Tag Archives: France

A Confusing Work

shattered-tree

The Shattered Tree: A Bess Crawford Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 304 pages)

The time is 1918 and the place is France. Bess Crawford, AKA Sister Crawford, is working as a British nurse at a casualty center patching up British, Australian and French soldiers who have been wounded while bravely holding back the German army. Paris must not fall to the Germans! The war is nearly over but negotiations are taking way too long to suit most everyone.

The Shattered Tree is the eighth in the remarkable mystery series that gives modern readers a glimpse at the horrors of trench warfare. Bess provides the narrative as she moves quickly from patient to patient while staunching the bleeding from bullet wounds and caring for the dying. Always present is the fear of infection as this war was fought a good decade before the discovery of penicillin.

The first hint of mystery comes when a soldier wearing a tattered uniform is brought for treatment. As he writhes in pain, his cries come out in perfect German. Most of those present are too busy to note. Of course Bess, whose curiosity has landed her in many difficult situations in the past realizes the anomaly and files this information away. Soon thereafter Bess is caught in the fire of a sniper’s rifle and becomes a patient herself.

What ensues is a somewhat confusing series of efforts by Bess and several officers to identify an attacker who makes short work of several people using a knife. An 18-year-old unsolved quintuple homicide that took place outside Paris where Bess is convalescing is also interwoven with her sleuthing to find the German-speaking mystery patient’s identity.

This reviewer read an advance review copy of the book. Perhaps some editing was done to smooth out the segues between events for the final version. (It appears that this was not the case. Ed.) The discussions among the characters that are either helping or misleading Bess as she struggles to recuperate from her bullet and knife wounds can be as baffling as the jumbled plot!

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on August 30, 2016.

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100 Miracles

100 buildings cover

A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings by Dan Cruikshank (Firefly Books, $39.95, 352 pages)

Architecture is an all-embracing adventure without end. It is a story that can never be completed as long as mankind continues to build, to invent, to discover; it is the story told by this book.

The modest dimensions of 100 Buildings place this book somewhere between two genres – popular survey and coffee table. What sets it apart from both is the serious, understated way author Dan Cruickshank sets forth his take on the place of architecture in the world. Specifically, he goes into just the right amount of narrative to bring the icons, pioneers of constructions and breathtakingly beautiful creations here on earth alive for the reader.

100 buildings chartres

100 buildings seagram

The illustrations and descriptions are superb but not overly fatuous. After all, we’re using the perspective taken by a writer in 2015. Students of architecture have no doubt studied many of the 100 buildings. There are a few contemporary additions to the mix, which serve to keep Cruickshank’s history fresh and relatable.

100 buildings vision

100 buildings middle east

Sadly, there have been a few casualties of late in the Middle East. The power of architecture may well be lost on those who are lashing out. And, on a positive note, some nearly destroyed exemplary structures have been reconstructed. Most of the featured examples herein will be steadfastly holding their places in history long after we are merely dust.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on September 24, 2015.

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From London to France

Maise Dobbs

Maise Dobbs: Tenth Anniversary Edition by Jacqueline Winspear (Soho Crime, $14.95, 304 pages)

Maise felt a chill as the stillness of the cemetery seeped through her clothing and touched her skin. Yet the shiver was familiar to Maisie, who had felt the sensation even in warm weather when there was no cooling breeze. She had come to recognize this spark of energy passing across her skin as a warning.

The re-release of Maisie Dobbs proved a delightful introduction to Jacqueline Winspear’s British mystery series. Maisie is a top-notch spunky lady who has enjoyed the patronage of a wealthy benefactor, Lady Rowan Compton. Rather than a lucky happenstance, Maisie’s elevation from a lowly household servant to brilliant psychologist/detective is the result of her hard work and dedication to learning.

The time period is World War I, a favorite of many English mystery writers. What sets this one apart is the easy dialogue and charming characters. Maisie is going out on her own as an investigator after apprenticing with Maurice Blanche, a seasoned investigator. Her first case is a referral from Lady Compton’s attorney. A gentleman suspects his wife of being unfaithful and Maisie’s task is to determine whether the wife’s clandestine activities are a signal of marital trouble.

Maisie Dobbs is likeable without being too sweet or snarky. The book is a satisfying read. The trade paper book includes background on the author’s series and a list of reader study questions for book clubs.

