Sunday, February 22, 2015

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

Published by Bantam

 An enticing novel of beauty, fantasy and life in the Victorian era
A quite amazing semi-biographical tale of the real Alice in Wonderland, Alice Pleasance Liddell. This is a novel, therefore fiction, but I doubt there was much fiction involved. This book read as nearly to a biography as a book ever has. In fact, it had me eager to look up Alice Liddell as a curiosity. What an amazing story the author has wrought. It was so easy to fall into the rabbit hole with Alice. As she herself states on first hearing Mr. Charles Dodgson tell it, as he has told her and her sisters tales before, this is her story. I loved the way the characters in what came to be such a famous childrens book fell into place, each fitting a character from life so smoothly. This book has everything a person could want in the genre of Victorian history, a remarkable and famous children's story, romance, deceit, and above all giving life to Alice in Wonderland. This book flows beautifully with the showing the world from the eyes of a child, a young lady in love, and finally an elderly woman who finally comes to terms with her life.

Taken that this book, the story as perceived by Alice, took place in the Victorian era, we must take some of it as plausible, particularly the apparent demise of the relationship, because this has never been resolved in fact, only that something did happen. Something of great import in the days of Queen Victoria's reign. Alice seems not to remember what happened that long ago day, even into her eighties. It may seem odd in this day and age that after asking Charles Dodgson, who later as we know took the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll, to write down the story he had just told the three sisters, and claiming it was about her, she didn't read it for many decades, not even to her own children.

The book is so thorough, so much a sincere biography and so much a work of fiction but most certainly based on biographical material. Melanie Benjamin has done considerable research on the subject and has turned it into a work worthy of it's subject. It takes us into the life of Alice and the life of Alice in Wonderland equally. They are one and yet they are not. A very convincing historic novel.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sting of the Drone by Richard A. Clarke

Published by Thomas Dunne Books (2014)

Fast paced, all-too-real fight against terrorism. Very relevant.
This book threw me into the thick of the drama at the very beginning. A high velocity thriller with all the technology anyone could hope for, especially if they don't like someone! This is the world of Drones. I had no idea there were so many sizes, types, outfitted, unarmed drones nor how connected they were to space. If we thought our skies were getting crowded, just imagine this mostly-invisible and sometimes disguised fleet flying around from almost all countries, zipping around all our regular aircraft. Talk about an eye-opener!

These usually silent assassins are directed by an elite group of select pilots who actually "fly" the drones from thousands of miles away. This is their story. The action is not completely non-stop, often it is a wait, assess, check and double-check for innocent non-targets--possibility of "collateral damage" in range--to determine whether action will be taken. What I like, action aside, is the stories presented throughout the book, the personal backgrounds, the lives they lead outside of work. The personalities and back-stories possibly based on real people and events although the book is fictional.

But wait! The book takes a turn-around and it becomes even closer to non-fiction as the terrorists learn from their losses and change their tactics. Now we see the world tipping on it's axis as collateral damage piles up, many victims children. This book is adrenaline full-steam and keeps on escalating. Richard A. Clarke knows what he's writing about. A well-written book of our times. Adventure, terror, a high-tech thriller at it's best.

Colt O'Brien Has a Family by George Matthew Cole

Final book in series

This is the 3rd and final book of the Young Colt O'Brien series. Colt has run into a few problems in the first two books: He has taken on more than he can chew occasionally because of his overconfidence in own brilliance and his abilities of computer repair and recovery. He is an IT whiz but hasn't always paid attention to rules. He also discovered some psychic abilities that he must learn to control. If that weren't enough, in Book 2 he and his girl-friend Amy got married, and now at the beginning of this final book of the series the story begins with Amy in labor about to have their first child. Colt is now twenty years old and meets with even more challenges in his life and career. Having a wife and son to support changes his life in ways he could never have imagined.

This series could be looked at as a learning tool, or a study in how difficult and full of pitfalls that life can be as a young adult. Psychic interference aside, what Colt, Bobby and Amy go through as they progress through various challenges and pitfalls is common to many young people. I think the series can demonstrate how young people no matter how hard they may try, may not be able to avoid what life is going to throw at them. It also shows how more experienced and older mentors can be a tremendous boon toward keeping grounded. Without the assistance of Colt's mentors, he would definitely be in trouble with life. Especially with his psychic awareness, much as it has been helpful as a warning of something to come.

