The Book Whisperer Reviews a Victorian Series

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Abibliophobia: the fear of running out of books to read

Okay, I admit that I may have abibliophobia even though I have an ever-growing stack of books to read along with an ever-growing list of books to read. A recent addition to my list of books came as a recommendation, but now I cannot remember who recommended Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily series, so forgive me in advance.

Tasha Alexander’s first book in the Lady Emily series is And Only to Deceive. Alexander has followed it with eleven other books starring Lady Emily and one novella. The most recent book is Death in St. Petersburg set to be published in October 2017.

Emily feels pressure from her overbearing mother to find a husband, but Emily really wishes only to get out of her mother’s clutches. After turning down several marriage proposals, Emily accepts Viscount Philip Ashton’s proposal. As soon as the trousseau can be assembled, the two are wed. Emily remains indifferent to the preparations and to Philip’s professions of love for her.

Philip collects ancient Greek and Roman art, but he is also a big game hunter. Before the wedding, he had planned a safari, and Emily feels only to glad to tell him to keep his plan even though they are newlyweds. Sadly, on the safari, Philip dies of a terrible fever, leaving Emily a rich and titled widow after six months of marriage.

Emily learns more of Philip after his death than she has even cared to know when he was alive. She falls in love with Philip after his death and wishes she had not been so indifferent to him. She reads his journals and finds that he loved her greatly, even giving her the Greek name Kallista, a term of endearment he never mentions to her.

Emily, never one all that interested in education, suddenly wants to know as much as she can about Philip’s art and desires to learn the background as well. She begins reading the Greek classics, takes lessons in ancient Greek as well as Latin and takes drawing lessons from an artist. She frequents the British Museum where Philip has donated many of the artifacts he acquired and has long talks with the museum director.

Lord Palmer, another wealthy aristocrat, is also interested in the art and was a friend of Philip’s. His two sons, Andrew and Arthur, are not at all interested in their father’s art or literature, but only in acquiring money. To that end, Andrew pursues a relationship with the widowed Emily.

Emily enjoys conversing with Philip’s best friend Colin Hargreaves, another member of the safari and who was with Philip when he died. Hargreaves shares Emily’s interest in the history of the artifacts and is knowledgeable on the subject.

Here, the plot device that Alexander uses becomes a bit tiresome. The one person Emily should trust is Colin Hargreaves; however, because Andrew is so charming, Emily allows him too much access and too much freedom in their friendship. Andrew plays on the confidence Emily places in him and does his best to keep Emily’s suspicions of Colin in the forefront.

Emily enjoys being a widow even though she realizes she and Philip might have had a good relationship. She is also aware that his death is what pushes her into learning about the artworks, literature, and languages. Would those interests have risen to the top if Philip had survived?

As a widow, Emily is in charge of her own household and her money. Her mother keeps pushing Emily to marry again, of course, finding many suitable men to suggest. Emily keeps finding excuses to keep her mother at bay, often citing it is too soon to think of marrying again.  As Philip’s widow, Emily has a lovely home and servants in London, a palatial estate in the country, and a villa in Greece. Why should give control over all these properties and her money to another man? Of course, the convention of the time means that women should be married and serve their husbands.

In the course of learning about Philip, reading his journals, and also learning about the antiquities, Emily discovers some disquieting information that leads her to believe Philip had been involved in some illegal purchasing of antiquities and of also being involved with forgeries of ancient artifacts.

Arthur Palmer, Andrew’s younger brother, brings a letter purportedly from Philip and posted from Cairo only a few weeks ago, long after Philip’s death. At first, Emily hopes that the letter is real and that Philip has escaped death in Africa. Then a missionary brings Emily the picture of Emily and Philip from their wedding day, saying Philip has given him the picture for her. Her hopes rise that Philip is alive. Later events reveal that Andrew has stolen the picture and hired a man to pretend to be the missionary with the picture.

Clever Emily and Cecile du Lac conceive a plan to trap Andrew in the fraud. The plan puts Emily in some danger, but other events have also placed her in danger. She feels she must go through with the plot in order to know the truth. Is Philip really still alive? Does Andrew know more about Philip and his death or whereabouts than he lets on? Is Colin Hargreaves somehow involved in the plots?

And Only to Deceive gives readers clear pictures of late Victorian social life of aristocrats. In fact, Emily’s mother reminds Emily frequently about how the dear Queen acts in her mourning for Prince Albert. I will read another book in the series, but that will have to wait since some required reading calls my name at present.

