Tuesday, February 25, 2014


  This is the first young adult novel I've read since I was one, bought by mistake since I thought it was for adults.  It's also an eBook, not what I prefer.  Having said that, though, this is an excellent book.

The narrator is 15 year old Laila, daughter of an assassinated dictator from an unnamed, probably Middle Eastern country in turmoil.  Thanks to a CIA agent, she has escaped to the U.S. with her mother and younger brother.  The two children didn't realize the political situation in their homeland, only that they loved their father but didn't like their uncle, a military man who was radically religious.  She learns the truth in bits and pieces through the story and so the reader learns along with her.

Her main problem at first is adjusting to an American high school and all of the customs in the U.S. that are so different for her.  She is also asked by her mother to make friends with Amir, a high school student from their country.  He, it turns out, is involved with the opposition and for very good reason.  Her adaptation to all of this is slow and halting.  A girlfriend named Emmy and a young admirer, Ian, are a big help but Laila is always drawn back to the comfort of her own customs.  I'm too removed from my teen years to know how well teens will relate to Laila or understand her dilemma but I'm guessing they would appreciate her story.

There is an afterward written by Dr. Cheryl Bernard of the Rand Corporation and president of Arch International that is well worth reading.  She was a friend of Benazir Bhutto's and has insights into the problems of politics, family, and human rights in the Middle East gained during her time as a CIA agent.  I found this to be educational about the problems of such political families.

Source:  purchased

Monday, February 24, 2014

FALLEN BEAUTY by Erika Robuck

  Some time ago I read Hemingway's Girl by Erika Robuck and loved it so much I was anxious to read this one.  This is her third book featuring a famous person from the Roaring Twenties; the other was about Zelda Fitzgerald and I haven't had a chance to read that one yet.

As in the others, Robuck creates a fictional woman who becomes involved (or ensnared) in the life of a real eccentric artistic type.  In this one it is Edna St. Vincent Millay who can hardly be overdone in eccentricity.  Our fictional heroine is Laura Kelley, a small town seamstress who has an illegitimate child.  The little girl, named Grace, is adorable and a delight for her mother, but both are shunned by the holier-than-thou leading citizens of the town.  The father isn't named but we know he still lives in the town, and I had the wrong man in mind until near the end of the book.

Out in the country nearby is a large house where Millay and her husband live.  The townspeople gossip tirelessly about the wild drunken parties that go on there, especially since they know men who have been seduced by the poet.  Apparently Millay and her husband have an "open" marriage, anathema to the rest of the world in that part of upstate New York.

Laura's only friend is her sister but that relationship is strained as well.  When no one will bring work to Laura and her electricity is shut off for nonpayment of the bills, Millay asks her to make an at home gown for her.  She pays ahead of time and Laura relishes working with rich fabrics, but she is afraid to let anyone know that she is sewing for the "witch."  More orders follow for Laura's own designs.  Such rewarding work.

Although I loved the character of Laura and enjoyed the up-tight townspeople, the real reason to read the book is this look at Edna St. Vincent Millay.  I had read something about her before so I knew what kind of person she was, but I believe fiction is the way to really get to know her and her lifestyle.  She was so self-centered it's hard to believe, but that's the way it was.

Highly recommended
Source:  Amazon Vine

Saturday, February 22, 2014

ONE NIGHT IN WINTER by Simon Sebag Montefiore

  It has taken me a few days to digest One Night in Winter so that I could write an objective review of this exceptional book.  I was excited to read it since I enjoy historical fiction and I knew the story was set in Moscow during Stalin's rule just after the end of World War II.  Of course I realized that it would probably involve Lubianka Prison and Stalin's paranoid imprisonment and torture of suspects. Despite that, when reading the book, I got very upset.

I suppose my reaction is a tribute to the author's characterizations; I worried about the fictional characters as though they were real.  There is a mix of actual historical figures and fictional people.  The real ones other than Stalin tend to be the yes-men who did his bidding.

