Book Review: Celine by Peter Heller

Celine
Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7
Hardcover

Celine is one of the most fascinating and hard to describe books I have read recently. In many ways, it is really two books in one. In the prologue, readers watch a happy family outing turn tragic and meet the little girl who will eventually be Celine’s client. If you are a reader who generally skips prologues, DON’T skip this one. It is important.

Moving on to the first chapter readers are introduced to Celine, one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve met. In her sixties, she works as a PI specializing in reuniting families but is also an artist using mostly found items that can be best described as macabre. For instance, in the opening scene she is creating a sculpture of  the skeleton of a mink looking down on it’s own skin drying on a rock with a crow’s skull nearby. Celine suffers from emphysema from her many years of smoking. There is a sadness about her that readers should realize right away explains much of what she does. She has suffered many losses in her life from her father’s absence from his family to the death of her sisters. But even as her story unfolds, we sense that Celine has lost even more.

Fast forward to the call from a much younger woman who has read about Celine’s work in a college alumni magazine. The woman, Gabriela, has also suffered losses in her life. The first painful loss was her small cat who disappeared when she was seven. But that loss is quickly overshadowed by a much bigger loss, that of her mother. As terrible as that was it was at least clear cut. Her mother drowned. Sadly that brought about the loss of her father at least emotionally. But it was  the actual death of her father many years later that  haunted her and brought her to Celine. Her father, a world renowned photographer, supposedly was killed, and possibly eaten, by a bear just outside of Yellowstone. No body was ever recovered. Gabriela has long questioned the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Too many things in the investigation just didn’t quite add up. Celine takes the case and proceeds to Wyoming to investigate.

From that point on, the book shifts from Celine’s investigation and flashbacks to her own story.  In the end, readers find out what became of Gabriela’s father, but sadly, the mystery of Celine’s deep sadness is not fully revealed. I am hoping that there will be another case for Celine. Readers (and Celine) want closure.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, March 2017.

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Book Review: Cold Heart by Karen Pullen—and a Giveaway!

cold-heartCold Heart
A Stella Lavender Mystery #2
Karen Pullen
Five Star, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-4328-3257-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Motivated by her mother’s long-ago unsolved abduction, Stella Lavender has joined the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation only to be severely challenged by her first assignment: undercover drug agent. Stella works nights, buying drugs from paranoid drug dealers, gathering evidence to send them to prison or turn them into informants. She’s great at the job because, as her boss says, “you don’t look like a cop.” But the physical danger and the necessary betrayals are getting to her. When she sees a chance to work homicide, she’ll always take it.

One afternoon Stella gives a hitchhiking teenager a ride to her babysitting job in a wealthy neighborhood. Horror awaits them–the father lies dead in a pool of blood, and his toddler is missing. Stella joins the murder investigation as the puzzle quickly grows. Most importantly, where is the toddler? A dizzying array of plausible suspects provides more questions than answers.

At the same time, Stella’s personal life offers plenty of distractions. Her grandmother Fern, a free-spirited artist with male admirers wrapped around every one of her paint-stained fingers, needs Stella’s help with expensive house repairs. And Stella’s attraction to three very different men means her romantic life is, well, complicated.

Cold Heart draws the reader into a darkly delightful page-turner as Stella rummages through every strata of society in her relentless and sometimes unconventional pursuit of a cold-hearted murderer who won’t stop at just one victim.

If you’re not careful, sometimes what you wish for turns out to be much more than you think it’s going to be. Stella Lavender is good at what she does, working Narcotics, but she really wants to get into the Homicide division. When she picks up a hitchhiker, she has no idea that she’s about to walk smack into a murder case but she’s more or less prepared for that. What surprises her are the connections she discovers she has to the case, kind of a six degrees of separation thing.

The fact that Stella made a drug buy just the night before from the man who’s now lying dead is just one of those links and she soon finds that her personal life isn’t as separated from work as she’d like it to be. For instance, could one of the many men who orbit around her charismatic grandmother be somehow involved and is Fern hiding things from Stella? Are other people being attacked because Stella herself is really the target and, if so, why? Most importantly, what has happened to the dead man’s toddler daughter, Paige?