I am interested in what writers like to read; on Tasha Alexander’s Web site, I discovered the following about the authors she likes to read:

“I’ll read pretty much anything I can get my hands on, but some of my favorite authors (in no particular order) are Jane Austen, David Mitchell, Leo Tolstoy, Vikram Seth, Meg Wolitzer, Haruki Murakami, Elizabeth Peters, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anthony Trollope, William Thackeray, Naguib Mahfouz, Arthur Phillips, Pablo Neruda, Homer, Dorothy L. Sayers, Carol Shields, David Lodge, William Boyd, James Thurber, Margaret George, Pauline Gedge, Mika Waltari, Robert Harris, Jeannette Winterson, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh, Orhan Pamuk, and Saki (H.H. Munro).”

The Baltimore Sun reviewed the Lady Emily series in this way: “Alexander excels in depicting the social mores of a society uncomfortable with the independence of women, and deftly allows the plot to develop in tandem with Emily’s growth.”

Tasha Alexander describes herself as a “reluctant master of packing light. Lover of beautiful shoes & spicy food. Lapsed ballerina. Cook. Book junkie.” Read her thought-provoking blogs at this link: http://talexanderbooks.blogspot.com/.

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews a REAL Winner!

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Jade Dragon Mountain featuring Li Du, an exiled librarian in 18th century China, is Elsa Hart’s first book. D.R. Meredith reviewed Jade Dragon Mountain in The New York Journal of Books, writing that “Jade Dragon Mountain is both a first class mystery and a cultural experience. Hopefully Ms. Hart is planning a sequel; Li Du and Hamza are characters too good to be discarded after only a single book.” Luckily for readers, Hart’s second book has already been published: The White Mirror also featuring Li Du, no longer exiled, but still wandering. The White Mirror is definitely on my list to read soon.

Li Du, Imperial librarian, has been exiled by the Emperor because the Emperor accused Li Du of consorting with traitors. Li Du is innocent, but the Emperor is all powerful and infallible, so Li Du accepts his fate and wanders around China. Li Du finds himself in Dayan, an area the rest of China deems uncivilized and dangerous because of bandits and disease. Since Li Du travels alone and keeps to out-of-the way places, he has no way of knowing that the Emperor himself will soon be in Dayan to celebrate an eclipse which the Emperor himself has predicted. The Emperor perpetuates the notion that he alone can predict what the heavens will do. The eclipse will be most complete in Dayan, so the Emperor has spent a year traveling the province.

When Li Du arrives and learns of the Emperor’s impending arrival, he plans to see Magistrate Tulishen, Li Du’s cousin, have his papers documented and leave before the Emperor’s arrival in three days. Li Du is properly deferential to his magistrate cousin, but readers quickly see that Tulishen is far less well-educated than Li Du and interested only in appearances, not substance. Li Du keeps his thoughts to himself and behaves as he knows he must, giving deference to his cousin.

Intellectuals in China know that the Emperor must depend on the Jesuits in order to predict the eclipse, but the Emperor maintains his divinity by saying he alone can predict what the heavens will do.

Tulishen says to Li Du, “I require a favor of you…. I want you to remain in Dayan for a few days.” Although Li Du wishes to be on his way and out of the massive festival being prepared, he knows he must acquiesce to the magistrate’s request.  Tulishen wants Li Du to talk with the foreigners and report his findings to Tulishen. The foreigners consist of two Jesuit monks, elderly Brother Pieter van Dalen and young Brother Martin Walpole along with Sir Nicholas Gray, a merchant who has brought a tellurion, an expensive and showy gift, to the Emperor from England.

On the first night, Li Du is drawn into the mystery of Brother Pieter’s death by poison. Tulishen wants the death ruled a natural one since Brother Pieter is old and has traveled a long distance. Tulishen wants nothing to mar the Emperor’s visit. However, circumstances surrounding Brother Pieter’s death force Tulishen to admit the death is not a natural one.

