Sunday, May 24, 2015

Voyager (Outlander Vol. 3), by Diana Gabaldon

Twenty years have passed since Clare made the second incredible passage through the standing stones which connect 17th century Scotland with the modern day. She knows that Jamie must have died in the terrible battle on the fields of Culloden.  He was so sure that death was coming that he sent Clare and their unborn child back in time so that they would not share his terrible fate.

But in 1968, Clare has changed and her unborn child Brianna is now a beautiful red-haired young woman, but a woman who knows nothing about her birth father. In fact she is sure that the loving father who raised her is indeed her one and only father.  He was definitely her mother's husband, and she has never been told of the mysterious missing three years which Clare spent in another time before Brianna was born.

In fact, we learn in retrospect that Frank remained married to Clare, though he didn't believe her story for a minute.  He did however, deeply love her child and raised her as his own.  Clare acted on her gift for healing and actually enrolled in medical school in Boston after Brianna was born.  As Volume 3 opens, Frank has passed away; Clare and Brianna have returned to Scotland.  Clare reconnects with Roger Wakefield, a young historian who takes an immediate interest in Brianna, but also is a great help to Clare in researching where and when Jamie died and is buried.  Of course this requires the awkwardness of telling Brianna the truth, but she is soon convinced and helps with the research as well.  Against all odds, they find the documents that indicate that Jamie survived the battle at Culloden, and it doesn't take too much time for Clare to decide she must risk another trip through the time tunnel of the standing rocks to see if she can reconnect with her lifetime love, Jamie Frasier. 

She survives the trip, and before long has reconnected with Jamie, who by the way, has had an action-packed 20 year series of adventures himself, and the adventures don't stop when Clare arrives! Before long they have traveled the length of Scotland, been involved in all sorts on intrigue, and eventually find themselves forced to book passage on a ship headed for the New World, chasing a ship of pirates, maybe, who have kidnapped Jamie's nephew in Scotland but the ship's destination is across the sea.  Adventures continue as they cross the ocean, not to mention an encounter with an English ship carrying the future governor of Jamaica as well as typhoid, which Clare is able to counter with drastic hygiene measures before all is lost.

Gabaldon packs in all sorts of historical tidbits, not to mention passion and romance, on both sides of the Atlantic, telling a saga that is fulfilling, but it hasn't ended yet!  The characters, and there are many, are unique, interesting and believable. In fact, the reader had best pay attention because some of those minor characters are destined to show up again.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Witch of Napoli, by Michael Schmicker

The Witch of Napoli is a a fictionalized recounting of the life of an actual Italian peasant woman, Eusapia Palladino, who captures the attention of Europe with the paranormal excitement she engenders at the seances she leads.  At her seances she is able to cause furniture to rise from the floor and even call relatives of seance attendees in to speak to family members.

The story is told by the young man Tomaso, whose photograph of a suspended table catapults Alessandra, the protagonist of this novel, to fame, or to notoriety, depending on one's perspective.  Tomaso begins the story at the end of Alessandra's life in April 1918, 20 years after he meets her.  She is close to 40 when he meets her, and he is 16, but her passion and charisma capture his heart immediately.  She is married to an abuser, who takes all the money her seances draw. She has the good sense not to notice Tomaso's crush, but she doesn't mind depending on him for emotional support.

As time passes, she captures the attention of some powerful men, some believers and some who scorn her claims of a relationship with spirits from the other side. As she tours Europe, she captures the attention of one Nigel Huxley, chief investigator of the London Society for the Investigation of Mediums, who sees as his mission the need to prove that all who claim to be mediums are frauds, and he is not above trickery to cause the downfall of those he zeroes in on.

Even more dangerous to Allesandra though, is the quiet research being done by the Church of Rome.  They are digging to find out whatever in her past they can use to ruin her reputation, and thus salvage some of  the damage she is doing to the influence of the local priests.

