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 Reviews: A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré and The Trespasser by Tana French

A Legacy of Spies
John le Carré
Viking, September 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2511-4
Hardcover

The Cold War may have ended many years ago in real life, but not for John le Carré, who has now written a fascinating book derived from two of his earlier George Smiley novels, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  Smiley merely plays a background role in Legacy.  Instead, Peter Guillam, his disciple, who retired from the Circus (the British Secret Service) to the family farmstead in southern France, plays a central part in the story.

Peter receives a letter summoning him to London where he is instructed to review files and interrogated about an operation during the Cold War in which an operative and a source were killed.  It would appear that a potential parliamentary inquiry or even a civil action blaming Peter and others for the deaths and seeking monetary damages, brought by the offspring of the two unfortunate victims, is possible.

As Peter reviews the material, le Carré recreates the times and travails of the period, as we relive through the actions of the characters conditions in East Berlin and the spy craft during the Cold War.  It is history recreated with all the tensions of the period, excellently written with humor and panache.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

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The Trespasser
Dublin Murder Squad #6
Tana French
Penguin, August 2017
ISBN: 978-0-1431-1038-5
Trade Paperback

Antoinette Conway and her partner, Stephen Moran (who she brought on board in the Dublin Murder Squad after working with him in a previous novel) are the newbies in the elite Irish police group, and as such, only receive humdrum domestic dispute assignments.  Until one day the gaffer hands them what turns out to be a murder case of a pretty young woman.  The case turns out to be anything but a simple lovers quarrel.

Antoinette, the only female on the squad, takes a lot of guff from other members (who want her anywhere else), and her resentment shows throughout the book.  While she enjoys her work, she contemplates leaving for an offer in the private sector.  Meanwhile, she has a murder to solve as her first lead detective case and goes about it diligently if somewhat misdirected by an experienced detective assigned to work with the partners for reasons not revealed until the end.

One criticism I made in the previous novel by Tana French was that it was tedious and slow reading.  The same is true of The Trespasser.  One has to plod through a couple of hundred pages of continual repetition before it all begins to make sense.  And then, and only then, does the reading become enjoyable and worthwhile and the plot begin to come together.  The novel would have been rated at a higher level had it not been for this criticism.  Certainly, Ms French writes well and creates clever plots.  One could wish she would now turn her attention to some judicious editing.  That said, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

Book Reviews: Grave Consequences by David and Aimee Thurlo and Night Life by David C. Taylor

Grave ConsequencesGrave Consequences
A Charlie Henry Mystery #2
David and Aimee Thurlo
Minotaur Books, April 2015
ISBN: 978-1- 250-02900-3
Hardcover

Charlie Henry and his sidekick, Gordon, are ex-Special Forces soldiers, now partners in the FOB Pawnshop in Albuquerque, NM, but civilian life hardly is a retiring one for either of them. Trouble seems to find them on a regular basis in this second of a series of action-packed adventure.  Mysteries and mischief seem to just walk into their store.  In this latest story, it begins when a young woman pawns a valuable Navajo necklace.

Soon three gunmen enter the pawnshop in an attempt to retrieve the bracelet. And a shootout results in one of them dead and another wounded, with Charlie and Gordon none the less for wear, but off and running to find out what prompted the invasion.  This leads to a wild goose chase all around the New Mexico city with violence galore until they learn what lies behind they mystery of the bracelet and the death of its creator.

While the plot follows a traditional pattern of a police procedural, and there are plenty of cops involved, with enormous assistance from Charlie and Gordon, the novel really centers on the swashbuckling duo and their antics, rather than detecting clues to solve a crime or murder.  And there is plenty of this type of action to satisfy the most bloodthirsty reader.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2016.

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Night LifeNight Life
A Michael Cassidy Novel #1
David C. Taylor
Forge Books, March 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-7483-7
Hardcover

Michael Cassidy is a detective in New York City’s midtown precinct during the 1950’s in the era of McCarthyism.  He is a dramatic character drawn in the classic mold of a tough hombre.  His godfather is the mafia stalwart Frank Costello, his father an immigrant who started with less than nothing and rose to become a well-known Broadway producer.  Cassidy picks up a murder case, the victim actually a dancer in the show his father is producing and now in rehearsal.

One murder leads to three others, and Michael becomes involved in a web of conspiracies involving the FBI and the CIA, and with Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover, no less.  Cassidy is taken off the murder case by higher-ups, but true to fashion, he persists.  Faced with complications of monumental proportions his doggedness continues.

This novel, a debut, is excellent.  The background of New York City just after World War II is superb, and the atmosphere of the Red Scare years and McCarthyism is very real, especially for those who lived through the period.  The book has much to recommend it, and indeed is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2015.