Other important characters in the story include Hamza, the storyteller. Readers will enjoy his ancient tales. He also becomes Li Du’s friend and confidante in searching for the murderer. Lady Chen, the magistrate’s consort in Dayan, also plays a significant role. She is a native of the area and her backstory will become important late in the mystery. Hoh, the innkeeper, has his own spies and keeps his eyes open for any gossip. Bao, a young servant girl in Tulishen’s compound, is also Hoh’s niece, so she reports to him anything she sees or hears in the compound. However, that gossip mill works both ways. Tulishen and Lady Chen use her to find information as well. Jia Huan is a young secretary to Magistrate Tulishen, a trusted member of the inner circle. Mu Gao  who is almost illiterate keeps Tulishen’s library. He and his cousin, ancient residents of Dayan province, also have important roles to play.

The dispute between the Jesuits who are firmly in the Emperor’s good graces and the Dominicans who wish to displace the Jesuits will be an important factor in the solving of Brother Pieter’s murder.

Obviously, in 18th century China, in a backwater province, Li Du must rely on his own intelligence and careful questioning in order to solve the murder. The story becomes more and more tangled as Li Du suspects one and then another of the principals named already. Then readers learn that Brother Martin is not at all who he claims to be; he is a botanist Hugh Ashton who has disguised himself as Brother Martin in order to study plants in the region and return to England to become a famous botanist.

In her biography on her Web site, Elsa Hart tells readers she was living in China because her biologist husband, was studying high alpine plants in the greater Himalayan region. Because of a difficulty in adapting to the high altitude, Hart could not sleep; she began listening to adaptions of Agatha Christie’s stories. Then she wondered if she could “tailor a Murder on the Orient Express scenario to a mule caravan.” The story does not take quite that turn since the murder and subsequent investigation take place in Dayan, but I was struck by Christie-like notes near the end of the book. Li Du gathers all the suspects in one room, very like Hercule Poirot, and goes over one-by-one why that person COULD be the murderer; then he ends with why the person is not the murderer. Finally, Li Du reveals the real murderer who is carted away.

Readers might think that is the end of the story, but Li Du in the nick of time realizes another sinister plot, even more dangerous than the murder of Brother Pieter. His saving the day will result in his pardon.

Elsa Hart is a talented writer. Here is an example of her artistry in describing Mu Gao, Tulishen’s library caretaker: “The man stopped just in front of Li Du. His back was so bent that it was difficult for him to lift his head to inspect Li Du’s face. His features proclaimed him a local. Wrinkled, papery skin hung from a long face with high cheekbones and a sharp nose. He chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip as he assessed Li Du with rheumy eyes.”

Another example occurs when Li Du is trying to retrace the murder’s steps after leaving Brother Pieter’s room. Hart weaves into the text bits of Chinese lore: “As [Li Du] traversed the zigzagging flat bridges over the ponds, a cold wind blew through the withered lotus stalks. They rotated slowly in the water, as if they were turning to look at him. He shivered and quickened his pace, careful not to miss a turn. Demons traveled in straight lines, and the sharp angles of the bridges were built to evade them.”

Near the end of the book, an exchange between Lady Chen and Li Du also struck me as relevant when Lady Chen says that Mu Gao has told her Brother Pieter’s death has been the result of jewelvine poisoning. Librarians use ground up jewelvine powder to kill bugs in the library. Lady Chen says, “Strange that the weapon of death would come from the library.”

Li Du replies, “Libraries hold great danger.”

Discover more about Elsa Hart at her Web site: http://www.elsahart.com/. A “60 Second Interview with Elsa Hart” at http://www.reviewingtheevidence.com/interviews.html?id=225 is also enlightening.

Elsa Hart has received a great deal of praise and rightly so. Jade Dragon Mountain is an excellent debut novel. Jade Dragon Mountain won the 2015 award for Best Historical Mystery, was a Library journal pick for Best of 2015 Audiobooks, and a Barry nominee for 2015 best first novel.

Louise Penny whose Inspector Gamache mysteries I enjoy says, “Jade Dragon Mountain is an amazing book – truly wonderful.  Stunning in its atmosphere, setting, the gift of language and great writing.  Elsa Hart and her protagonist, Li Du, deserve a place in every collection.” Kirkus Reviews also praises Jade Dragon Mountain: “Part mystery, part exploration of a culture fading into history’s shadows, Hart’s novel is a fascinating, intelligent debut…. Think Agatha Christie writing Shogun—Hart’s captivating debut has solid cross-genre appeal.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews The German Girl

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The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa tells the story in alternating chapters of two young girls: Hannah Rosenthal, the German Girl, and Anna Rosen, American girl. Hannah’s story begins in Berlin in 1939. The Rosenthals are educated, wealthy, and respected until Hitler turns their world upside down. Papa is a highly respected university professor; Mama is known in society for her charm and beautiful clothes. Suddenly, everything the Rosenthals have known is thrown into question.

