work, bringing Lord Peter full circle to recount his first “detective” assignment and finally bringing the ultimate mystery successfully to a conclusion. Initially, Lord Peter undertook to find the missing Attenbury Emeralds which seemed to disappear during an engagement party.  This novel, however, traces further mysteries surrounding the gems through several decades before, during and after World War II.

I have, of course, no way of knowing how authentic the tone of the book or development of the characters is compared to the originals, but I suspect they are completely compatible.  The dialogue, deliberately stilted to simulate upper crust English society, is really touching, and, of course, the interaction between Peter and Harriet poignant.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.

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On Borrowed Time
David Rosenfelt
Minotaur Books, February 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-59836-5
Hardcover

This is a potboiler of a novel, the author’s third standalone.  He is remembered most fondly for his Andy Carpenter series and admired for his home for sick and injured dogs.  He has now turned his creative self to a sort of sci-fi mystery in which journalist Richard Kilmer lives in both a real and a fantasy world.

Without giving the plot away, it is safe to say the story relies on the reader to suspend disbelief in some ways.  Richard is set up to believe what someone wants him to in order to prove the success of an experiment in mind manipulation.  On the other hand, it becomes quite obvious that the more he is channeled in a specific manner, the more he acts contrary to direction, somewhat opposite to what one would expect.

In any event, the novel progresses to almost a soap opera type of conclusion, detracting, in my view, from an otherwise over-all pretty high standard.  That is not to say that I have a better idea, or that the ending is not warranted, at least on the level of what went before.  That said, the book is, for the most part, good fun, and recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.