The plot involves a group of children, some teens, some younger, who attend School 108.  That's where the wealthy and/or connected Muscovites send their children.  One teacher surprisingly is allowed to teach romantic Russian literature, mainly Pushkin.  The students are so caught up in Pushkin in fact that they organize a secret club of sorts dedicated to reciting passages and re-enacting a duel from one of Pushkin's books.  They borrow dueling pistols that don't fire and costumes from the drama department and meet for these duels.  On Victory Day after the big parade in front of the Kremlin they have their duel in a park at the end of a bridge.  Suddenly two of them are dead of gunshot wounds.

The investigation into this tragedy pulls the children, their families, and the school staff in.  Stalin's people decide this children's club is an organization with the mission of overthrowing the government.  The ridiculous extent of the government's suspicions is nevertheless believable.  I could feel the terror as people, no matter how well connected, are afraid to speak to each other in their own homes, and must whisper where the children cannot hear because they might be questioned.  I can't add more without spoiling the book for you.

I do highly recommend this book but with the caveat that readers who know their Soviet Union history may be greatly affected.

Source:  Amazon Vine

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


I'm reading eBooks again so I apologize to my followers who don't read them.  Sometimes the book looks too good to hold out for the paperback edition.  That's the case here too.

I was caught up in the story immediately.  It's set in northern Ireland, in and around Derry.  A milk truck gets stuck in the snow and as the driver is looking over the situation, he sees a little girl in pajamas at the edge of the nearby woods.  When he tries to approach her though, she runs back into the woods.  He can't imagine why she would be there in the cold, so he calls for help.  The police have been looking for a missing girl.  Is it her?  Lucy Black gets the call.

When they get the little girl to the hospital, she won't speak.  She isn't the missing girl nor has anyone called to say this girl is lost.  Meanwhile, her pj top has been sprayed with blood and luminol shows that her hands had been covered with it.  She is unhurt, but every time she falls asleep she awakes screaming.

Meanwhile, Black has terrible problems at home with her father, a retired cop.  She loves him and lives with him to care for him, but unfortunately he has Alzheimer's disease and has reached the point where she'll have to put him in a home.  He wanders away from the house and he's becoming violent.

The story is a little hard to follow.  There are so many characters involved in the two children's lives, and pieces of the puzzle go all the way back to The Troubles.  As they search for one child and try to find the identity of the girl in pajamas, Black finds a third little girl in a house of horrors.  This one cares for her baby brother while mom gets high on drugs with boyfriend.  So many children in harm's way . . .  Lucy Black is very emotional coping with it all.

It's a great story with well-drawn characters, sad but satisfactory in that you understand why everything is happening.

Highly recommended
Source:  Witness/Impulse Imprint from HarperCollins

Monday, February 17, 2014


Product Details

Dead End is an eBook that scared me out of my skin.  First, we meet Abigail Kirby, a headmistress at Harchester School in Kent.  She is drifting in and out of consciousness, doesn't know where she is or what's happening, but you know she isn't long for this world.  

Then we abruptly switch to a pleasant scene of a father trying to teach his son how to fly a kite in a park.  The boy isn't really getting it yet when the kite goes down in a patch of woods, so the father runs in to retrieve it.  He finds a body covered in blood and, running back to his son, he calls the police.  Detective Geraldine Steel gets the call to investigate.

This is a psychological mystery.  It's strange that I can deal with all kinds of killers and types of murders, but I have a problem with someone who is killing as part of an insane mission that only makes sense to the killer.  In this story I figured out early on who this crazy killer was, but that only made it more frightening as I knew who the killer planned to kill next and why.  Steel herself is in danger as well and while she's a clever detective, she doesn't have a clue about the threat to her own life.  It's one of those "no, don't go in there" stories.

A lot of the story revolves around the family of the first victim.  This is dysfunctional family 101, with a girl teenager who hates everyone.  I know teens can be a pain but this girl has it down to an art.  Dad has a girlfriend he spends as much time with as he can, and little brother doesn't care as long as he gets plenty to eat.