They live in an apartment building long-owned by the family, but the other tenants spit at them and call them “dirty.” The Rosenthals are Jewish, so they are unclean in Hitler’s world. Hannah and her friend Leo, both eleven, call Hitler’s soldiers and the German people who taunt them ogres.  Hannah and Leo roam the streets of Berlin, careful to stay out of reach of the ogres even though they do encounter people who make ugly remarks at them. Those who don’t know Hannah assume she is “pure German” because she is quite blonde. Leo has to endure the remarks, but he and Hannah run away from the ugliness.

Hannah has a camera her father has given her, so she takes pictures wherever she and Leo go. Hannah’s papa is working to secure passage for his little family and Leo and his father on the ocean liner St. Louis to Cuba and then on to America from there. Much of the early story concerns the negotiations to obtain the correct documents. The documents are costly and dangerous to obtain.

Finally, though, Papa, Mama, Hannah, Mr. Martin, and Leo have the necessary documents to leave on the St. Louis. The families have reason to hope they will eventually make it to New York via Cuba. Still, Leo is not optimistic. He assures Hannah that their parents have purchased cyanide capsules that the adults will administer to the children and then to themselves if their plans of escape are thwarted. Hannah searches the apartment several times trying to find the cyanide thinking she will destroy the capsules.

At long last, both families board the St. Louis. According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia, https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267, “when the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government admitted 28 passengers: 22 of them were Jewish and had valid US visas; the remaining six—four Spanish citizens and two Cuban nationals—had valid entry documents. One further passenger, after attempting to commit suicide, was evacuated to a hospital in Havana. The remaining 908 passengers (one passenger had died of natural causes en route)—including one non-refugee, a Hungarian Jewish businessman—had been awaiting entry visas and carried only Cuban transit visas issued by Gonzalez. 743 had been waiting to receive US visas. The Cuban government refused to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship.”

In The German Girl, Hannah and her mother Alma, now pregnant with her second child, are allowed to leave the ship. Papa, Mr. Martin, and Leo are among the other 908 passengers who are not allowed to disembark.

From the beginning of The German Girl, readers see that Hannah’s life is characterized by loss. She loses her family’s home and the prestige her family has enjoyed. Greater, more heartbreaking losses follow. Leo has promised Hannah they will grow up, marry, and grow old together. Before she leaves the ship, Leo gives Hannah a blue box and tells her to wait for him to open it. If he does not find her, she is to open it on her 87th birthday. Hannah knows it is the only valuable possession Leo’s family has left: his mother’s wedding ring.

Switching to 2014 New York City, readers meet Anna Rosen, eleven years old. Anna’s father died before Anna was born; Anna’s mother Ida tells Anna very little about her father. In fact, Ida lives in denial about her husband’s death. Well into the story, readers learn that Anna’s father died in the terror of 9/11, before he even knew Anna had been conceived. That part of the story reminded me of A Fall of Marigolds by Susan Meissner because Taryn Michaels is on her way to tell her husband about their pregnancy when she learns he has died in the 9/11 attack. Meissner tells that story in alternating chapters too of the past and present, but the earlier story deals with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Anna and Hannah are much alike in that they are strong characters, protective of their respective mothers. The mothers in both cases close themselves off because of their tragedies, thus making their daughters grow up quickly. Ida chooses the name Anna because it is one Louis, her husband, had mentioned he would like for a daughter. It is an homage to Hannah, the great-aunt who raised him in Cuba. Louis is the grandson of Alma. Alma’s son Gustav grows up in Cuba and marries there. When Louis is nine years old, his parents die in a plane crash, so Louis lives with his grandmother and great-aunt. Hannah, though, is his primary caretaker.

Louis receives a good education in Cuba and then moves to New York City where he marries Ida. He is secretive about his past and about his family. His sudden and unexpected death throw Ida into despair. A package from Cuba when Anna is eleven changes their lives. The package contains pictures Hannah has taken from years ago, many of them undeveloped. Getting the pictures developed starts Anna and Ida on a journey of discovery about the Rosens and Rosenthals and leads them to Cuba to meet Great-Aunt Hannah.

