Friday, November 21, 2014

BOTTICELLI'S BASTARD by STEVEN MAITLAND-LEWIS

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This is a fun read with more than a little history in it.  If the word history puts you off, I hasten to explain that this book is never ever boring.  I'm bursting to tell you what makes it so much fun but that would spoil the read for you, so mum's the word.

The main character in the story is Giovanni Fabrizzi, expert restorer of old paintings.  He learned the skill from his father and in turn passed it on to his son.  The family is of course Italian, but Giovanni is based in London while his son runs the Italian studio.  For decades Giovanni had a beloved studio in an old building in Soho Square but had been forced by his clients' insistence to move into a large, impersonal, secure building where he has to carry a paper that lists all the codes to gain access to his own studio.  Even there, he has to use codes to open up the two storerooms, one housing his current work and the other for other paintings.

In search of a painting that would be an appropriate wedding gift for a client to give his son, Giovanni finds a portrait in a crate that his father had shipped to him some time ago.  The subject turns out to be Count Marco Lorenzo Pietro de Medici.  Yes, those Medici's.  As you can see by the cover, the young man was handsome and proud, perhaps arrogant.  There is a claim that this unsigned portrait was actually painted by Botticelli.

Giovanni's life has been in turmoil ever since his wife died.  She was his true soul-mate and he mourns her every day although she has been gone for several years, and nearly a year ago he had married a much younger, beautiful woman.  His marriage is suffering because of his sadness and he is unable to complete a restoration he has promised by a certain date.

He becomes obsessed with learning the true origin of the portrait.  As he seeks out information we learn about the theft of European art by the Nazi's and how many of the paintings they seized were never returned to the Jewish families who owned them.  We learn the strange story of this particular painting and of its various owners through the years.  But since this is mostly told as stories in conversation, it's never dry reading.  I felt like I was listening to a wonderful storyteller.

Highly recommended
Source:  IRead Tours

Monday, November 17, 2014

BLEEDING KANSAS by SARA PARETSKY

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When I saw Sara Paretsky's name at a book sale, I automatically picked up the book.  I had read all of her V. I. Warshawski series and loved every volume.  This was a stand-alone: I put it in my bag, confident that it would be a great read.  It turned out to have nothing to do with the bleeding Kansas of John Brown and the fight over whether Kansas would be a slave state or free.  Okay, I thought, let's see what it is about and I'm glad I went ahead and read it.

The story concerns a farming community where three families have lived and worked the land for generations.  The Grelliers, Jim, Susan, and their children Chip and Lara, love the land and try to be good neighbors.  The Schapens, Myra the grandmother, Arnie the father whose wife left him, and sons Junior and Robbie are avid adherents of a church that makes fundamentalist churches look downright liberal.  In between the Grelliers and the Schapens is the Fremantle house.  Old Mrs. Fremantle has died and a relative, Gina Haring, moves in.  Haring claims to be wiccan and she brings along her friend, a woman who runs a store in town that sells all kinds of suspicious things connected with wiccans.

Gina Haring's appearance sets off a kind of war.  A lesbian who celebrates strange holiday rituals?  Myra's blog (that everyone reads even if they won't admit it) is full of ridiculous claims. Then a Schapen cow gives birth to a red calf and city ultra-orthodox Jewish elders arrive and say it's the perfect calf for a ceremony to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, the Schapen family has visions of wealth beyond belief.

All of this plus a teenage bully, a handicapped boy, young people in a forbidden love results in an explosive atmosphere that you know will have a bad ending.  As much as I love the V.I. Warshawski series, this is my favorite Sara Paretsky novel.  

Maybe it's because I'm from the Midwest (not Kansas), the characters are familiar ones to me. Well, except for the Schapens who are an exaggeration of midwestern types to make a point. Paretsky grew up in Kansas and she remembers those people clearly.

Highly recommended
Source:  book sale

Saturday, November 15, 2014

TEHRAN AT TWILIGHT by SALAR ABDOH

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Tehran, a city that inspires many emotions in Americans, mostly a mixture of fear and curiosity.  It was the latter that made me enter the LibraryThing contest to win a copy of this novel.  It is written by a man who was born in Iran and currently splits his time between Tehran and New York City where he teaches creative writing.