My original assumption was that the author would be skeptical of the claims of mediums, but it turns out that "Michael Schmicker is  an investigative journalist and nationally-known writer on scientific anomalies and the paranormal," so readers who are intrigued with the idea of getting in touch with the spirit world may really enjoy this.

I didn't find any of the characters particularly admirable. Even Tomaso did not seem noble in his unrequited love for Alessandra, and seemed to see the girls his own age as potential conquests rather than someone to admire and love.  I felt empathy for Alessandra, a strong but flawed woman who was victimized by her husband, her acquaintances and her enemies alike.

I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time, by Tilia Klebenov Jacobs

Wrong Place, Wrong Time is witty and well written. It doubles as a suspenseful thriller for the first half, and then in the second half, a great character study in the aftermath of a kidnapping.

Tsara Adelman almost didn't go to the fund-raising event held by her estranged uncle, even though the funds would support the Cancer Center named in honor of her mother so many years ago. The feud had been between her father and her uncle, but her father has passed away and it may be time, as her uncle is in his 70's, to mend the fences. Her brother has also accepted the invitation, so her husband agrees to stay home with their two small children for the weekend.

Uncle Cass lives in what looks like a castle in the small community of Libertyville in New Hampshire.  A family friend, Hans, an older gentleman she has known since childhood, an even closer friend of her uncle, actually offers to swap rooms with Tsara, since his family was not able to come to the gala at the last minute. Tsara is shown into a large suite in a remote wing of the home on the ground floor of the mansion that is absolutely luxurious.

She has a great time at the event, but leaves the ballroom earlier than the other guests because she is genuinely exhausted from the drive up and the party itself.  She has just readied herself for bed when two men come into the room.  She assumes they are part of the house staff but soon realizes they are intruders.  Though she makes an extraordinary effort, she is overpowered, literally bagged up and taken through the French doors across the patio to where two  horses are waiting to take them who knows where, and no one at the house is even is aware she is gone.

They eventually arrive at a remote mountain cabin, where Tsara is locked in the heated cabin but allowed to sleep in a bed. The two men leave her alone until they return the next morning.  Tsara learns that the two men, Mike and Jim, are cousins and they plan to use her as a principal in a hostage exchange.  Incredibly, they claim that Uncle Cass is holding Mike Westbrook's 6 year old son, as well as several other local children, until their parents have repaid debts owed to her uncle. It had been their intention to take the Austrian, Hans, but since Tsara was in that room, she is the hostage now.

Mike writes a note for Jim to deliver to Cass at the house, and has Tsara sign it as well.  But when Jim returns, they are shocked to learn that Uncle Cass reads the note, excuses himself fro the breakfast scene on the patio, and returns with a gun aimed at Jim! He fires, but Tsara's brother knocks the gun so that Jim is able to escape on the horse.The hostage situation is not ending; it is just beginning...

Tilia Jacobs has created a strong protagonist in Tsara Adelman.  She is physically fit, and though a captive, never quits trying to escape.  Her captor, Mike Westbrook, however is a former Marine who is in excellent physical condition as well as being single mindedly determined to do whatever it takes to rescue his son, which includes preventing Tsara from ever taking control of the situation. The more we learn of Mike the more sympathetic his cause becomes.

Though Tsara is comforted by her Jewish faith she ponders what her responsibilities are as far as forgiveness is concerned. After the hostage situation is resolved, she has many meaningful conversations with her rabbi and friend, a woman named Adara, but struggles with her self confidence and an elusive peace of mind long after she feels she should have been able to put it behind her.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Erik Larson again proves that he can reveal history as provocatively and suspensefully as any novelist out there! I recently enjoyed his non fiction account of Marconi and the development of wireless communication (and so much more!) in Thunderstruck, which takes place around the turn of the 20th century. Dead Wake tells the story of the magnificent liner, the Lusitania, which meets its fate in British waters in 1915 during World War I, having just crossed the Atlantic with a full complement of passengers.