The trip to Cuba is enlightening for all three of the Rosens: Hannah, Anna, and Ida. Hannah gives Anna and Ida treasures she has been saving, mostly pictures and stories about the family. They visit the cemetery where Alma is buried, but they also see headstones for other members of the family, though they are not buried there. Anna meets Diego, her own Leo, an eleven-year-old Cuban boy who shows her around the area.

In The German Girl, readers also learn of the purges and persecutions in Cuba. Hannah has earned a pharmacy degree and has opened a pharmacy, but the government takes it away. People are jailed. Hannah and her mother are reminded of 1939 Germany. Even in 2014 when Anna meets Diego, Diego tells her “there is no future in this country.”

The German Girl is an engaging story, full of the reminders of the horror that human beings can inflict upon one another. It also contains a bit of hope in that readers see the characters survive against tremendous odds and terrible losses. Anna becomes a beacon of hope for her family which has endured so much loss.

On Armando Lucas Correa’s Amazon author page, https://smile.amazon.com/Armando-Lucas-Correa/e/B002SGD0EW/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1, readers can watch a touching video about the voyage on the ocean liner St. Louis.

Correa has been a journalist for over twenty years, winning awards for his  articles. He received an outstanding achievement award from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the Society of Professional Journalism. Currently, he is editor-in-chief of People En Espanol, the top selling Hispanic magazine in the US. The German Girl is his first novel. He has followed it with In Search of Emma.

Praise for The German Girl and especially the story of the passengers on the St. Louis comes from many sources, particularly survivors who were on the ship. Eva Weiner, a survivor of the St. Louis voyage, says, “…[it was] so true to our many life experiences… I became enthralled with [the] descriptions of the emotional turmoil that [these] characters endured.”

Finally, Martha Anne Toll, writes: “Correa deploys facts to honor his fictional subjects. In a heartbreaking appendix, he lists every passenger on the St. Louis. If this ship’s manifest is insufficiently potent, Correa writes to remind us of the deadly consequences of closed borders, neglected refugees, and maligned and forgotten immigrants.”

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Second Laurain Novel

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A few months ago, the Book Whisperer wrote about The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain. The Red Notebook is such a charming and delightful book that I had to read The President’s Hat by Laurain. The President’s Hat is followed by The Red Notebook, French Rhapsody, and soon-to-be-published The Portrait.

Laurain began his writing career as a journalist and screenwriter. Both of those genres influence the way he writes his novels. The two books I have read use words economically without leaving anything out. Marie France writes of The President’s Hat that it is “as entertaining as it is original … a story to enjoy like a chocolate with a surprise centre.” I could agree with France’s assessment for both of Laurain’s books I have read.

The President’s Hat opens with Daniel Mercier, an office worker, reminiscent to me of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, a hardworking middle management worker. Unlike Walter Mitty, Daniel does not dream of wild adventures to take himself out of his daily routine; in fact, he trudges along doing his job. With his wife and son away visiting her family, Daniel decides to treat himself to a sumptuous seafood feast and good wine at the end of a day of drudgery.

In the brasserie, Daniel observes that the “brilliant white tablecloths … hurt the eyes, like snow on the ski slopes.” As Daniel awaits his food, he looks around at the other diners. Generally, he finds them to be more expensively dressed than he, all radiating success. He admires an “elegant brunette in a red dress” at another table. Soon after Daniel’s seafood platter arrived, François Mitterrand and two other men sit at the table adjacent to Daniel’s. Mitterrand places his hat on the banquette beside the tables rather than having the maître d’ hang it up. And thus the story begins in earnest.

Daniel quietly listens as Mitterrand and his companions converse over their dinner. Daniel deliberately eats slowly, savoring every bite all the while listening to Mitterrand’s conversation. The President and his friends leave the brasserie, but Mitterrand accidently leaves the hat behind. Unnoticed by the maître d’, Mitterrand, or his companions, the hat sits on the banquette near Daniel. In the end, Daniel pays his bill, leaving a large tip, picks up the hat, and leaves.

Daniel feels guilty, but puts the hat upon his head anyway. The next day at his business meeting, he provides all the reasons his new boss is wrong in choosing a course of action. He surprises everyone, mostly himself. The other members of the team immediately congratulate Daniel for saying exactly what they were thinking even though they are afraid to voice their opinions to the new boss. Jean-Bernard Desmoine, head of finance, has come to the office especially for the meeting and is impressed with Daniel’s reasoned arguments. Privately, he offers Daniel a promotion which will mean he moves to Rouen. Sadly, on the train to Rouen, Daniel forgets to take his hat off the luggage rack, so it is lost.