His hero is Reza Malek, the year is 2008, and Malek's best friend has just asked him to return to Tehran.  Malek is a teacher in NYC who also works in Iran as a translator for media.  He and Sina Vafa went to college together in California where their fathers had taken them to escape the violence of Iran.  From there the two men took opposite paths as Vafa became radicalized. Now Vafa is in over his head and needs Malek's help.  

The story is about the love of friends, and of mothers and sons set against the reality that is Tehran and the streets of New York.  Thanks to his friend, Malek is reunited with his mother who had supposedly run away with a lover when he was a boy.  Also thanks to Vafa, Malek is caught up in the corrupt and frustrating system that passes for government, all the while in danger and trying to get his mother out of the country.

Friends in NYC and politics at the college where he teaches, illustrate that violence lives there too but life is so much better.  Those friends prove to Malek that there is still an American dream to be had. 

This is a rare occasion when I feel my words are inadequate to express what depths exist in Salar Abdoh's fiction.  I felt as though I were with Malek in Tehran and for that matter in NYC as well.  The characters drew me into this exotic story.

Highly recommended
Source:  LibraryThing win

Friday, November 14, 2014

DEATH IN THE DOLOMITES by DAVID P. WAGNER

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I've been on quite a world tour recently, ancient Egypt, South Africa, London and Italy, but none of those excellent books have set me quite so firmly in their setting as this mystery which occurs in a village called Campiglio in the Italian Alps.  It's based on a real village which fills with tourists in winter for the beautiful views and wonderful ski slopes.  The author knows the place well.  Although he now lives in New Mexico, he spent many years in Italy for the Foreign Service.

Rick Montoya is Wagner's hero for this story, a man who is half Italian, half American and has a translating business in Italy.  His uncle is a high-ranking police officer in Rome who would like nothing more than to attract Montoya to law enforcement.  

The story begins with Montoya in Campiglio with his old friend Flavio for a week of skiing and good food.  His plans are almost immediately disrupted though by the appearance of a police inspector investigating the disappearance of an American who is a banker in Italy.  The man's sister is also in town and she doesn't speak Italian so Inspector Albani needs a translator.  He has been referred to Montoya by, who else, his uncle.

You'll not be surprised to find that the two will investigate the disappearance together as it turns into a homicide case.  In between delicious-sounding snacks and meals and wine, they interview the townspeople, including the mayor who is running for re-election, his opposing candidate who runs a bakery, a realtor and a hotel owner who have a big stake in the outcome, and others.  Montoya also gets in a lot of skiing and Wagner's description of the slopes and the views made me want to call an airline immediately.  I also found myself craving Italian food.

The plot is interesting but the main appeal of Death in the Dolomites is the setting and the characters.  I was charmed by both, enough so that I was unhappy when the book ended.  It was altogether a very satisfying read, one that I hope will be followed soon by another episode in the series.  I will also seek out Wagner's first Rick Montoya book, Cold Tuscan Stone.

Highly recommended
Source:  Partners in Crime Book Tours

Sunday, November 9, 2014

COBRA by DEON MEYER

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Two years ago I read the novel 7 Days by Deon Meyer in which I was introduced to South African Captain Benny Griessel of the Hawks, the police department's top homicide unit.  I remember him well, along with all of his personal problems, alcoholism being the most threatening to his life and career.  Now a member of AA, divorced and recently having moved in with his girlfriend (also an alcoholic in AA), he is faced with one of the toughest criminal cases of his career.  At the same time he is struggling with an intimate issue that he is unable to discuss with anyone.  It forces him to sleep in the office frequently.  When he appears rumpled and bleary-eyed in the morning, his colleagues assume he has fallen off the wagon.

Poor Benny.  I know it isn't professional to write of him by his first name but Benny got under my skin two years ago and is still there.  I simply think of him as Benny, an indication of what a strong character Deon Meyer has created in this series.  His other characters are just as real and well depicted.  

In this book we also meet a young pickpocket, Tyrone Kleinbooi, who is putting his sister through university.  She wants to become a doctor and he is determined to give her that opportunity. He has been picking pockets since he was 12.  Actually stealing is so ingrained in him that at one point when he is in desperate need of a cell phone, he wastes quite a bit of time trying to steal one before the sudden realization that he could just buy one.  What a concept!  I liked this young man very much for his good heart, and I worried terribly about him as he was caught up in Benny's case.