Once again, with Colt's abilities in the IT field, he and his IT friend get into deep trouble when they are manipulated in the world of corporate espionage. However, with the mentoring Colt has had, both in learning about job interviews and work politics, and the lessons to help ground his psychic abilities and dealing with loss, he has become an adult. It was quite a struggle, but very consistent with how much young people go through in order to get to that place. George Matthew Cole has neatly tied up the series in a completely satisfying manner, true to the series throughout. If you haven't read the first two Colt O'Brien series I recommend you do, as this book is clearly an extension to the others, and brings everything into focus. That said, the book can stand alone in the midst of trial, tribulation and growing pains.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Tempest in a Teapot by Amanda Cooper

Published by Berkley Prime Crime

This book was a pleasant surprise to me. First in a new series. The characters are well-thought out and complex; as the story goes along I learned more about them. I particularly found the thought processes of Thelma Earnshaw to be spot on for her age and demeanor. As a senior I recognized a kinship with her mind jumping from place to place then wondering what she had been planning to think about before she interrupted her own thoughts. Not an easy thing to put into writing, but precisely the way this very unhappy and miserable person might think. Great descriptive writing.

Two elderly women, one with a deliberately long memory of losing who she alone considers the love of her life to the other, who married him and in her own words "saw him first." Everything is one-sided competition right down to both women operating tea rooms, with one-sided being the key, because Thelma firmly believes she has been a victim in all things, especially since Rose Freemont, so-called man stealer, whose shop is right across from Thelma's, runs a much more successful tea room than Thelma.

Sophie Rose Freemont Taylor, Rose's granddaughter, has just returned to the town she considers to be her home, back to Rose. She is licking her wounds at the loss of her own enterprise, chef and owner of her New York restaurant. As she is updated on her friends by Rose, she is surprised to learn her best friend, Cissy, Thelma's granddaughter, is about to marry another of their group of friends, Frankie, now known as Francis, a rich high-class architect. For some reason, Thelma is dead set against the marriage, which seems strange on several levels. What could be the cause of Thelma's spite and vinegar? There is a cause that we haven't uncovered yet.

The story builds nicely, as an engagement tea for Cissy is held at Thelma's tea shop, La Belle Epoque, when suddenly a medical emergency happens as one of the guests collapses. Accusations are wildly flung, and Sophie is bent on trying to solve whether a death is actually a murder or whether it was an accident, as she deftly seeks out enough information to have some idea as to what actually went down. Now the trick is to learn the real story. How best to go about it? How about gathering all the people that supposedly were friends of Francis' mother by throwing a fund-raising memorial tea?

I really enjoyed this cozy mystery. I thought I had it figured out early on, only to learn that what I thought I knew didn't even briefly come into play. So many people appear to have their own interests at heart that to make any sense of what has become a murder and why it happened, that Sophie believes if she can just get everyone in one place together, she can tease some information out that no one is prepared to talk about. Does it really boil down to money? Well, that's always a good place to start, as they say, Follow the money. Since the police chief is actually a relative to some of the people involved, it is only fitting that he should be at the memorial tea. With strategic placement of the people who are attending, will Sophie be able to get what she wants? Is conversation all it really takes to get someone to spill the beans?

I found the character of Sophie to be less invasive in trying to extract information than other amateur sleuths I've read, which I appreciated. A very interesting plot which thickens remarkably throughout the book. The first I've read by Amanda Cooper and certainly looking forward to reading more.

The Case of the Cursed Dodo - a Jungle Noir

The Endangered Files No. 1, Featuring Jake G. Panda
 The Case of the Cursed Dodo - a Jungle Noir

Well, this is a completely unusual book. First, it is written as though it is being filmed which can sometimes be a little distracting but interesting. Second, it is reminiscent of the old black & white private eye movies of the 1940s. This is a presentation featuring Jake G. Panda. It is his story (and debut), his first completed Endangered File. File closed.

I thought this was an interesting take on writing a private eye book. We are entering the world of endangered wildlife in a very unique way. Although this book is written with middle school readers in mind, I think it works better for those of us who actually saw the old movie genre. That said, it really could be enjoyed at any age. The concept is brilliant with hints of what animals on the endangered list are endangered from. The film noir theme also works well. Jake G. Panda brings a bit of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade personality to the book giving it that deadpan feel while at the same time presenting a fascinating look at wildlife. The Dodo story was a great place to begin. Who doesn't know of the long-gone Dodo bird?

