Monday, August 31, 2015

The Hummingbird, by Stephen P. Kiernan

This novel, The Hummingbird, blends three strands into a strong cord, telling the story of a wonderful hospice nurse who is challenged and blessed by her career; that same woman, Deborah Birch is also challenged to reconnect with her husband, a returning veteran of three deployments to the Middle East.  He has returned with PTSD fears and anxiety. He has returned to work but has not settled back into the happy marriage that they had experienced before the last tour.

The second strand is her new hospice patient, Dr. Barclay Reed, a curmudgeonly 78 year old who is slowly being consumed by kidney cancer.  He is challenging, but Deborah rises to the challenge, being the consummate professional that she is.  Her purpose is to give her patient honest helpful care that will allow him to die with as much dignity and serenity as possible.

The third strand comes from an unpublished novel that Dr. Barclay wrote years before.  It begins in 1942 and tells of a little known event off the coast of Oregon. A Japanese submarine is biding its time there til the weather improves and they can complete their mission.  Their passenger is a young Japanese pilot who, amazingly, is able to take off in his fold away plane from the surface of the submarine carrying bombs destined to burn a portion of the Pacific Forest just beyond the coastline. They didn't call it terrorism yet, but the Japanese hope is that this attack will strike fear, confusion and a sense of helplessness into the hearts of the American people.

The significance of the title comes from one of many anecdotes about previous patients with whom she has worked. One man had carved a hummingbird and given it to her. She gives it a rub each time she leaves her desk, as it has come to be a reminder that "no matter how impoverished a patient is, he always has something to give."  As she and Professor Barclay grow a little closer each day, she learns that he has lost everything he cared about, his reputation, his tenure, friendship and respect of colleagues, due to a scandal associated with his unpublished book. He has asked her to read aloud to him from the novel, challenging her to decide if the story is true or not. She must also judge whether he was wronged by a plagiarist or was a plagiarist himself.

The story follows the lives of the Japanese pilot and the Oregonians affected by the fires from the dropped bombs. The pilot returns as an invited guest of a little Oregon community several times in later years, hoping to bring peace and friendship from the ashes of war. Not all the Oregonians, however, were ready to forgive.

In the end Nurse Birch has gathered many tidbits of wisdom from Dr. Barclay that have helped her get closer and more accepting of her husband's new reality. As she reflects she senses that "mortality is life's way of teaching us how to love."

I read it quickly and enjoyed every thread of this great story. It is due to be on the shelves this month, so when you see it, snap it up!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Blanche Cleans Up, by Barbara Neely

Blanche White is a domestic worker who innately knows that she is just as sharp as her wealthy employers...but she is also smart enough to know when to be quiet and be scarce.  Her gift seems to be solving the mysteries that she stumbles across with her analytical skills.  She doesn't take things at face value and she is not above listening at an almost closed door to hear how her employer families interact when they suppose they are alone.

In Blanche Cleans Up, she has been snookered into working a couple of weeks for a friend of her cousin.  The cousin wants Inez to go on a trip with her, so Cousin lines up subs for Blanche's usual clients so that Inez won't have lost her job when she gets back from their cruise.  Blanche grudgingly agrees and finds herself in the temporary employ of Allister Brindle, a wealthy Bostonian who aspires to be the next governor, but the more she learns about her employer the more she knows he would be a terrible choice for governor.

Before long, she realizes that this is an incredibly dysfunctional family, there is a murder to solve; a missing son who seems to be a real stress point for Allister and Felicia, and she has been shocked to hear a black minister from her neighborhood promise Brindle he would line up all the votes he needed from his parishioners, referring to them as "Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben!" Blanche was so incensed that she "accidentally," knocked into the reverend while serving refreshments, causing him to spill his drink on himself.  Blanche knows who the hypocrites are and doesn't put up with much.

And at home she is dealing with her niece and nephew whom she is raising and what's more, she has Inez's teen grand daughter that is staying in the White household while her grandmother is on the cruise.  It doesn't take long for Blanche to realize that Shaquita is dealing with the stressful realization that she is pregnant. Blanche definitely has her opinions but tries to guide the girl without telling her what she has to do.  Blanche deals with several kinds of prejudice among the employees she works with as well as the family she works for and their acquaintances. Blanche knows her own mind and has no problem giving a piece of it to those who need to hear it.

Barbara Neely is a good story teller and Blanche is a strong protagonist. I received an e-copy of the book from NetGalley and really enjoyed seeing life from Blanche's perspective.