Book Review: A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen

A Night DividedA Night Divided
Jennifer A. Nielsen
Scholastic Press, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-68242-8
Hardcover

Imagine a couple members of your family go out of town for a night. When darkness descends a fence is erected; enclosing your home, neighbors and half of the city. From the next morning forward, part of your family is on one side of the fence, unequivocally separated from you.

Almost incomprehensible, yet this isn’t the beginning of a dystopian saga. A Night Divided is a heart-breakingly honest retelling of a monumental event experienced by the citizens of Berlin, merely fifty-four years ago. Certainly, most people know “of” The Berlin Wall; albeit in a vague, didn’t-I-hear-about-that-coming-down-David-Hosselhoff-or-something, kind of way. That really doesn’t seem good enough.

In her remarkably ingenious way, Ms. Nielsen took true government oppression and resilient, determined traits of the people to give us vibrant characters against gray, dismal lives. With unprecedented freedom to speak within the pages of this compelling tome; courageous, captivating—yet ordinary, every-day folks–tell their story in a way that will affect everyone.

Introduced as a spunky, outspoken little girl; Gerta grows exponentially, as she relays her years behind the wall in an admirably confident voice. Innocently, and only initially, Gerta watched invasive actions of the police against many of her East Berlin brethren. She puzzled as to why the adults just stood alongside her, also only watching. Frustration and anger quickly overtook her benign curiosity.

Bonding with her beloved older brother, repeatedly witnessing stark, harsh grief as time and again former friends were killed in escape attempts; Gerta learned. And she accepted. There was only one person that could initiate change and there was only one person that she could absolutely, wholly and completely trust. She had only herself. With that resolution, Gerta springs into a fast-paced, harrowing and gripping mission that takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride of feels.

As this young girl doggedly follows her heart, her spirit and hope spread to touch others with varying and surprising effects. More than one family’s story, or even one city’s story, A Night Divided is about true friendships, kindness, generosity, sacrifices and regrets. Of course, Ms. Nielsen wrote it, so it also stands that A Night Divided is just an outstanding, enthralling, fun read …. for Middle Graders, High Schoolers, Young Adults as well as Not-So-Young-Adults.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2015.

Book Reviews: The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd, and Masaryk Station by David Downing

The HeistThe Heist
Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
Bantam, June 2013
ISBN: 978-0-345-54304-23
Hardcover

I found this novel to be superficial.  The press release accompanying it says, among other things, that it is filled with “popcorn thrills.” I find it doubtful that it would make a good movie or television episode.  Why it took two talented, best-selling authors to write it leads one to scratch his/her head in wonder.

It would appear that FBI Special Agent Kate O’Hare was created hopefully as another heroine like the popular Stephanie Plum character from another Evanovich series.  Not even close.  She is a shallow personality full of clichés, as is the novel itself.  The plot is simple (no pun intended):  Kate captures a con man, Nick Fox, only to see him released by her superiors to propagate a bigger con to capture a fugitive financier who stole $500,000 and is secreted on an Indonesian island. To make matters worse, Kate is partnered with Nick in an attempt to capture Fox, recover the money and return him to the United States for arrest.  Of course the whole operation, including the kidnapping, is illegal (but then is the FBI or the U.S. government free from such accusations?).

On a positive note, the writing is smooth and the reading is easy.  Enough said.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.

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The Walnut TreeThe Walnut Tree
Charles Todd
Morrow Paperbacks, October 2013
ISBN:  978-0-06-223687-6
Trade Paperback

A change of pace for this mother-son author team:  A love story, rather than a mystery.  But still set at the start of World War I, with insights into the British class system and the horrors of war. It is the story of Lady Elspeth Douglas, torn between the attractions of two men, duty, and the iron hand of her guardian stifling her independent nature.

Just before the outbreak of war, Elspeth is in Paris, at the behest of her pregnant friend who is awaiting the birth of her first child. After the baby’s birth and the German invasion, she attempts to return to England.  Along the way she voluntarily becomes involved in the hostilities, bringing water to the troops.  There she meets Captain Peter Gilchrist, setting up an emotional conflict with her fiancé, Alain, to whom she sort of became betrothed the night before he left to join the army.  When she gets back to England, she decides to become a nurse, and serves well in France, until her guardian decides that that is not an activity fit for a lady.

The Walnut Tree is an emotional tale from several points of view. And it is told without embellishment, simply and in a straightforward manner. And the writers couldn’t resist introducing a mystery, even if only in passing.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2013.

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Masaryk StationMasaryk Station
David Downing
Soho Crime, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-616-95223-5
Hardcover

With this, the sixth novel in the John Russell series, David Downing brings to a finale the chronicle covering the years between the World Wars, those following the collapse of Nazi Germany.   It has been quite a journey, with Russell having served as a double agent for both the Soviets and Americans, certainly as dangerous as an existence can be.  Each of the novels reflected the times and the clashes of the ideological differences between the two countries.

