Book Reviews: A Casualty of War by Charles Todd and The Gate Keeper by Charles Todd

A Casualty of War
A Bess Crawford Mystery #9
Charles Todd
William Morrow, September 2017
ISBN: 978-0-0626-7878-2
Hardcover

In the waning days of WWI, Bess Crawford was stationed at a forward medical base close to the fighting when a Captain was brought in with a head wound.  It turned out that the bullet merely scraped his scalp and he returned to his men the next day, but he claimed he was shot by a British lieutenant resembling his great grandfather, perhaps his cousin, Lieutenant James Travis. A few days later, he was returned to the facility, shot in the back.  Again he told Bess the same man shot him.  Bess got to know the Captain and believed his story.

The Armistice soon took place, and Bess was asked to accompany a convoy of wounded back to England and was granted a week’s leave.  Instead of visiting home in Somerset, accompanied by Sgt. Major Brandon, she traveled to a hospital in Wiltshire where the Captain was being treated.   She was appalled to find him strapped to his bed under horrible conditions (the medical staff thought him mad because of his outbursts regarding his claim to have been shot by a relative, attributing his condition to his head wound).  Strengthening the diagnosis was the fact that James was killed a year before.  Bess insisted he be unshackled and permitted to enjoy fresh air.

She then traveled to Sussex, James’ home, to determine the accuracy of James’ death, discovering even more complications, including the fact that after a brief meeting in Paris earlier in the war, James named the Captain his heir.   Meanwhile, the Captain escapes from the Wiltshire hospital when taken for a walk.  And the story goes on as the complications of the plot unfolds.  The Bess Crawford mysteries, of which this is the ninth, artfully weave the agonies of war with the crimes Bess attempts to solve. With the end of the war on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, where will the series now go?  It deserves to continue in peace, as well!

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2018.

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The Gate Keeper
An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery #20
Charles Todd
William Morrow, February 2018
ISBN: 978-0-0626-7871-3
Hardcover

Charles Todd, the mother-son writing team, offers two different series:  The Gate Keeper is from the Inspector Ian Rutledge mystery series (the other is the Bess Crawford novels).  Both series take place in a similar time frame, during or after World War I, and are based in England (or France, of course, in the trenches).  Rutledge served as a Captain and saw bloody action and was responsible for the execution of his Corporal, Hamish McCleod, who refused orders to lead his men into another futile charge over the top.  Hamish still haunts Rutledge, and his memory serves as sort of assistant to the Inspector by offering observations and warnings when warranted.

As a result of shell shock, Rutledge was, for a time, treated for his mental condition, but now serves as a Scotland Yard detective.  Since his release from the hospital, he has been living in the family home with his sister, who is married at the start of this novel.  Returning from the wedding, he is unable to sleep and decides to go for a drive, ending up far away from his London apartment, where he finds himself witness to a murder.  He insists on taking over the investigation and when another murder occurs, it becomes more important to uncover the reason for each.  Rutledge learns of a third murder far away that might be related to the two he is working on, but it is assigned to another Scotland Yard detective.

The plot is fairly simple, but the solution is a lot more complicated and unexpected.  Rutledge plods on until he finds a common thread to all three murders, then has to turn his attention to the question of who has actually performed the murders.  And this he does with smoothness in this, the 20th novel in the series.  On to the 21st.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2018.

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Book Review: The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey—and a Giveaway!

The Widows of Malabar Hill
A Mystery of 1920s Bombay #1
Sujata Massey
Soho Press, January 2018
ISBN 978-1-61695-778-0
Hardcover

Summary: Perveen Mistry, while assisting her father with an estate case, uncovers family secrets and deceit among the household of wives and children left behind after the patriarch’s death. Her English friend from school assists with her investigation.