White Fire, by Preston & Child

Oh, my goodness, yet another bone chilling thriller by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. White Fire features Corrie Swanson, protege of Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. Corrie has lots of potential, but a tendency to act rashly sometimes in pursuit of her goals.  She is a junior in a New York school that specializes in Law Enforcement training.  Pendergast is paying her tuition because he believes in her potential, but she may have bit off a little too much in her thesis selection.  Her project involves testing the unearthed remains of a group of miners who were apparently killed by a renegade grizzly in the mountains of Colorado back in the 1850's.

Corrie manages to get to Roaring Fork, Colorado and sweet talks the Sheriff into letting her at least take a peek at the bones, which are in temporary storage in a ski area maintenance building.  But after just a peek, she is shut down, forbidden to examine the bones again.  When she is arrested for trespassing in an attempt to sidestep the restrictions, she is apprehended and jailed.  Who can she turn to but Pendergast, and turn to him she does. By the time he arrives, a whole slew of City Fathers consider Corrie "the enemy,"  But law enforcement has a whole lot bigger crime spree to take care of.  Someone is burning very expensive homes to the ground, killing all the occupants each time.

Pendergast wants to help Corrie with encouragement, but she wants to be sure she get the credit for having done the research, keeping Pendergast at arm's length as far as her research is concerned.  He feels like there are similarities in Corrie's case with some of Sherlock Holmes' old cases. Corrie doesn't feel any need to go down that road, much to the detriment of her ability to see key instances of cause and effect. He abruptly flies to London to consult with the Baker Street Irregulars, and against all odds, finds a long missing and never published Sherlock Holmes story.

When he returns to Colorado, Pendergast asserts himself in the arson investigations, and of course sees far more at the crime scene in the way of clues than the other investigators do.  In short order, the Sheriff is begging him to stay around in spite of his disgruntled staff.  But Pendergast senses that Corrie is in incredible and immediate danger, though  she continues to make the choices that lead to a need to be rescued time after time.  The last time her good fortune just may have run out.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Invasion of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen

The Invasion of the Tearling is second in Erika Johansen's dystopian fantasy trilogy.  Yes, there is a lot going on here. Please don't skip The Queen of the Tearling before jumping into this continuation, though Invasion is distinct enough to stand on it's own.  At the same time the readers who will have it best are those who read the series after they have all been published.  Current fans of this series suffer the same angst of the first wave of Harry Potter fans who waited years between volumes.

Kelsea's loyal followers do not betray her even as they see that her courageous decision to stop the delivery of slaves from among the citizens of  The Tearling has resulted in a massive army gathering on their shared border with every indication that they are coming with death and destruction in mind.  For years, The Tearling has provided select young people annually in exchange for assurances that the evil kingdom of Mortmesne would not invade the much weaker Tearling. As the outlook grows bleak, confidence in the queen's decisions is eroding...

Queen Kelsea matures and changes in the second novel, and not all the changes seem good. Her sapphires may still be the source of magical powers, but she is unsure if they are still effective. She also is visited by the evil power which has previously empowered the evil queen of the neighboring kingdom. He offers to help Kelsea defeat the evil queen in exchange for his freedom.  There is a lot she doesn't know about this evil being who travels through fire.  She knows he is a liar, but at the same time, his appearance is so appealing that she is tempted to accept his terms. Who IS HE, really?

As the tension and impending doom grows, Kelsea is also overcome with visions from a time before the Crossing, during the time that  the original Tearling settlers left the United States. She is somehow connected with a wealthy young woman (Kelsea somehow knows that she was born in 2058,) who is in an abusive marriage and who is using illegal birth control methods though in the culture of the time, her only value as a wife is to produce children.  Kelsea's sleepwalking episodes become more and more important to her as she observes the awful circumstances that Lily is experiencing.  Maybe Kelsea's strength will somehow empower Lily...and maybe Lily is influencing Kelsea in mysterious ways as well.  Everyone is noticing a marked change in Kelsea's appearance...slimmer, more refined features...even Kelsea sees Lily looking back at her from her own mirror.

So the plot arc is two-fold:  what becomes of Lily, and what will the fate of the Tearling be? Queen Kelsea is key to both.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Treasure Coast, by Tom Kakonis

Tom Kakonis has chronicled a complicated plot featuring a cast of shady characters, some of which are out and out thugs, and builds a very entertaining story around them.  Their paths cross in Florida along the Atlantic seacoast, where Jim Merriman, a card shark whose career path hit the skids a few years back, has come to see his sister on her death bed in Palm Beach Gardens.  And before death comes, she extracts a promise from him to  take care of her son, Leon Cody.  How hard could that be? He's already 21.