The story shifts then to Fanny Marquant who discovers the hat on the train and puts it on her head, deciding it suits her perfectly despite the fact that it is a man’s hat. Besides, it is raining, so the hat will protect her hair. I will admit to a bit of disappointment at this point because I wanted Daniel’s story to continue. Then I realized we readers would see Daniel again in some capacity, so I relaxed and read on.

Fanny’s life changes in a positive way once she dons the President’s hat even though she does not know the hat belongs to Mitterrand. She purposefully leaves the hat on a park bench and waits discreetly to see who will pick it up. Along comes Pierre Aslan, a perfume creator who has lost his confidence in his ability to create another perfume. To that end, he has given away most of his suits and wears jeans and a scruffy jacket. He has grown a beard and generally slumps his way through the day. His accomplished pianist wife despairs of him though she continues to support him and encourage him. Readers will not be surprised to learn the hat changes Aslan as it has Daniel and Fanny. The final person to encounter the hat is Bernard Lavalliere whose life changes radically once he begins wearing the President’s hat. Interestingly enough, only Daniel knows the hat has belonged to Mitterrand, but the others who wear it develop the same conficence that Daniel does.

The President’s Hat neatly ties together the stories and returns to President Mitterrand in the end along with Daniel who originally found the hat in the brasserie. I recently reviewed C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution, set in the 16th century. One of my remarks concerned the fact that Shardlake in that story could not rely on modern technology in order to solve several murders. The President’s Hat takes place in modern times, but never refers to modern technology, not even a cell phone. Communication about the hat takes place via old fashioned letters.

One interviewer asked Laurain if the 1940s slogan “if you want to get ahead get a hat” played any part in his writing The President’s Hat. Laurain responded that a reader has suggested this slogan: “I wish I had a president’s hat!”  For a little more insight from Laurain about The President’s Hat, watch this YouTube video https://youtu.be/vnYNdpFmagg.

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Friend’s Recommendation

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My friend Lu Ann recommended C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. She has read all of the books in the series, so I thought that was a good recommendation to try the books. I started with Dissolution, the first in the series.

C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution is the first in a series of 16th century British detective novels featuring Matthew Shardlake. Shardlake is a lawyer sent by Cromwell to St. Donatus, a monastery in Scarnsea to investigate the death of Commissioner Robin Singleton. Singleton had been at the monastery to see to its dissolution according to Henry VIII’s orders.  Shardlake takes along his assistant Mark Poer.

In 1537, England is bitterly divided between faithful Catholics and the newly created Church of England. Obviously, this division makes reformer Shardlake’s job more difficult, especially when he and Mark discover sexual misconduct, treason, misappropriation of funds, and additional murders, one several years old. Shardlake and Poer are themselves in danger and must keep their wits about them at all times not only to find the killer, but also to protect themselves.

None other than distinguished mystery writer P.D. James says of Sansom: “Among the most distinguished of modern historical novelists.” A reviewer in the Washington Post praises Sansom for bringing “alive all levels of English society, from cutthroats and common soldiers to the king and queen themselves.”

Sansom has done his homework in researching the period and the events of the 16th century. The political intrigue plays an important role. Also, the monks’ desire for self-preservation becomes very like another character in the story. The levels of intrigue are many, and Shardlake must unravel them one-by-one.

Given the time period, Sharklake must rely on his wits and knowledge. He cannot Google information! Shardlake and Poer work together, but they are also at odds with one another. Poer does not agree with the rooting out the Catholics. Also, he is still recovering from his disgrace because of a dalliance with a young lady in Henry VIII’s court. Shardlake has saved Poer because of their long association, but Mark is still not in the clear.

To exacerbate matters, Mark falls in love with Alice Fewterer, a young woman who works with Infirmarian Brother Guy, a blackamoor. Brother Guy has found a niche for himself at the monastery, but he knows that his skin color makes him vulnerable. He does his best to protect Alice because as a young, attractive woman working at the monastery, she is in danger constantly. Mark and Alice are playing wtih fire because Mark has already been in trouble once in court for falling for a young woman there. Matthew warns Mark repeatedly to keep his association with Alice professional. Does Mark listen? How does this relationship between Mark and Alice figure into the story?