It is from this perspective that the story fledges into a full-blown mystery, complete with clues, sidekicks, an Underground, good guys and bad guys with hidden agendas, and it all begins with a mysterious suitcase in the middle of a desert. Wonderful. My advice is to let the story take you along for the ride to enjoy it at it's best. There are lots of animals on the endangered list from which the author will be able to choose his cases. With Jake G. Panda on the scent, let's hope some of those animals get a reprieve. Great fun, a fast read, a good though fanciful plot that points out the very real facts that are endangering these animals, such as the harvesting of elephant ivory. I loved this entertaining and somewhat educational book for any age group.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Muffin but Murder by Victoria Hamilton

Published by Berkley Prime Crime

Who killed the corpse in the castle coffin?
This, the second book of the Merry Muffin Mystery series, begins with a brief introduction to the series by covering what has happened previously very quickly and succinctly, not distracting from the current book but bringing it into the present. Merry Wynter is currently making her home in Wynter Castle, which she has inherited, and sharing it with her friends, Pish, who is helping her with her finances and with promoting the castle she feels she needs to sell, and Shilo, her gypsy-model friend.

The story opens with Merry going to the next town, a town that is on the verge of collapse, to find a party shop to buy supplies for the upcoming party Pish is helping her arrange. Since it happens to be around Halloween, she has decided on a non-ghoulish Halloween theme. She is completely dismayed by the dismal town and the party shop, but does buy some supplies, even after she is told the warehouse is haunted. Is it?

To confuse matters more, a "cousin" has appeared at the castle and cousin Cranston is determined that he should have his share of the inheritance. Merry is working on the possibility of fraud with the help of Pish, plotting a way to get a DNA sample, while planning the Halloween party. Here we find characters of all kinds, including the 'security' hired to make sure only invited guests get in and other locals to serve the guests. Many of the invited guests are wealthy and in a position to buy the castle if they want it. These New York elite make up the majority of the guests

It isn't long before Merry notices that there are too many guests and on checking finds that several people have been admitted under the same names. While trying to make sense of the football team, who have been included (are they really a football team or is that their costumes?) and others who are acting suspicious, the party begins to unravel. Part of the decor includes a coffin complete with a mannequin, but surprise! There is a body in there, and it belongs to one of the uninvited guests. Who is he, and why is he at the party? No one seems to know who he is, or they aren't telling. When a good friend is arrested for the murder, Merry goes into full investigative mode. With more and happier surprises in store before the mystery is solved, Merry is unsure about selling the castle. She feels she is a part of the community and has made many friends in Autumn Vale.  Not everyone is prepared for Merry to sell, it remains to be seen what the outcome will be. Victoria Hamilton writes a great cozy murder mystery and I'm sure there will be more adventures in store.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Girl Who Chased the Moon by Sarah Addison Allen

Published by Bantam Books (Random House)

A "sweet sense" calling someone home
Another magical story from Sarah Addison Allen. How does she do it? How is she able to take the reader on such wondrous journeys, with ordinary characters, often flawed or dissociated from life for whatever reason and turn them around, taking us with them. I am amazed at the depth of the author's character building. Her books always enchant me and take me to a better place, they are so alluring they definitely keep me reading.

In "The Girl Who Chased the Moon", we have broken lives, secrets kept and secrets ready to destroy. Emily Benedict has just lost her mother and has made the decision to go back to Mullaby, where her mother was born, and where the grandfather she never knew she had lives. She is shocked at the number of secrets her mother kept from her about her life. She isn't welcomed by the townspeople, in fact, she feels that they would like to run her out of town because of something her mother did. What could she possibly have done to create such animosity? Emily only knew her mother as a caring and devoted parent, one who was charitable to everyone. Why didn't her mother ever tell her anything about her life? She is even shocked to learn she has a living grandfather, even more that Grandpa Vance is a giant. As they begin to get to know each other, maybe the biggest mystery is within the house itself. Very strange goings on. Keep an eye on that wallpaper and don't go in the woods!

She becomes acquainted with Julia Winterson next door who was in the same class as Emily's mother, and another lost soul. A healing process gradually brings a close relationship to both. I was fascinated with the idea of a "sweet sense" calling those who have it whenever Julia bakes. This story just simply flows through the connections of a life Emily never knew about. The writing is so smooth and captivating. I couldn't put it down once I started. What are the mysterious lights of Mullaby? What secrets are being held by her new friends? What deed could her mother have done to still cause such condemnation? Why does Win Coffey keep showing up? This is a story of healing, second chances, and secrets that need to be unveiled, causing the reader to feel they want and need to know all those answers too. I loved this book, a hauntingly beautiful story. Recipes included.