Larson tells us so much more though.  He includes the stories of the German U-boat captains, the culture aboard the submarines, and details of how long they could stay submerged.  We learn that the Germans have determined to change the rules of engagement to give themselves better odds in sea battles. The great irony, Larson tells us, is that the British have broken the German coded messages (listening in on the wireless equipment perfected by Marconi a few short years before!), but that the Brits who were getting the decoded messages were not sharing the information with Captain Turner of the Lusitania, or other ships at sea, because they didn't want the Germans to learn that they had decoded their messages!

We meet quite a few of the passengers on the great liner and learn of the treasures they were taking overseas for business or other reasons.  Some were priceless historical documents and works of art. There were families with small children. We also learn the sadness in the life of Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States, who grieved the death of  his wife, and who tried mightily to keep us out of war. Winston Churchill also makes an appearance as a young man at odds with older military leaders.

The history Larson weaves together is a fascinating and complex tapestry, leading ultimately to the crossed paths of U-20, the German U-boat, and the great Cunard liner Lusitania, the "greyhound of the sea," captained by William Turner, one of the most experienced and capable captains in the industry.

Larson is a thorough researcher with an eye for detail and a way with words as he blends seemingly disparate parts of the story into one complete...nearly larger than life...whole.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

House of Thieves, by Charles Belfoure

Historical fiction with a twist, House of Thieves details the fall and rise of the Cross family during the Gilded Age of the 1880's in New York City. They are members of the elite class, privileged financially and comfortable in the knowledge that their family tree includes the Astor branch.  This settles them into the old wealth portion of the New York rich.  Descended from the Dutch traders, their social code demands conformity and adherence to propriety at all costs. They look down on the nouveau riche, who are guilty of ostentatious displays of their wealth.

The marriage of John and Helen is comfortable but void of love, a situation that repeats in any number of the marriages in their social set.  Daughter Julia is preparing for her debut and Helen is all wrapped up in the planning.  Helen's widowed mother is appointed to be Julia's chaperone to be sure that all the rigid social practices are followed, though she may put a crimp in Julia's plans.

The story begins with the celebration of the graduation of George, the eldest son, from Harvard. George is handsome, athletic and an excellent  student, and adored by his parents. What his parents don't know is that he has amassed $48,000 in gambling debts and is fresh out of options.  The gang whom he owes is run by Dr. James Kent, himself a member of the privileged class but who nevertheless can order the killing of anyone who owes but does not pay without batting an eyelash.  When Kent learns that George's father is an architect, however, that changes everything.

Kent offers the elder Cross a proposition he can't refuse:  Help me rob some of your clients by providing floor plans and inside information, and I will spare not only George, but your entire family.  Cross is appalled but at the same time refuses to consider the option of allowing the killing of George.  The unexpected consequence is that it doesn't take him long to take pride in the planning and execution of the robberies he plans.  And it always seems that the continuous addition of the compound interest leaves him just shy of covering George's debt.

While Cross is engrossed in his extra curricular activities, he fails to notice that 17 year old Julia has developed a friendship with a young and handsome pickpocket, while his 10 year old son Charlie has made a friend of a newsboy, one of the thousands of homeless children living on the streets of NYC at that time. Those friendships plus Mr. Cross' preoccupation with details of buildings he plans to rob, give author Belfoure an excellent opportunity to explore the streets of New York, the transportation system,  the social mores of the elites as well as the poorer classes.

Cross has it all under control he thinks until his brother, whom he loves and admires, arrives.  Robert Cross is a Pinkerton man and has come to town to solve the sudden increase in robberies among the elites of society. Dr. Kent may have met his match, but will John Cross be brought down as well?

I received an ARC copy of this novel form the publisher, Sourcebooks lankmark, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Fast paced and unfailingly interesting, the characters, both good and evil, are well developed and believable. The family members remain true to one another even as they separately descend into the common society that they have been taught to avoid at all costs.