Bugge, the gatekeeper, Brother Mortimus, Carthusian monk Jerome of London, Abbot Fabian, Brother Gabriel, the sacrist, and  bursar Brother Edwig all become suspects during Shardlake’s investigation. To add to the intrigue, readers learn that Mark Smeaton has been tortured on the rack and then beheaded for supposedly consorting with Anne Boleyn. He is forced to confess so that Henry VIII can have Anne beheaded. This bit of information becomes important later in the story.

Orphan Stonegarden, a teenager from the nearby village, has worked at the monastery, but she has gone missing. The monks say she stole some valuable chalices and disappeared with them. Shardlake is not so sure that story is true. What does Orphan Stonegarden’s disappearance have to do with the members of the monastery? Is her disappearance also related to Commissioner Robin Singleton’s death? Where is the missing money going? Readers will find the answers to all these questions and more, satisfying their curiosity as they finish Dissolution.

Dissolution is true to the times, the 16th century. Readers learn about Cromwell’s methods of dissolving the monasteries and promoting Henry VIII’s new Church of England doctrines. In these modern times when detectives rely on the Internet, cell phones, and social media to develop leads, Dissolution gives us Matthew Shardlake who must rely on his innate intelligence and ability to put clues together in order to solve the murder(s).

To listen to an interview with C.J. Sansom on BBC, go to this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00tj4lr#p009sb5z.

Christopher John Sansom writes crime novels. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sansom earned a BA and PhD in history; then he became a solicitor, practicing for a short time in Sussex. He then left the law to become a full time novelist. Darkfire follows Dissolution in the Shardlake series. Sansom also writes books set in other times and other places. For example, Winter in Madrid takes place in 1940 in Madrid. Dominion pulls readers into 1952 in the aftermath of WWII. These books show Sansom’s versatility in writing about various periods of time, all have political overtones to them.

Laura Wilson, Guardian journalist, writes: “C. J. Sansom’s real strength lies in an almost uncanny ability to create a sense of time and place. This is an unsentimental and utterly fascinating portrait of Spain in 1940 . . . . Sansom wears his research lightly and gets right under the skin of his characters. The result is a tense, literate page-turner, full of twists, authentic detail and real pathos, a superb achievement.

 

The Book Whisperer’s Latest Review

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I am an eclectic reader, and I like keeping up with books for young readers, young adults, and adults. I don’t often dip into fantasy, but I became intrigued by Lisa Graff’s fantasy series for readers ages 8 – 12. I read A Tangle of Knots, the first book in the series.

In the beginning, I found connecting the characters to be a problem. Too many characters appear, each with his or her own story. My mind hopped to trying to unite the characters into a common story. Early on, however, I decided to stop trying to find the connections and just read the stories. The characters and stories do come together and tie the story up well. One factor to understand that people have a Talent or they are Fair, that is, without Talent. The words are always capitalized to indicate their importance.

Supposedly, a person who is Fair is not less than a person with Talent. Still, Marigold Asher desperately wishes to find her Talent. She even paid three months of her allowance to purchase a Talent-finding bracelet. Readers, we might not appreciate some of the Talents. For example, Marigold’s older brother Zane’s Talent is spitting! Her younger brother Will has a more usable Talent of disappearing. Mrs. Asher’s talent is knitting for charity.

Then we encounter eleven-year-old orphaned Cadence, Cady for short, who bakes just the right cake for each person. Now, one would think that being able to discern the correct cake for each person would be Cady’s Talent, but that is not the case. Like Marigold, Cady is still searching for her Talent also. Cady is also searching for her forever family. Currently, she lives at Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls, one of the few girls left in the home. Miss Mallory’s Talent is finding the right home for lost girls. Her Talent is so perfected that girls who come to Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls do not stay long at all, except for Cady, of course.

Other characters include The Owner, a sinister man who steals other people’s Talents and keeps them hidden in jars. Toby works for The Owner, but is a kind man who meets Miss Mallory and Cady. Miss Mallory feels in her heart that Toby is the father Cady needs. The mysterious V, a woman who has a stroke and cannot remember who she is or who cannot even speak enters the cast of characters.

The characters all intersect when for one reason or another they move into the Emporium run by the Owner. In order not to give away too much, suffice it to say that readers will be happy with the outcome. Some readers may figure out the various connections sooner than others, but even so the story will be satisfying.