The Widows of Malabar Hill begins what will hopefully be a long series with Perveen Mistry as the protagonist. Perveen is an Oxford educated lawyer working with her father in his law practice in the 1920s in Bombay, India. While at that time women could not be admitted to the bar and therefore could not represent clients in court, Perveen was able to perform much of the paper work of the law practice from writing wills to helping clients understand their legal positions. As the book opens, that is where readers find Perveen. Her father is the executor of a recently deceased mill owner who leaves behind three widows and a number of children. The person acting as their guardian has presented a document signed by the three widows stating they wish to forgo their rightful inheritance and turn their dowry gifts over to the trust which the guardian controls. There are two concerns with the document.  First there is some question regarding the signatures and secondly, the document also changes the focus of the trust’s mission, something that cannot so easily be done.

Because the women follow the custom of purdah (complete separation of the sexes), Perveen’s father would not be able to meet with the women, but Perveen can. Perveen goes to the widows’ home to speak with each of the women separately to have them each sign an individual agreement  but also to make sure the women understand exactly what they have agreed to give up and what the stated new mission of the trust is to be. While she is visiting with the second widow, the  guardian returns, overhears what she is saying and orders her to leave. Later she realizes she has left her briefcase and returns to retrieve it only to find the guardian has been murdered. What follows is an excellent murder mystery in which Perveen enlists her English friend from Oxford now living in Bombay to assist her.

There are so many things to love about this book beyond the murder mystery.

Besides the obvious crime to be solved, there is another entire story told throughout the book involving Perveen’s earlier marriage to a handsome businessman from Calcutta. Shifting back and forth from 1916 and 1917 to the story’s present day 1920s, we learn the details of how the couple met, married and why the marriage fell apart. Through this we also have a mini look into the marriage customs of India at that time, some extreme as well as some even then archaic practices.

The historical details the author has included really puts the reader in the 1920s in Bombay. The jumble of the various religious and cultural entities that somehow manage to co-exist is interesting and quite impressive.  Many cultural traditions are included and explained through actions giving readers a sense of being there rather than lectured to.

Included at the end of the book are some historical notes from the author. I would recommend reading those before reading the book. The notes really set the stage for the book.

This was the first book  I read in 2018 and a book I was sorry to see it end. What a great way to start the year.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, January 2018.

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To enter the drawing for a hardcover
copy of The Widows of Malabar Hill
by Sujata Massey, leave a comment
below. The winning name will be
drawn Thursday evening, June 21st.
This drawing is open to
residents of the US and Canada.

Book Review: No Saints in Kansas by Amy Brashear

No Saints in Kansas
Amy Brashear
Soho Teen, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-61695-683-7
Hardcover

In your debut novel, do you dream of going up against somebody like Truman Capote and his seminal novel, In Cold Blood? I don’t think so. I also don’t think you take your story to a Young Adult level and tell the story through the eyes of a deeply distressed teen aged girl who is a relative newcomer to a small Kansas town named Holcomb.Well, author Amy Brashear has done exactly that in her stunning debut novel. Through the persistent and sometimes blurry eyes of Carly Fleming, a horrible multiple murder of a farmer family near the town upends many of the town’s long-time relationships. The principal player in the novel is Carly, relative newcomer to Holcomb, transferring with her criminal defense attorney father from the big city of Manhattan, NY.

Carly’s transition to small town life is not without trouble and as she proceeds into the mid-levels of high school, things become less placid. She has few friends, her brother has problems with his athletics, and Carly’s persistent nosiness is becoming a hindrance.

And then, the multiple murders happen. Carly’s inquisitive nature irks the local sheriff, leads her into multiple fraught situations, attracts and repels her classmates and drives her family nuts.

Carly is a very real rural teen who jumps off the page almost immediately. The author, probably drawing on her own teen experiences, has almost perfectly created a charming, irritating, typical teen-aged girl on the verge of womanhood who will persist in her attempts to solve the crime and live through her father’s experience as the hated defense attorney for a killer.