Highly recommended.

Murder on the Ile Sordou (nook book)

Murder on the Ile Sordou: A Verlaque & Bonner Provencal Mystery by M. L. Longworth (Penguin, $15.00, 303 pages)

Verlaque said, “It’s a good idea, Clement. This is a beautiful place, from what I’ve seen so far. You’ll make back your investment.” Verlaque took another sip of wiskey; he knew all to well how risky the hotel and restaurant business was. And this one was on a remote island.

Now, there’s a change of scenery from London to France. The time is present day and the sleuths are two well-educated and highly placed legal professionals. Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque and his paramour law professor Marine Bonnet are embarking on their fourth adventure in Ms. Longworth’s series featuring the couple. Fans of Agatha Christie will notice her familiar style immediately. Longworth fashions her mystery using the gracious, unhurried approach and meticulous attention to detail that Christie readers expect.

Verlaque and Bonnet are on a summer vacation at a newly constructed/recreated 1960’s destination hotel situated on an island off the coast of Marseille. Their fellow vacationers include an old school chum of Verlaque and his wife, Ms. Bonnet’s best friend, a retired schoolteacher, a has-been French actor, his wife and stepson, and an American couple. Each of these characters, along with the hotel owners and staff are revealed with in-depth background information that the reader needs to use to solve the mystery.

The crime is committed well into the book, which highlights the nature of the tale – one that requires patience and careful attention to achieve a full enjoyment of the read. Ms. Longworth has a background that includes knowledge of French food and wine. She blends in her favorites in a way that feels charming rather than ostentatious. Although the Ile Sordou is fiction, the rest of the atmosphere is real.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were received from the publishers.

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Lost At Sea

A Burial at Sea: A Mystery (Charles Lenox Series) by Charles Finch (Minotaur Books, $14.99, 336 pages)

British mysteries are often set in post-Word War I London or quaint villages (think Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series). Here’s a nice change of time and place to the open seas in 1873 aboard Her Majesty’s Ship the Lucy. Former detective and current junior Member of Parliament Charles Lenox has accepted an assignment to travel to Egypt in the hope of uncovering a traitor in the British Intelligence community. Relations between England and France are strained and war seems inevitable. During Lenox’s weeks-long voyage a murder takes place and he is the default person to identify the killer.

Just near the gun room was a small closet with a caged metal door and a large, impressive lock. It held the ship’s spirits, wine and brandy for the captain and the officers, rum for the men’s grog, as well as a bottle or two of harder alcoholic drinks. When ships were foundering or there was a mutiny afoot, sailors were occasionally known to break into it, an offense punishable by hanging.

A Burial at Sea (sharp)

While the story line is important, the portrait painted in words is the star of the book. Charles Finch has done a masterful job of bringing the reader into an era of strict class distinctions. The accuracy of the language of the late 19th Century Victorian Era adds to the immersion of the reader. Nautical expressions and sailing references firmly establish the scenes on the Lucy.

This experience is so far removed from the present day navy that it seems somewhat cozy. Finch’s narrator has a distinct masculine tone; however, there is ample kindness and appreciation expressed throughout the book which makes it appealing for all readers.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Agatha Christie meets Patrick O’Brien… the best in the series to date.” Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A Burial at Sea.

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Garden Party

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (Harper, $35.00, 419 pages)

What interested Diana most, once again, was the philosophy detectable throughout her life:  her faith in the divine spark, the complete worlds of imaginative people whose distinctive tastes and determination turned fantasy into reality.

A bigger than life person often sparks the interest of the general public.   A biography can be engaging and illuminating, as was the story of the 20th Century designer Coco Chanel, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo.   However, let’s be realistic, the general public isn’t fascinated by the women’s fashion queen and king-makers, the wizards behind the screens.   It’s pretty much a niche market for biographers.   In this book, the wizard behind the glossy pages of Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue magazines, Diana Dalziel Vreeland is the subject of this, the second biographical work by British writer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.

As with most biographies, Empress of Fashion tracks Mrs. Vreeland’s life in chronological order, from her birth in Paris, France on July 29, 1903, to her death in New York City on August 22, 1989.   Given the vast number of cigarettes she inhaled during her lifetime – most photographs show her smoking, it’s amazing that she lived to the age of 85.   The early chapters are filled with references to many of Mrs. Vreeland’s well-known relatives, both living and deceased.   Author Stuart might have enhanced the reader’s experience by including a family tree illustration.   A perfect example can be found in the sumptuous biography, Sister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs. Henry Parish II by Apple Parish Bartlett and Susan Bartlett Crater.