There are a few too many coincidences in the plot but a plethora of leads and suspects kept me guessing for quite a while and the characters, particularly Stella, are interesting. I liked her very much and appreciated her determination and even her occasional rule-bending. Stella Lavender is a cop I could be friends with 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2017.

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Just by leaving two comments,
you’ll have a chance to win a
print copy of the first book in
the series, Cold Feet. Leave
one comment today and one
on yesterday’s guest blog by
Karen Pullen. The winning name
will be drawn Thursday evening,
January 26th. This drawing is
open to residents of the US.

Book Review: Two Summers by Aimee Friedman

two-summersTwo Summers
Aimee Friedman
Point, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-51807-9
Hardcover

Fifteen-year-old Summer Everett is set to fly off to the south of France for a visit with her artist father and a chance to see his painting, Fille. Her father’s painting of his daughter as a young girl hangs in a museum there, and Summer has never seen it in person. Summer’s divorced mother discouraged the visit from the beginning, and Summer waits at the boarding gate with a heavy heart because of the terrible quarrel with her mother just before her best friend picked her up to drive her to the airport.

Just as she’s about to hand over her boarding pass and walk onto the plane, Summer’s cell phone rings. It’s a number she doesn’t recognize. From that point, we are swept into the story of two possible summers. In one, she ignores the call and goes to France. In the other, she answers the call and stays home in Upstate New York. In both, she breaks from her normal life, learns about herself, and must process changes in her life that include her best friend breaking bonds and a devastating family secret.

We learn about these scenarios through Summer’s first person descriptions, actions, and thoughts. Sometimes her inner thoughts sound profound, more like mature reflection on her actions, and sometimes her thoughts are childish. Altogether, she’s split, like her summer, thus becoming realistic and worthy of our concern.

I couldn’t put the book aside for long without wondering what would happen. How would the two summers (Summers) fit together and become whole? This is an imaginative coming-of-age story, or two stories, that include beautiful descriptions of a picturesque French village in Provence, exciting New York City, and a tranquil small town in New York State. There’s as much here for an adult as there is for a teenager.

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

Book Review: Remember Me This Way by Sabine Durant

Remember Me This WayRemember Me This Way
Sabine Durant
Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books, May 2015
ISBN 978-1-476-71632-9
Hardcover

From the publisher:  One year after her husband Zach’s death, Lizzie Carter, 41 years old, goes to lay flowers on the site of his fatal accident.  Since the tragedy, she just hasn’t been the same, racked with grief and guilt and regret and . . . relief.  Even though her friends tell her she’s grieved enough for her ‘prince charming,’ her memories of a darker side of Zach that no one else knew are burned into her brain and won’t let her forget him.   But as she puts her flowers down at the roadside, she sees a bouquet of lilies at the foot of the tree.  Addressed to her husband.  She isn’t the first to pay her respects . . . but who is Xenia?  As Lizzie learns more about her husband’s past, she begins to realize that maybe she didn’t know Zach at all.  But she’s still tormented by her guilt and the memories that just won’t fade . . . because Zach doesn’t seem to be as gone as everyone thinks.  And she just can’t shake the feeling that he’s still out there, watching her, waiting to claim her as his own once again.  After all, just because we love someone doesn’t mean we can trust them . . . .

Lizzie does psychometric testing for a living; Zach is an artist, although a not-yet-successful one.  The p.o.v. alternates between that of Zach (the first page is his, and though only one page long [before the narration switches to Lizzie’s], it is quite startling, letting the reader know at once what he/she is in for.  Lizzie’s p.o.v. sections take place initially in February 14, 2013, a year to the day of Zach’s car crash, on a Cornish roadside in the middle of Cornwall and 200 miles from her home in London.  She thinks to herself “His death feels real for the first time.  I must let him go, hard as it is, because, despite everything, he was the love of my life.”  The next section, Zach’s, takes place in July, 2009.  As opposed to Lizzie’s thoughts as described above, he is thinking “She doesn’t appreciate me, that’s the problem.”