At the hospital he meets another smoker, the very attractive Billie Swett, who is there to see the dying mother of a friend of hers. They both sense a spark between them, but their visit on the curb is interrupted when her husband comes to pick her up.

In the meantime a small time shyster and his female sidekick are selling mail order tombstones door to door in North Carolina.  Along the way the Reverend B. Noble Bott, aka: the shyster, stumbles onto a scheme that promises to make them rich even quicker, so they set out for Florida to work the new scam.

And about that same time two enforcers have arrived in North Florida to collect for the bookie, Mr. Berkowitz of Miami.  One of the delinquent clients is Leon Cody.

The thug/enforcers are both ex-convicts and spend their time one-upping anecdotes from their life stories to one another. One of the thugs is a racist/bigot/sadist/bully but the other is a tad more laid back.  They use language that is crude and is likely to be offensive, so be forewarned.

I did care about most of the characters, who are likable even as they continue to make choices that bring them closer and closer to a disastrous end.  Will the end come through greed, violence, or natural disaster? Oh, and did I mention there is a hurricane on the way?

I received an e-copy of the book through NetGalley. It was published by Brash Books in 2014.

I Still Dream About You, by Fannie Flagg

It's a mystery; it's full of humor; it's even has romance (or perhaps it's just the poignancy of unrequited love, but still...)! It's I Still Dream About You, by the humorist and best selling author, Fannie Flagg.  In this novel, Flagg unveils a charming protagonist with a dark secret in her past.  The woman is a former Miss Alabama who resides in her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. She has never married, but she has many friends... nearly everyone in Birmingham, except a rival real estate saleswoman who will do anything it takes to make a sale, including steal clients and lie to accomplish that.

Maggie Fortenberry has decided to "end it all," in spite of the fact that she is such a people person that none of her friends even realize she is depressed.  She plans and plans, makes list after list so she can pull off the perfect suicide, where not only will no one find her body, but no one will even be inconvenienced, because she is taking care of every detail before the deed is done.  Trouble is, one thing after another comes up that needs taking care of, requiring her to postpone the deed.

For instance, the mansion on the hill that she has admired since childhood becomes available so she must yet again postpone her "departure," so she can secure the listing for her struggling real estate firm.  She and her real estate partner go to check on the home's interior to be sure it will be ready for the scheduled open house.  What they discover in a locked room upstairs adds a whopper of a mystery to Margaret's list of Things To Be Resolved, but believe it or not, all the strands of this complicated tapestry actually work together in the end to effect a happy ending, and oh yes, the romance returns!

Quirky characters, lots of humor and lots of Southern charm...a winning pick for our book club by Mary H.!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Flambe in Armagnac, by Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noel Balen, translated from French by Sally Pane

Another delightful mystery set in the wine and culinary culture of France, Flambe' In Armagnac introduces the reader to descriptions of great French cooking, delicious wines, and something that was new to me...the practice of using travelling distilleries to perfect the wines at various vineyards in the Labastide-d'Armagnac region.

Alaux and Balen have devised a plot that takes premier wine connoisseur Benjamin Cooker and his young apprentice Virgile into Armagnac country to evaluate the extent of losses claimed by a vintner whose wine cellar burned on Christmas Eve. Cooker briefly considers not even taking the case, until he considers the opportunity of visiting old friends in the area which he would otherwise miss.

Benjamin and Virgile visit the claimant, Baron Jean-Charles de Castayrac, at his home, which is rundown and unheated, even on this very cold day.  The two wine experts, temporarily insurance investigators, become suspicious when the landowner's claim of destroyed inventory seems extremely high.  It is also suspicious that he claims the Cellar Master, Francisco, had kept all the records in the cellar which would have been destroyed in the fire.  Tragically the blaze was apparently started by an explosion in the copper distillery, and took the life of Francisco as well.

Cooker and Virgile also have an opportunity to meet the vintner's sons, and are disturbed by the animosity between the sons and the father. Maybe there is more going on than just an accidental fire.

Our heroes are back in detective mode, putting together the clues they pick up, not only from the Castayrac men, but the village residents who are only too willing to gossip about that family.

I received an e-copy of the book from NetGalley.  It was originally published in France in 2004, but has been translated by Sally Pane and very recently published in English.  It's a quick read, features smart and witty characters, mouth-watering descriptions of the food and wine they enjoy, and a good mystery to boot! Check it out if those concepts appeal to you!