Mistakes that might previously have seemed nugatory now loomed larger.

The language used throughout the book is quite specific and not necessarily in common use.   Ms. Stuart describes the upper crust of society as “gratin.”   Yes, the meaning can be determined by its use in the sentence; however, “infra dig,” “nugatory” and “fete champetre” required a quick look-up.   If her reference to an outdoor party had been in Italian, as in una festa all’aperto, this reviewer would have understood.   Sadly, my eighth grade conversational French is lamentably rusty.

Happily, there are photographs to inform the reader just how beautiful Mrs. Vreeland’s younger sister Alexandra, her husband Reed and her two sons were in contrast to her own angular and hawkish face.   The point in made throughout the book with regard to Alexandra and Reed.   Perhaps the beauty she placed on the pages of the fashion magazines and the wonderful clothing lines she encouraged (Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta) did compensate for her features.   It seems to have been a driving force that propelled her to fame and notoriety.

There was a noticeable shift in voice and cadence of the book as the telling of Mrs. Vreeland’s life drew to its conclusion.   It began in an almost prissy and pompous way but eased back and took on an infatuated, emotional and nearly-poetic tone at the end.

Recommended to the fashionista over forty.

Ruta Arellano

Note:  During the height of her fashion magazine career in the early 1970s, Mrs. Vreeland challenged her long-standing notion of presenting clothes and accessories as desirable purchases for ladies.   Her editorial features in Vogue were confrontational and highly suggestive of sexuality and aggressiveness.   This reviewer was newly-married and employed in San Francisco at the world headquarters of the Bank of America.   Vogue offered little or no help with suggestions for looking well-dressed and appropriate to my work environment.   At the time I was confused about why Vogue had ceased to provide helpful fashion guidance.   Ms. Stuart’s book has cleared up the mystery.   RA

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Empress of Fashion is also available as either a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.

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Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain (Ballantine Books, $15.00, 352 pages)

“I wish I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.”   Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Paula McLain presents a convincing rendition of the unique but enduring relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, the conscientious and serene Hadley Richardson, in her first novel The Paris Wife.

After a brief and long distance relationship, the confident young twenty-year-old Ernest proposes to Hadley, a conservative spinster in her late twenties.   On the quest for the ideal inspirational setting in which to write, McLain’s story takes us to the art scene in Paris in the 1920s as the aspiring artists – on the brink of greatness – share their hopes and dreams in local cafes.   McLain’s story is so detailed and believable that you can enjoy teaming up with individuals as they meet their fellow artists and enjoy team with individuals such as Gertrude Stein.   Her character Hadley happens to recall a conversation that she and Ernest had while sharing drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald as he announced his hopes for the success of his then-recently written novel The Great Gatsby.

The reader will understand why Ernest was so inspired during the couple’s trips to Europe, especially while watching the bullfights in Pamplona.   The reader will also sympathize with Hadley, the ever-loyal wife who strives to maintain the attention of her husband, standing by his side through circumstances that even the strongest of us would run from.   The depth of the conversations and the personalities of the characters come alive in McLain’s dialogues and Hadley’s interpretations of the relationships that develop during this phase of Ernest’s life (including his union with his second wife).

McLain does a remarkable job of defining all her characters and in describing the landscapes and cultures of the couple’s travels.   You will become so entranced with her story you will no doubt forget that you’re not actually reading Hadley’s autobiography.

The story left me with a desire to rediscover Hemmingway by rereading A Moveable Feast and The Sun Also Rises.   I know that I look forward to my next trip to Paris where, while sitting at some of the same cafes once visited by the Hemmingways, I will try to imagine what it was like for this young couple in the local art scene during the Roaring Twenties.   I will also contemplate what Ernest Hemmingway’s life may have been like if he had remained with his first love, Hadley.

Highly recommended.

Kelly Monson

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Paris Wife was released in a trade paperback version on November 27, 2012.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Paris Wife, the bestselling novel written by Paula McLain, which will be released on Tuesday (November 27, 2012) in trade paper form.

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