In the final book, the story of a divided Germany and Berlin is recounted, ending with the seeds that were sown in the fall of the Soviet Empire.  At the same time, the personal conflicts that beset Russell and others who at first embraced and then questioned socialism are explored and analyzed.

Each entry in the series was well-crafted to not only tell a gripping story of our times, but to call to mind the era as portrayed by real-life characters.  It has been an excellently told saga.  (It is unfortunate that the latest volume suffers from poor production, editing and proofreading, riddled with typographical and grammatical errors.)  Next spring, we are promised a new series by the author moving back in time to World War I.

My parenthetical criticism notwithstanding, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2013.

Book Reviews: Dick Francis’s Bloodline by Felix Francis, Phantom by Jo Nesbo, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, and Crow’s Landing by Brad Smith

Dick Francis's BloodlineDick Francis’s Bloodline
Felix Francis
Putnam, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-399-16080-6
Hardcover

The second standalone written by Dick Francis’ son follows the same formula that served the father so well:  A mystery set in the English racing world, populated by the trainers, jockeys and track officials. In this case, the plot involves the Shillingford family, especially race-caller Mark and his twin sister, jockey Clare.  When Clare rode a horse that came in second when it should have won, he believed Clare lost on purpose and over dinner they had a heated argument.

Later that night, Clare fell 15 stories from a London hotel to her death, an apparent suicide.  Bereft, Mark starts asking questions, seeking a reason for her death.  What was the meaning of a short written message which the police believed to be a suicide note, but really is ambiguous?  What, if anything, does the discovery of several blackmail victims in the racing world have to do with her death?

The author shows the same talent as Dick Francis for creating suspense, pitting danger and personal jeopardy for his protagonist on the way of solving the mystery.  And the reader will be hard put to tell the difference in the writing between father and son.  It is virtually indistinguishable.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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PhantomPhantom
Jo Nesbo
Translated by Don Bartlett
Knopf, October 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-96047-4
Hardcover

In the three years since the conclusion of The Leopard, Harry Hole has been serving contentedly as a non-violent enforcer based in Hong Kong, collecting money owed to his employer.  Then one day, he ups and returns to Oslo when he learns that Oleg, the drug-using son of the love of his life, has been arrested for the murder of a fellow junkie. The police consider the case closed, so Harry acts independently to investigate.

And along the way he finds himself immersed in the midst of Norway’s large drug problem.  Hole uncovers a trail of violence and disappearances, police and political corruption, and Harry himself becomes a target of the mysterious drug lord Dubai.  The novel is a bleak story of damaged individuals hooked on drugs, and the sleaziness inherent in the activity.

The prior novels were forceful, clearly showing Harry’s tortured soul, and his unswerving ability to dig, dig, dig to the heart of a case, honestly and insightfully.  Phantom accomplishes these ends, but to some extent is confusing at the end; whether the author did this purposely or not yet remains to be seen.  As usual, the novel is translated faithfully and excellently, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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Agent 6Agent 6
Tom Rob Smith
Grand Central Publishing, January 2013
ISBN: 978-0-446-58308-4
Trade Paperback

The conclusion of the trilogy featuring Leo Demidov is sweeping, from his early days as a KGB agent to his exile in Afghanistan and beyond. Especially interesting is the Russian occupation of that beleaguered nation and the beginnings of the United States involvement there as Russia lost face in its defeat.

More important to the plot is the intrigue, obfuscation, double-dealing and plotting of the Soviet Union and United States during the Cold War.  The story begins with Leo meeting a Paul Robeson-like character in Moscow when he was an agent, and the consequences in the years following.

Tightly plotted, despite its length, the novel reminds us of the challenges of the years during which the two superpowers confronted each other. The characters are real, from an over-zealous FBI agent to the unfortunate victims of those countries’ invasions of Afghanistan.  An absorbing thriller to bring The Secret Speech and Child 44 to a satisfying finish.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

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Crow's LandingCrow’s Landing
Brad Smith
Scribner, August 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-7853-6
Trade Paperback

Sometimes a protagonist has to go looking for trouble; other times trouble has a way of finding the protagonist.  In the case of Virgil Cain, trouble usually finds him – – in spades.  In a previous entry in the series, he was arrested for murder and had to break out of jail to exonerate himself.  In the current novel, he just goes fishing, and lands in a heap of difficulties.

When he anchored in the Hudson River, the last thing Virgil expected to reel in was a stainless steel cylinder containing 100 pounds of pure cocaine.  But that’s what happened when he lifted his anchor and the cylinder was attached.  As a result, he becomes involved with a crooked policeman who seizes the cylinder and Cain’s boat, the original owner of the contraband who threw it overboard seven years previous, and others, all seeking to make a score by taking possession of the dope.

It is a well-drawn tale, with little real mystery but plenty of plot and action.  A well-written story, tightly developed, Crow’s Landing is the second in the series, and definitely warrants a third. Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.