The killer in this story is one of the most amoral men you'll find in fiction.  He kills without hesitation, without pity, without any thought except that the victim is somehow in between him and his goal.  He is a killer for hire so his goal is to do his job, escape from the scene, and get paid.  As the police identify him and learn his background there is an explanation for how he became such a deadly person but no real understanding.

No wonder it creates an almost overwhelming thirst in Benny even after more than 400 days sober.  Can he overcome the need?  Can he solve his personal problems, save Tyrone and his sister, and put this killer away?  The story captured my attention and never let go.  Deon Meyer is a great mystery writer with a wonderful character in Benny Griessel.  I look forward to Benny's next case.

Highly recommended
Source:  Amazon Vine

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

DESERT GOD by WILBUR SMITH

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Prolific author Wilbur Smith has added to his Egyptian series with this adventure novel about a eunuch and his brilliant schemes to defeat the Hyksos people.  They had taken over the northern section of the land along the Nile which forced the Egyptian pharoah and his people to the south.  The Hyksos are a warlike people considered by the Egyptians to be below contempt in their crude way of life.

Taita is a eunuch who raised the young current pharoah and his sisters.  He deeply loved their mother and promised to watch over them.  He is shrewd, learned, knows many languages, is physically strong and accomplished at many things.  He congratulates himself constantly, in fact, for his superiority.  The young sisters adore him and one of his few failings is that they have him wrapped around their little fingers.  

A mounting problem is that Egypt is in dire need of money.  Taita learns that the Supreme Minos of Crete will be sending a vast treasure to his ally the Hyksos and he devises a plan to grab the money and fool everyone into thinking another country is responsible.  Meanwhile, to his consternation the elder sister has fallen in love with one of his favored military men, but the girls must be offered as brides to the Supreme Minos as part of the plan.

The plan, of course, works brilliantly but there is much danger and need for Taita's clever inventions to overcome obstacles.  Frankly I became weary of Taita and his bragging, but the story was engrossing.  This is ancient Egypt after all so worship of various gods plays a large part in the plot; if you have forgotten, some of those gods are pretty frisky.

I wasn't wowed by Desert God but I must admit it's a good story which remains fully in that period of history with all its misconceptions.  You are immersed in the life of the ruling families of the Middle East with a horrifying glance at the life of the slaves and the poor.

Recommended
Source:  HarperCollins

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

ALL DAY AND A NIGHT by ALAFAIR BURKE

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All Day and a Night is the latest Ellie Hatcher mystery novel and personally I think it's the best. Admittedly, I always think the last one I've read in a good series is the best and this is a good series.  Burke creates great characters we can all relate to.

Ellie Hatcher is a cop who is living with a prosecutor and how she feels about it is sort of illustrated by the fact that she has yet to tell her mother.  Her brother lives in her old apartment and covers for her.  Prosecutor Max Donovan, her boyfriend, suddenly springs a new assignment on Hatcher and her partner J. J. Rogan.  Hard to tell who is more unhappy about it.

The case involves correspondence insisting that Anthony Amaro who is serving life without possibility of parole (cop slang: all day and a night) is innocent.  He had been convicted of one murder but assumed to have killed five women in Utica, NY. Now there has been another murder in New York City accomplished and staged identically.  A highly publicity-conscious attorney has taken the case, and she has hired a lawyer to work the case with her.  Carrie Blank also happens to be the sister of one of those victims.  Why is she involved in trying to clear her sister's killer?  In fact, she left a prestigious firm, a job most young lawyers would consider their ticket to a great future, to do this.

There are several characters in this book who fairly walk off the page and into your life.  You can't help getting caught up in their struggles and feelings.  That's a good thing for a reader but not if you want to solve the mystery before the reveal.  I love Hatcher's relationship with her partner, and also the evolving relationship with Donovan.  I laughed at the contrast between big city and small town as the city cops and lawyers converge on Utica investigating the old crimes.

This book will keep your interest up throughout.  Don't miss it.

Highly recommended
Source:  Amazon Vine