Meanwhile, Steel's mother has recently died and only then did she learn that she was adopted.  Her sister has given Steel a box with documents and photographs to prove it.  Now I understand that it would be jarring, especially at a time of grief, to discover you're adopted but after all, Steel is a grown woman, an intelligent detective, and I simply couldn't feel all that sorry for her. She had been raised in a loving family and had a good life, but she is desolate, wondering why her mother rejected her.  It's the attitude you might expect of a teenager but not, surely, from a 33-year-old police officer.  She has put in for a transfer to London where she can lose herself in her work and the anonymity of a big city.

Alternately biting my fingernails and throwing my hands up in despair, I read this one quickly.  It is a good story after all, and it keeps you turning pages because you just have to find out how the cops catch this crazy person, and several red herrings muddy the waters before you're certain.

Recommended for a quick winter read on a snowy night
Source:  Partners in Crime Book Tours

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Product DetailsI love a good courtroom drama and Sheehan has written a great one in The Alligator Man.  It begins in south Florida where Roy Johnson sits in his back yard gazing out at the water and enjoying his evening wine.  In fact, he's getting drunk, just like he does every single night.  Then he decides to go for a walk down the road.  It is a straight shot through to the town of Gladestown with alligators in the swamp on both sides.  As he walks, he sees headlights and, too late, realizes the car is aiming right at him.  He is hit and goes flying into the swamp.  Nothing is found of him except two pieces of fabric, one from his shirt and the other from his shorts, and later his wallet surfaces too.

It's a case of a criminal getting his due actually.  No one is sad to hear he's gone.  He had been the CEO of a large company with hundreds of employees.  He had cleaned the money out of it, including the 401K savings and benefits of all those employees.  Then he simply walked away with all that money while his employees lost everything.  Some committed suicide.

Meanwhile in Miami, Kevin Wylie has been working for a highly successful, if crooked, attorney.  But he made a mistake.  When he got a call to provide money for one of the drug dealer clients, he refused.  Now he's being tossed out on his ear and the boss has threatened him if he ever practices law in Miami again.  As if that isn't enough, he gets a call from his father's wife that dad is dying.  They haven't been in touch since his parents broke up when Wylie was a boy.  Reeling from all this bad news at once, and fighting with his live-in girlfriend as a result, Wylie decides to face his past by going to the Florida panhandle town where his dad lives.  He's going to get answers about his dad's disappearance or else.

There are some great characters in this book just waiting to make your acquaintance.  Carlisle Buchanan is one.  He's been a sort of assistant law officer in the Gladestown office where nothing ever happens.   That suits him just fine since he'd rather be fishing or exploring the swamps anyway.  Whenever he takes his boat or his airboat out, he stops to ask permission of the great blue heron who stands there.  He has named the bird "Scotch" in honor of his late father.  Carlisle is an encyclopedia of the swamps and invaluable to the investigation.  His friend Rosie owns and operates the only restaurant in town.

All things come together when Tom Wylie's friend Billy is accused of murdering Roy Johnson and Kevin decides to take the case since his father's health is too bad to do it himself.  In the course of solving the murder and the courtroom scenes, Kevin gets to know his father and step-mother, and he finally learns the truth about what happened between his parents.  His father and step-mother are wonderful characters too, as is Billy, the accused, who worked at Roy Johnson's company, lost everything, and then a year later with no health insurance lost his wife too.  It seems like a slam dunk, but facts can be deceiving.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, sailing through it like I've done with Grisham novels and other intriguing courtroom dramas.  The ending surprised and delighted me.

Highly recommended
Source:  Publisher Hachette Book Group

Friday, February 7, 2014


Product DetailsI bought this memoir thinking I would learn something about the descendants of John Jacob Astor and I did but not in the way I expected.  This is the poor, bohemian offspring of the Astor orphans, William Backhouse Astor, Sr.'s eleven grandchildren who were orphaned when their parents died of pneumonia within a short time of each other.  They were raised by family in the enormous mansion called Rokeby in the Catskills.  The author's great grandmother bought out her siblings to be sole owner of Rokeby, but after she died in 1963 the place began to deteriorate.  Eventually the estate of some 400+ acres was co-owned by brothers Harry and Ted Aldrich.  Ted's only child Alexandra is the author of this memoir.