All the following alternating p.o.v. sections follow those same timelines [Zach’s last ending on the day of his car crash], wherein initially Zach has a significant other named Charlotte, overlapping with his meeting and becoming involved with Lizzie.  All who meet Zach, who is pretty much addicted to Xanax and tramadol, see him as a very handsome and charming man, although he is self-described as being “not very nice” [with which the reader wholeheartedly agrees], and “. . . People like me can’t relax.  We may roam outside the boundaries that restrict the behavior of other people, but we’re never free.”

The characters all come alive in these pages, but Zach is one of a kind, displaying love, jealousy, and vengeance, among other traits.    The ending is shocking, but thoroughly believable.  This is a book, and characters, who will stay with the reader after the last page is read, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2016.

Book Review: The Spoils of Avalon by Mary F. Burns

The Spoils of Avalon Tour Banner

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Title: The Spoils of Avalon
Series: A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery Book One
Author: Mary F. Burns
Publisher: Sand Hill Review Press
Publication Date: November 1, 2014
Genre: Historical Mystery

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“An artist, a writer, a murder, a mysterious tome, a dissolving time, a crime,
Arthurian legends, ancient saints books and bones. Burns’ prose drives and
is sublime, with characters and settings that live on in your mind. This is an
original historical mystery connecting the Age of Industry with the Age of Miracles.”
– Stephanie Renée dos Santos, forthcoming novel: Cut From The Earth

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Goodreads

Amazon Buy Button

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The Spoils of AvalonThe Spoils of Avalon
A John Singer Sargent/Violet Paget Mystery Book One
Mary F. Burns
Sand Hill Review Press, November 2014
ISBN 978-1-937818-28-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

The death of a humble clergyman in 1877 leads amateur sleuths Violet Paget and John Singer Sargent into a medieval world of saints and kings—including the legendary Arthur—as they follow a trail of relics and antiquities lost since the destruction of Glastonbury Abbey in 1539. Written in alternating chapters between the two time periods, The Spoils of Avalon creates a sparkling, magical mystery that bridges the gap between two worlds that could hardly be more different—the industrialized, Darwinian, materialistic Victorian Age and the agricultural, faith-infused life of a medieval abbey on the brink of violent change at the hands of Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell.

First in a new series of historical mysteries, The Spoils of Avalon introduces two unlikely detectives and life-long friends—beginning as young people on the verge of making their names famous for the next several decades throughout Europe and America: the brilliant and brittle Violet Paget, known as the writer Vernon Lee, and the talented, genial portrait painter John Singer Sargent.

Writing a novel in two different time periods is nothing new but doing it really well is not so easy. The Spoils of Avalon is, to my way of thinking, a prime example of doing it oh, so very well. I was intrigued when offered the chance to read and review this because I’m fond of both the Arthurian legend and its time and the Victorian period for historical fiction and historical mysteries (not to mention pure historical nonfiction). Ms. Burns not only didn’t fail me, she gave me one of the best reads I’ve had all year.

The first thing I have to mention is the tone of the alternating chapters. By that, I mean there is no mistaking whether it’s 1539 or 1877 because the author has such a fine sense of the language and the syntax of each time and the events that were occurring, historically speaking. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell were in the midst of destroying the monasteries in 1539 and the fear and disillusionment felt by the Abbot, the young monk, Arthur, and other abbey monks who gave their loyalty to the Church is palpable. Looking back from today, we know how Henry and Cromwell rampaged through all the church holdings, taking their wealth for the Crown and leaving the English Church in ruins. Contrasted with that time is the Victorian era and it’s industrialization and the beginnings of women’s freedoms. Violet and John speak in the mode of language you would anticipate and show the signs of modernity that would have certainly been evident in 1877 England.

The characters, primarily Arthur, John and Violet, all came to life for me. I felt the Abbot’s distress and Arthur’s devotion to the man while he was having doubts about his own future as a monk. Seeing Arthur in a teenaged role was interesting, lending a new facet to the king he was to become. John’s love of art, in this time before he gained fame, runs throughout the story and it’s his eye for detail that makes him such a good sleuth. Then there’s Violet, a woman I had not heard of before who made a name for herself as a writer in a man’s world. In Ms. Burns’ hands, Violet is incredibly engaging and intelligent with a wit that enlivens her conversations. She has joined the small group of Victorian sleuths I call my favorites.

