Book Reviews: Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter, Love’s Sweet Sorrow by Richard Brawer, and Shadows on a Maine Christmas by Lea Wait

Curses and SmokeCurses and Smoke
A Novel of Pompeii
Vicky Alvear Shecter
Arthur A. Levine Books, May 2014
ISBN 978-0-545-50993-0
Hardcover

Curses and Smoke sizzles, like the soles of the feet racing away from the viciously spewing Vesuvius. Packed with heat, this book engulfs the reader with warmth and comfort while experiencing the friendship between Lucia and her best friend, the very pregnant and central Cornelia. Often smoldering, as the relationship between the daughter of the hate-filled, bitter Gladiator School Owner, Lucia, and his Healer Slave, Tags, deepens. Slow-burning admiration bordering on obsession adds flair as the spoiled-rich-man-playing-as-a-gladiator Quintus reveals his massive self-absorption and his desire for Tag’s approval.

Rumblings among this perfect blend of characters keep the pace moving as quickly as the animals fleeing Pompeii. Eruptions of anger, lewd displays of the overall disdain for women, and vile acts supporting and perpetuating the ignorance send red hot flames through the reader. Tension builds in direct correlation with the gathering of force within the earth and Cornelia’s expanding belly. Tender moments like those between Tags and his (self-appointed) assistant medicus, the young slave Castor; temper the heat quite kindly.

The interaction between the Roman and Etruscan humans create a spark. The author guarantees flames with her articulate presentation of both Roman and Etruscan gods and goddesses. Her knowledge of these histories, coupled with her clear understanding and empathy of the relationship the humans had with their gods and goddesses alludes to Ms. Shecter having had personal experience with her own goddess.

Divine assistance is the only explanation as to how Ms. Shecter brilliantly presents the geographical phenomena recorded during the weeks preceding the unfathomable eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, while encouraging fond recollections of Apollo, Hercules, Venus and Poseidon simultaneously introducing Mephistis, Samnite goddess of poisonous vapors, and Turan, the Etruscan goddess of love.

The author faced and conquered the formidable challenge of honestly portraying the ridiculous, inexcusable dismissal of females. She artfully hints at it with comments from the men in power: Lucia’s father, her “betrothed” and even Cornelia’s husband. The point is driven home in a heart-wrenching scene when Lucia confesses her consuming grief over the deaths of her baby sisters.

Throughout the engrossing story, there is hope. Genuine love, the true fondness for another person is rarely expressed as beautifully and sincerely. Decisions that Lucia and Tag are forced to make as the inevitable looms closer, demonstrate the kindness, generosity and support that we are all capable of.

Although only a small boy, Castor’s role is essential. He brings smiles, forces individuals to look deeply within and encourages the reader to keep perspective, while reminding us that there is always at least one reason to carry on.

I found this to be especially spectacular and I will be recommending it often.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2014.

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Love's Sweet SorrowLove’s Sweet Sorrow
Richard Brawer
Vinspire Publishing, August 2014
ISBN 978-0-9890632-7-2
Trade Paperback

Jason Sorren has put his murky past behind him and has landed on his feet in a big way. He’s changed his name to hide his past, has an impressive career and enjoys the best of everything. He has had many a girlfriend but none that caught his fancy as much as the ever elusive Ariel Hammond. But when Jason discovers a note that reveals a connection between two people involved in diverted arms shipments, he puts himself and Ariel in danger. After that the book becomes basically a cat and mouse chase between Jason, seeking the truth and gathering evidence, and the people trying to eliminate everyone with knowledge of the conspiracy. Oh, and there is a love story of sorts between Jason and Ariel.

The book was a fast paced read with many different plot threads to interest just about everyone. That would be my one criticism of the book. The author seems to want to please everyone and may instead leave everyone feeling a little empty. The book is basically a thriller with a love story, but also brings in a bit about the Quakers (Ariel’s religion) and Native Americans (a tie in with Jason’s childhood). And for good measures, the author threw in a mob connection.

The main characters are strong enough to carry a series. Perhaps the author should have used several books to cover the various topics. I would enjoy reading more about Jason and Ariel, but maybe with fewer topics involved.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, December 2014.