The atmosphere is true and relevant, Carly’s language and that of her friends and high school adversaries is real and the shifting reactions of the community as the search for a killer and the resulting trial is also real. This is a fine young adult novel that will appeal to a wider adult audience. It is true, there are no saints in Kansas.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Heart of Stone
An Ellie Stone Mystery #4
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63388-183-9
Trade Paperback

Ellie Stone is in the Adirondacks visiting her aunt for the month of August. She is lounging on the dock while her aunt swims (nude) when the sheriff comes  and after hassling her aunt for nude swimming asks Ellie to come with him to photograph a death scene. He needs her to do this because Ellie has an expensive camera and the sheriff has no camera at all. She goes. There is a high cliff that dare devils use to dive from into the lake below. It is not the wisest sport as there is rocky ledge that juts out which divers have to miss. From the looks of things, these two did not miss the shale shelf. Ellie notices some oddities at the scene such as the way the two are dressed and the station wagon parked so close to the edge of the cliff. When the state police become involved they find even more odd things. While one of the victims is a stranger to the area, the other is a young man staying at the music camp. It seems more than a little odd that these two would be stunt diving together.

Ellie is in a good position to investigate which as a newspaper reporter she is inclined to do. Ellie has spent time in the area most of her life and knows many of the people who are staying at the nearby arts camp. She also has an uncanny ability to snoop out the truth.

This is the fourth Ellie Stone book and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I like the mystery presented in Heart of Stone a great deal. I also enjoyed Ellie on vacation, away from her job. On the other hand, the author has a tendency to be overly wordy. In the previous books, I found that this added to the atmosphere of the book. It gave the books a feel of more substance. It seemed to me that  in this book he ramped up the wordage even more. More than once I wanted to shout, “just get on with it!”  The overuse of language was just annoying.

In spite of the language, it is still Ellie Stone who is a most likable protagonist. I would recommend the book and hope that Ziskin can curb the need to use more words when fewer will suffice.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, March 2018.

Book Review: A Strange Scottish Shore by Juliana Gray

A Strange Scottish Shore
Emmeline Truelove Series #2
Juliana Gray
Berkley Trade Paperback, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-425-27708-9
Trade Paperback

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, especially if the story veers toward the mythical and takes place on one of Great Britain’s coasts, you’ve probably heard of selkies, a seal-like creature that comes ashore, sheds its skin and lives like a human. At least for a while, until the sea calls it back.

A Strange Scottish Shore opens when a wall in an ancient Scottish castle is breached and a box is found which contains a suit of peculiar texture. The year is 1906, and while the suit seems to be of a modern rubberized fabric, researchers Maximilian Haywood and his assistant, Emmeline Truelove, ascertain it is the skin of a selkie who in ancient times came ashore from the sea and married the first laird.

But then weird things begin happening. People appear and disappear. Emmeline’s “special” friend Lord Silverton disappears one night. A strange, evil seeming young man appears, and Emmeline meets and speaks with an oddly familiar young woman who gives her a warning. Who are these people? What do they want? Where do they come from, and where do they go so suddenly? It’s a mystery that will take Max, Emmeline, and Silverton from the present, into the past as well as into the future, with danger dogging their steps at every turn.

The unique story premise is intriguing, to be sure. The characters, for the most part, are strong. The dialogue seemed a bit wordy to me, and sometimes, a bit superfluous. A reader will find many twists and turns, and effortlessly, which is the best way, learn a bit about old Scottish castles, the lives of our ancestors, and even the myths they believed in. The ending holds a bit of a surprise, and I think you’ll find it all to the good. As to where the selkie skin (or suit) came from, and to whom it belonged, well, you’ll just have to read the story to find out.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, January 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Zombie Abbey by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Zombie Abbey
Lauren Baratz-Logsted
Entangled Teen, April 2018
ISBN 978-1-63375-911-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

1920, England

And the three teenage Clarke sisters thought what they’d wear to dinner was their biggest problem…

Lady Kate, the entitled eldest.