Getting to the bottom of how Reverend Crickley met his untimely end is, of course, the core of the tale and it’s a very pleasing bit of sleuthing that John and Violet take on. Is the less-than-totally-charming Lord Parke somehow involved? The housekeeper, Mrs. Barnstable? The lawyer Wattendall? And what is the motive behind the death?

Anyone in search of a truly engaging mystery with depth of character and plot and interesting historical settings would do well to pick up The Spoils of Avalon, first in what I hope will be a very long series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2014.

About the Author

Mary F. BurnsMary F. Burns is the author of PORTRAITS OF AN ARTIST (Sand Hill Review Press, February 2013), a member of and book reviewer for the Historical Novel Society and a former member of the HNS Conference board of directors. A novella-length book, ISAAC AND ISHMAEL, is also being published by Sand Hill Review Press in 2014. Ms. Burns’ debut historical novel J-THE WOMAN WHO WROTE THE BIBLE was published in July 2010 by O-Books (John Hunt Publishers, UK). She has also written two cozy-village mysteries in a series titled The West Portal Mysteries (The Lucky Dog Lottery and The Tarot Card Murders).

Ms. Burns was born in Chicago, Illinois and attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where she earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in English, along with a high school teaching certificate. She relocated to San Francisco in 1976 where she now lives with her husband Stuart in the West Portal neighborhood. Ms. Burns has a law degree from Golden Gate University, has been president of her neighborhood association and is active in citywide issues. During most of her working career she was employed as a director of employee communications, public relations and issues management at various San Francisco Bay Area corporations, was an editor and manager of the Books on Tape department for Ignatius Press, and has managed her own communications/PR consulting business, producing written communications, websites and video productions for numerous corporate and non-profit clients.

Ms. Burns may be contacted by email at maryfburns@att.net. For more information please visit Mary Burns’s website. You can also connect with Mary on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, or read her blog posts at:

www.jthewomanwhowrotethebible.com
www.literarygracenotes.blogspot.com
www.portraitsofanartist.blogspot.com
www.sargent-pagetmysteries.blogspot.com
www.genesisnovel.blogspot.com

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Follow the tour here.

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Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Book Reviews: Heir Today by J.J. & Bette Golden Lamb and A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend

Heir TodayHeir Today
J.J. & Bette Golden Lamb
Five Star Mysteries, August 2005
ISBN: 978-1-59414-356-4
Hardcover

Paige Alper, free-lance writer and her husband, Max, receive a letter from a tracer firm in New York. For a hefty fee, the letter says, the heir tracers will locate a dead relative’s assets and hand over some money. The dead relative is, of course, a black sheep, the most fascinating member of her family and a world-wandering sailor whom she doesn’t see much of. Nor does her sister who turns out to be a ten-carat bitch and even more interesting, even though she has only a minor role in the story.

Paige’s sister Sheryl, is a grasping, quick-buck hausfrau who wants to immediately sign away her rights and get whatever small amount of cash is available. Paige, more astute, more suspicious and less in need of quick cash, declines to sign. She and her husband, crusading free-lance journalist Max, set out to find Uncle Jock’s money. Family conflict and some fine spats between sisters is one result.

What Max and Paige don’t realize is that an evil Chinese organization with world-wide interests and tentacles has also been stalking Uncle Jock. That’s because Jock, incautious sailor that he was, had for years been collecting damaging evidence against the Hong Kong based crime syndicate. Jock was on a personal vendetta.

If this all sounds a little like that old comic strip “Terry and the Pirates,” it’s not surprising. Nevertheless, Paige and Max are fun characters to follow, and even if their dialogue is sometimes right out of the forties, it’s clear they have a solid relationship and are very supportive of each other. Couple conflict is not really in their makeup.