Since Harry had a job as a civil servant in Albany, Ted ran the estate and rented out cottages and other outbuildings.  He also supposedly kept the place in good repair.  Actually he rented to various oddball friends and artists who drove staid Harry and his wife up the wall.  They lived in the main part of the mansion while Ted and his wife and daughter were relegated to the servants quarters and attics of the house. Alexandra's father, classically educated but a born mechanic and farmhand, didn't like to bathe, her mother didn't know how to keep house and, what's more, didn't care to learn, and they usually had to borrow money to buy groceries.  Alexandra was largely unsupervised, a free spirit at home in the woods and with the artists who lived in the creamery.

Alexandra was also a good student devoted to playing the violin.  She had two younger cousins to play with; they staged plays in the best rooms wearing gowns found in trunks.  Youngest Maggie would lie on a couch dramatically announcing that she was dying of "ammonia."  As young children they seemed to live a kind of charmed life, but as Alexandra grew near her teens she needed more guidance than her parents and her alcoholic grandmother could give her.  She became ashamed of her clothing and her life, was bullied relentlessly by cruel "in" girls, and her grades suffered accordingly.

At 14 she was shipped off to a private school, relieved at having escaped Rokeby but sad that she was leaving her now-sober grandmother alone and sad, and her parents to bicker endlessly to no purpose.  The story of these people and other family, the estate, and the escapades of the strange friends Ted attracted is at times sad, at other times hilarious, but always made me thankful I came from more ordinary folks.  You'll want to cry for Alexandra as she is bullied and humiliated.  On the other hand, you'll be angry at the way her parents neglected her so much she had to get her drunken grandmother to drive her to her violin recital.

Rokeby itself sounds like a shell of its former glory, like her Uncle Harry putting on airs and reminding everyone of his family background while struggling to keep up financially.  Such is the fate of the 450 acres granted to Robert Livingston, Sr. by King James II in the 1680s and passed to the Astors when they married into the Livingston family, then on to the Aldrich family.  From such famous history, decrepit in the 1960s.

Recommended only for fans of memoirs
Source:  purchased from amazon.com

Wednesday, February 5, 2014


Christopher Meeks is an award winning playwright and obviously visual person.  Perhaps that explains his ability to create characters I'll remember for a long time.  The lead character is Ian Nash.  In the beginning of the story we find Nash being booted out of his Ph.D. program because his work isn't proceeding as it should.  He storms out in anger.  Driving home he calms down enough to realize he'd better get a job ASAP.  He has heard a particular coffee shop chain pays well and even has benefits so he goes into one of their sites.  It happens to be in the large, beautiful lobby of a California bank.

As Nash overthinks his answers for the employment application and ruins it, a beautiful woman catches his eye.  She pulls out a gun and tells everyone to hit the floor - this is a robbery.  The three robbers stay in the bank too long, sirens are nearing, and they take Nash hostage.  His response?  He throws up on the floor of the getaway car.  If you just laughed, you're going to love this book.

The story of Nash, the robbers, four including the getaway car driver, and the FBI agent who heads up the investigation makes for a satisfying read.  As I said, Meeks is visual and you are enmeshed in the story and its locations.  Aleece Medina, the FBI agent, is competent and has fought her way up in the agency despite her handicap; she's a beautiful Latina woman.  Sexist comments from fellow agents and even her bosses are an hourly hassle but she's determined not to let them distract her from her job.  Her successes just further irritate less competent members of the agency.

The most brilliant part of this novel is Meeks' wit.  I laughed out loud, especially at Ian Nash who is a sort of Walter Mitty.  He just knows he can help, by which he means solve the case and get rid of the out of control vicious member of the robbery crew.  He can be a pain in the neck, but you can't help liking him.

I can't tell you more without spoiling the book for you, but trust me, this is a winner.

Highly Recommended.
Source:  Partners in Crime Book Tours