Lady Grace, lost in the middle and wishing she were braver.

Lady Lizzy, so endlessly sunny, it’s easy to underestimate her.

Then there’s Will Harvey, the proud, to-die-for—and possibly die with!—stable boy; Daniel Murray, the resourceful second footman with a secret; Raymond Allen, the unfortunate-looking young duke; and Fanny Rogers, the unsinkable kitchen maid.

Upstairs! Downstairs! Toss in some farmers and villagers!

None of them ever expected to work together for any reason.

But none of them had ever seen anything like this.

There are zombies and then there are zombies, you know? To put it in TV perspective, you can watch The Walking Dead if you like the serious sort,  Z Nation for pure camp or iZombie if you’re looking for smile-worthy unadulterated fun. Or, hey, go for all three!

Zombie Abbey falls squarely into the fun category although it takes a while to get there. I thought the first half or so was more like an oldfashioned comedy of manners but with a plethora of characters I had to get to know as well as possible. As an historical novel set at an English manor on the cusp of the Roaring Twenties, it reminded me a lot of the Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs stories which are very appealing to me. In fact, I almost expected an Agatha Christie kind of mystery to evolve.

The introduction of the zombie factor had its amusing moments, especially in the stereotypical ability of the British high society to live in denial, unable to fully comprehend the possibility of such a thing upsetting the routine. Each of the many primary characters has a part to play and I most appreciated the three sisters (although Lady Kate is not exactly likeable) and Fanny, the maid with attitude.

Zombie Abbey won’t be for all readers but I enjoyed it, largely because I’m a zombie fan 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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Purchase Links:

Barnes & Noble // Kobo // Amazon
Indiebound // Entangled Publishing

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An Excerpt from Zombie Abbey

Dr. Webb was lurching toward the church out of the mist, something terribly off about his halting gait. More specifically, he was lurching toward Mr. Young.

“Are you all right, Dr. Webb?” Mr. Young called, the former joy in his voice replaced now with concern for the other man.

“Merry!” Lady Grace called out a warning. “Don’t go any farther!”

“But can’t you all see?” Mr. Young said, still walking forward. “Poor Dr. Webb is sick.”

Yes, Dr. Webb was sick. His clothing and general appearance were all disheveled. And he smelled bad, too, the duke realized, as a rotting stench made its way to his nostrils, which flared in response. Why, the smell was similar to that which had enveloped the dead valet, his dead valet, yesterday. Perhaps Dr. Webb had acquired the wretched smell while tending to some poor person in the village?

Dr. Webb still lurched, his arms spreading out now as Mr. Young approached.

“Merry, please!” Lady Grace cried. Then she moved to step forward herself, no doubt to try to stop Mr. Young, but Benedict Clarke held her back, catching her with one arm around the waist.

And now Mr. Young was opening his arms wide, too, as though to warmly greet the returning doctor, but when their bodies met and the doctor embraced him, he immediately began to chew on the closest part of Mr. Young’s body that was available to him, which, in this case, happened to be his upper arm.

The duke watched, frozen in horror as no doubt the others were, too, as the doctor chewed through Mr. Young’s jacket and shirt, straight down to the flesh beneath. It might have been almost comical, were it not so downright horrifying.

Among the things you never expect to see in life: one human being attempting to feed on another like an animal.

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About the Author

Lauren Baratz-Logsted is the author of over 30 books for adults (Vertigo), teens (The Twin’s Daughter) and children (The Sisters 8 series which she created with her husband and daughter). She’d love to dress up in period costume from the 1920s but she’d be a lot less excited about meeting zombies. Lauren lives in Danbury, CT, with her husband and daughter and cat, all of whom are writers (well, maybe not the cat).

Author Links:

Website // Twitter // Facebook // Goodreads

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Giveaway
Signed copy

Enter here.

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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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