That’s a good thing because their search takes them from the Far East up and down the California Coast, and to New York, among other places. They are attacked in any number of ingenious ways and it’s a wonder they make it through even a single day with the power of the huge, malevolent, Asian gang arrayed against them. They do survive to fight another day and it really is a lot of fun following this breathless pair on foot, on motorbike and by car, train and plane to a final solution. The book sports an intriguing cover and an awkward title. I confess to not generally liking punning titles.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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A Nearly Perfect CopyA Nearly Perfect Copy
Allison Amend
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday,
ISBN 978-0-385-53669-1
Hardcover

This is an amazing, enthralling novel. The characters of the two primary protagonists are so carefully and even lovingly developed, that one can reach the final pages and experience an unsettling sense of loss. The novel is about loss, the loss of friendship and professional respect, of a cherished child, the loss of a treasured inheritance, and the loss of moral integrity.

The story, impeccably told, revolves around two people, both involved in the international art world. Elmira Howells works for her family’s Manhattan auction house. She holds a solid reputation as an expert in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century drawings and prints. Her family house, Tinsleys, is a long-established powerhouse in international art auction activities.

In Paris, a displaced Spanish artist, Gabriel Connois is experiencing yet another disappointment in a promising career as a painter that is going nowhere fast. Ultimately decisions by each of these individuals, though they might never meet or even become aware of each other, will materially alter their lives forever.

Smoothly written with impeccable style, through the careful development of these two characters, we come to deeper understanding of family and motherhood, of tragedy and loss and how sometimes thoughtless and casual decisions can substantively bring one to the edge of legal and ethical ruin. The twisting slippery maze of connection, favors, and political maneuverings of the art world will be revelatory to many, and the perception that the true value of art is so problematical only adds to the depth of this novel.

This is not a novel in which authorities and experts pursue art criminals and blatant forgers. There are no shootouts or mysterious late-night rendezvous. The crimes that take place, the cloning, and the forgeries, are more subtle and harsh blame more difficult to assign. I was not prepared to feel sympathy for Elm Howells, in spite of her loss. She is not, in the end a very sympathetic character, nor is the flailing if talented artist, Gabriel Connois. Yet, in the end, when Elm finally encounters for the first time the artist Gabriel whose work helped bring about her downfall, she realizes that he could never understand—even if he knew—“that she was both the artist and the forger of her own life.”

Readers with the slightest interest in the art world or in family tragedy will find this novel fascinating.

A copy of the work was supplied at no cost.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: The Third Eye by Andrew Seewald and Jacqueline Seewald and The Devil Laughed by Gerrie Ferris Finger

The Third EyeThe Third Eye
A Pine Barrens Mystery
Andrew Seewald and Jacqueline Seewald
Five Star, September 2013
ISBN 978-1-4328-2698-7
Hardcover

I read this book in two sittings, which should let you know that I enjoyed it a bunch.  I use to think this type of book wasn’t “what I read,” but now I’ve determined I read pretty much everything.  The concept, dialogue, and storytelling in The Third Eye are fun and fast paced. The main characters, “Jim,” “Raven,” and “Ariel” are well thought out and speak to the reader well.

“Jim” is thrust into a detective role as his discovery of two dead bodies leads the Sheriff to his home… his mother looks awfully suspicious for the murders.  Jim works with his brother, friend, and mother to figure out what really is happening in the small town.  I felt like the authors painted a vivid picture instead of just telling me the story.

The Third Eye was an excellent read and I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages and types.

Reviewed by Chris Swinney, July 2013.
Author of the upcoming Gray Ghost.

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The Devil LaughedThe Devil Laughed
A Moriah Dru / Richard Lake Mystery
Gerrie Ferris Finger
Five Star, September 2013
ISBN 978-1-4328-2697-0
Hardcover

The Devil Laughed was an interesting book.  Although I had difficulty keeping track of the point of view being used by the author at times, I was able to keep reading and learning more about the main characters “Lake” and “Moriah,” both with law enforcement ties.

“Moriah” makes a discovery which brings up an old cold case.  The two of them try to figure out what happened then and what funny business is occurring now.  There is quite a bit of dialogue, which helps keep the story going.  There’s also a hint of their relationship, which helps pull you into each character.

Overall, The Devil Laughed is worth a read.  I think it could be slightly shorter and edited a little tighter.  Nevertheless, I was able to see a developing plot that was interesting, but it wasn’t obvious.  The ending was well thought out and made sense, which is crucial.

Reviewed by Chris Swinney, June 2013.
Author of the upcoming Gray Ghost.