Eeny Meeny, by M.J. Arlidge

The title, Eeny Meeny, indicates that some hard choices are going to be made, but this one is  incredibly hard.  Arlidge begins with two victims in an unknown location.  They have been drugged and dumped with no food, no water, no plumbing, no light. Once they awaken and finally give up yelling for help, a phone on the floor rings.  One picks up the phone and is asked, "Do you want to live?  One of you will kill the other and will be set free.  The gun is on the floor near the phone."  The phone is disabled as far as the victims being able to place a call. The victims go through psychological torture as they go from being revolted by the idea of killing or being killed, but eventually the choice is made.

Helen Grace is the Detective Inspector whose team is charged with resolving the grisly case, and too soon there is another missing pair, and then another.  This is a fast moving page turner, with clues gradually unveiled page by page, chapter by chapter.  Can this possibly be random? Helen doesn't think so but the link is elusive.  The reader learns tidbits about Helen's incredibly sordid and dysfunctional childhood, which explain her tendency to be a loner socially and a tireless detective, but could it possibly provide the link to these random kidnappings with such grisly outcomes? The questions, and the tension, lasts til the very last page of this novel.

There is sure to be more from Helen Grace, a tough and capable professional tormented by a dark side buried deep in her past. She and her team are all likable and capable, but the team definitely looks to Helen for inspiration and leadership.

I received an e-copy of the book from Net Galley to review.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Truth According to Us, by Annie Barrows

The Truth According To Us certainly does not disappoint. Annie Barrows has earned my automatic interest in any book with which she is associated by virtue of having co-authored the delightful and moving epistolary novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThe Truth According To Us certainly measures up, including a certain amount of charming exchanges of ideas via letter in this book as well.

The story unfolds in Macedonia, West Virginia, as revealed by a twelve year old girl, Willa Romeyn. She and her sister live in the family home with three aunts and a dad who is all charm, though  only occasionally present. The adults are close and love the children dearly, but almost nothing the children "know" about the family history is true, and this is the year that Willa starts to recognize the inconsistencies.

Author Barrows really has an ear for colloquial language and the dialog rings true of the rural folk in 1938 W. Virginia. They are a witty bunch, for all the tension that comes from the Depression small town economics they are living through.  Willa's grandparents had been wealthy back when Grandfather St.Clair Romeyn ran the hosiery manufacturing mill, but that was before Willa's time.  It is still the only manufacturing plant in town and the major employer. Jottie, Willa's 35 year old spinster aunt actually owns the family home now, but sees the wisdom of taking in a boarder when the opportunity comes around.  Willa's dad Felix leaves money occasionally for household needs, but his sources are mysterious and inconsistent.

And it is the boarder who changes everything.  Layla Beck is the daughter of a Senator, a college grad without much ambition that is not social, til her dad cuts off her allowance when she refuses to marry the man dad thinks is a good match.  Forced to get a job, she relies on her uncle, who administers the Writers Project for the US government.  She is to write the Sesquicentennial history of Macedonia as requested by the town council.  She is lovely to behold and immediately catches the eye of Felix Romeyn, Willa's dad.  The attraction is mutual and rouses the animosity of Willa and the anxiety of Jottie, who knows Felix's history with attractive women.

So both Willa and Layla are on quests to find true and accurate history.  Willa has spotted some lies and intends to find out the missing details of the Romeyn family.  Layla learns that good writers have to ask questions and evaluate sources to get to the real history of Macedonia in spite of what the Chamber of Commerce version says. She gets some of her best help from the Romeyn family members and discovers that they are very much a part of the Macedonia story, even if other Macedonians want to recast some significant parts of that history.

An exceedingly well told story of family love, family quirks, romantic love, family secrets, and finally, redemption, forgiveness and hope. A complex assortment of characters the reader will genuinely care about, this story is one you will remember for a long time.