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Shadows on a Maine ChristmasShadows on a Maine Christmas
An Antique Print Mystery
Lea Wait
Perseverance Press, September 2014
ISBN 978-1-56474-547-7
Trade Paperback

Maggie Summer has come to Maine during Christmas vacation to visit a man she would like to be more than a boyfriend. The obstacles in the way of furthering the relationship include her decision to adopt and his opposition to the adoption. In addition, he is caregiver to his 90 year old aunt, and living in different states completes the unfavorable equation.

Sub-zero weather in the days leading up to Christmas adds challenges to Maggie’s visit and the seeming unwillingness of her friend to include her in his future business plans almost assures an end to their relationship. When an acquaintance is murdered and Maggie’s assistance is sought to find the killer, Will becomes even more withdrawn and secretive about his business affairs. In spite of the approval of Will’s elderly aunt, can the holidays bring anything but more distress to a troubled relationship?

Intriguing characters and a Christmas snow-covered Victorian town provides a lovely setting to a compelling plot. Recommended reading over the holidays.

Reviewed by Elaine Faber, October 2014.
Author of Black Cat’s Legacy.

Book Reviews: Resolve by J.J. Hensley, A Delicate Truth by John Le Carre, and Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

ResolveResolve
J.J. Hensley
Permanent Press, April 2013
ISBN: 978-1-57962-313-5
Hardcover

This debut novel probably tells the reader more than he/she wants to know about running a marathon and the various Pittsburgh neighborhoods in which it is run, but it ties together the plot of several murders. Dr. Cyprus Keller is the protagonist.  He is a professor at a relatively undistinguished Steel City university and is one of several academics forming a running group in addition to their teaching responsibilities.

When one of his students is found murdered, he becomes part of the police investigation.  And then several more murders occur, and he is a common denominator.  Deeply involved, he undertakes his own investigation into the crimes, and as a result is an active participant in the developments that arise.  Early on, he discloses that he will murder one person during the marathon, and as the race progresses, the reader awaits the act and how Keller proposes to get away with the deed.

Each chapter begins with a description of the various phases of the 22.2 mile race, sometimes dropping a clue, others just describing the neighborhood or the pain of running.  The summary is then followed by a narrative of events leading up to the novel’s denouement. It is an interesting technique.  While a reader can become bored by a lot of minutiae, the novel is cleverly written and for a first effort deserves praise.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2013.

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A Delicate TruthA Delicate Truth
John le Carre
Viking, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-01489-7
Hardcover

In the present atmosphere of clandestine operations, the result of which the public has been ill-informed and too often kept in the dark, John Le Carre has fashioned a novel built around a bungled black op covered up for three years.  The story begins with the hatching of “Operation Wildfire,” comprising British special force soldiers and American mercenaries employed by a private company.  The aim is to capture an arms dealer who, according to intelligence, is to visit the British colony of Gibraltar.

A Foreign Office functionary is selected to be the on-the-spot eyes-and-ears for a minister of Her Majesty, nominally in charge of the operation.  Like many such actions, it results in failure, but is declared a total success, despite the fact that two innocents are killed and the subject never captured.  Three years later, various persons, directly or tangentially, separately begin to question the silence and attempt to uncover the facts.  The promised “transparency” never seems to arrive.

After a somewhat muddled beginning, in which Mr. Le Carre jumps all around, a bit confusing to the reader, he begins to move the plot straightforwardly and with dispatch.  The author raises the basic question of right and wrong, also lambasting the use of private armies to wage “little wars” around the globe and old boy networks where mistakes are covered up and witnesses bought off.  A topic that is, unhappily, very timely.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.

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Deadly HarvestDeadly Harvest
Michael Stanley
Bourbon Street Books/Harper Paperbacks, May 2013
ISBN: 978-0-06-222152-0
Trade Paperback

In this, the fourth Detective Kubu mystery, a new character, detective Samantha Khama, joins the Botswana CID, the only female on the police force.  And immediately shakes things up, insisting on an investigation into the disappearance of young girls.  After initial misgivings, Kubu takes her under his wing, and together they uncover what appears to be the harvesting of human parts for muti, a witch doctor’s potion customarily made with plants and herbs and possibly animal parts, which is supposed to enhance a person’s power or luck.

The plot follows one murder after another beginning with that of a leading opposition politician, followed by that of two young girls. Obviously a serial killer is at large, and Kubu and Samantha have their work cut out for them.

This is a grisly story, rich in detail.  Written by a team of two that is quite knowledgeable of southern Africa, they have created a memorable cast of characters, and it remains to be seen how they will develop this latest, terrific, addition to the Kubu series.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2013.