 

The flaws in the story include too many characters in the beginning, each with a piece of the story. By the end, the gigantic man on the bicycle with the knots inside his jacket becomes a linking factor, but I am still uncertain about why he is part of the story other than the knots he makes. Obviously, his Talent of being able to make all sorts of knots relates to the title: A Tangle of Knots. In fact, the mystery man speaks of knots, saying that if you don’t know the trick, a knot appears to be a mess but that every twist is placed just so, connecting with others.”

Readers will enjoy the cake recipes sprinkled throughout the book. Or check out the special peach cake recipe at this link: http://www.lisagraff.com/peach-cake-recipe.html. All of the recipes are collected at this link: http://www.lisagraff.com/recipes.html.

Stories often offer readers that tangled mess until the readers make it through the whole story. Each book is a puzzle, a mystery for readers to solve simply by reading. A Clatter of Jars follows A Tangle of Knots, continuing the fantasy series.

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Reviews a YA Book Set in Tulsa

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Jennifer Latham’s Dreamland Burning is a hard book to read. No, the sentences are not difficult, but the subject matter certainly is. Rowan Chase is a sixteen-year-old girl living in affluent Maple Ridge, Tulsa, OK. She is biracial; her mother is a high-powered black attorney and her white father comes from a long line of Oklahoma oil barons. Rowan’s mother wants the old servants’ quarters behind the house renovated because her mother says, “I won’t stand by and let a perfectly good building crumble to dust.” The home has been in Rowan’s family since 1922, but no servants have lived in the servants’ quarters for many years.

Rowan wakes up to the noise of the construction workers tearing into the building. Just as suddenly as the work began, it stops. Curious, Rowan dresses quickly and goes to see what has happened. The workmen have uncovered a skeleton wrapped in a tarp under the floorboards of the building. The workers flee, leaving Rowan a bit bewildered about what to do next. She calls her close friend James to come over immediately without telling him why. She tells him, “You’ll see when you get here.”

Rowan and James examine the skeleton and discover a gun with a name etched into the gun. The two see thin cracks in the back of the skull as if someone had hit the deceased with a hard object. Rowan takes a wallet out of the back pocket and hides it in the waistband of her shorts. At that moment, the police arrive along with Rowan’s parents. Clearly, the body has been under the floor of the servants’ quarters for some time. The obvious questions haunt Rowan from the beginning: Who is the dead man? Who killed him? Who put him under the floor?

Latham tells the story through Rowan in present-day Tulsa alternating with William Tillman’s account of 1921 Tulsa. William, himself is bi-racial; his mother is Osage Indian and his father is white. William’s father owns Victory Victrola Shop on Main Street in Tulsa. In those times, Tillman could not openly sell to black customers; therefore, he would arrange for them to come through the back door after hours to purchase a Victrola.

Rowan and James become sleuths because the police do not wish to spend much time on such an old death. The case starts coming together when Rowan discovers a receipt in the wallet; that receipt contains dates and payments by Joseph G to the Victory Victrola Shop and also includes the initials W.T. These clues lead Rowan and James through Internet searches to information about the shop and its owner. The land title to Rowan’s home also turns up interesting information: Stanley Tillman and his wife Kathryn Elizabeth Yellowhorse built the home; if they lived in the home at all, it was only briefly, however, because they sold it in 1922 to Rowan’s great-great grandparents, Flowers and Ora Chase. Members of the Chase family have lived in the home ever since.

Readers learn a great deal about both Rowan and William, from their own points of view. William, himself Osage Indian and white, is racist himself. We see him learn from his mistakes, especially when he befriends Ruby, a ten-year-old black girl whose brother Joseph is buying a Victrola for their mother. Throw into the mix Vernon Fish, a totally despicable Ku Klux Klan member who owns Vernon’s Tobacco Store near the Victory Victrola Shop.

As I said in the beginning, the book is hard to read because Latham is true to the 1921 times, using the harsh words and actions that made me cringe with shame for the way people were treated. The story may be fiction, but it captures the time and the ugliness and horror of the riot, the senseless killings, and the blatant racism.

A Kirkus Review reminds readers that “for more than 50 years, Tulsa’s schoolchildren didn’t learn about the race riot, and many outside of Tulsa remain unaware today. This masterfully told story fills this void.”