Tag Archives: New York Times bestselling author

Of Cabbages and Kings

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The Muse: A Novel by Jessie Burton (Ecco, $27.99, 390 pages)

At first glance, The Muse presents as a carefully constructed novel composed of six distinct parts each of which is titled and separated into time frames – set in 1936 and 1967. Upon further examination, the reader might notice that the chapters set in 1936 are numbered sequentially with Roman numerals while the ones set in 1967 are numbered with Arabic numerals. The final chapter is an afterward. Moreover, the last element is a bibliography that attests to the author’s immersion in the lives and events of her characters.

Thoughtful and elegant book design is integral to the experience of the novel contained between its covers. The Muse delights the reader with illustrated pages that define each part. The illustrations are black, white and grey tone depictions of paint on canvas with a type font typical of the 1930s era. They serve as a reminder that the underlying theme of the tale is the convoluted history a work of visual art may have hidden in the daubs of paint applied to the canvas.

Author Jesse Burton has written a most engaging tale about two women of artistic talent who endure deeply emotional journeys for the sake of their work. Odelle Bastien, an emigre to London from Port of Spain, Trinidad is stuck in a dead end job at a shoe store. Odelle and her best friend, Cynthia, have shared a flat for five years. Cynthia encourages Odelle to pursue her gift of writing. The chapters that are narrated by Odelle are set in 1967.

Olive Schloss lives in the bucolic countryside of pre-civil war Spain near Malaga, Southern Spain. Her father, Harold Schloss, is a Jewish art dealer who only sees value in the paintings created by men. Olive yearns for success and acknowledgement as she paints with her heart and soul in the attic of the rented house she, her father and beautiful mother, Sarah, occupy. Their chapters are narrated in the third person and are, of course, set in 1936.

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As each life contains a bit of mystery, so do the lives of Odelle and Olive. Rather than a procedural “whodunit”, this book unfolds organically and weaves back upon itself. Author Burton is in her mid-thirties and by most standards rather young to have crafted such an elegant tale. There’s no need to rush through the pages. The experience is well worth savoring.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Muse was released on July 26, 2016. Jesse Burton is also the author of The Miniaturist, a New York Times bestselling novel.

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Volunteers

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Without Mercy: A Body Farm Novel by Jefferson Bass (William Morrow, $26.99, 342 pages)

As we headed to the Anthropology Department’s pickup truck, the back loaded with body bags, shovels, rakes, cameras, and anything else we might need to work a death scene, I felt a surge of energy – excitement, even – and for the moment, at least, I forgot to be morose about the prospect of Miranda’s graduation and departure.

Faithful readers of the celebrated Body Farm novels will delight in the measured pace taken by the authors to gently move into a tale bound to contain ghastly examples of man’s inhumanity to man. Before the shocking jolt brought on by the remains of a crime, there are the beautiful descriptions of the locale, usually on or near the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Along with the botany and geography, one can expect information regarding the sociologic background of the region where the tale takes place.

A call for assistance has come to Dr. Bill Brockton from Jim O’Conner, sheriff of Cooke County. As with many of the past requests for assistance received by the UT Anthropology Department, the remains of a crime discovered long past its commission pose a difficult challenge for Sheriff O’Conner and his deputy, Waylon. Dr. Brockton and his PhD candidate/assistant, Miranda Lovelady, drop what they are doing and get on the road to help their friends.

What makes this, the tenth book in the Body Farm series, unique is that it ties together a new plot line with an old one that has been revived with a twist. Moreover, there’s a surprise ending. Rather than posting a spoiler alert, this reviewer encourages loyal readers to consider the time, effort and painstaking care that goes into the creation of these books. The authors provide well-written, well-researched and heartfelt novels worthy of the praise that they have earned.

A world in which fiction characters live out their destiny is all the more enjoyable when the basic foundation is located in the real world. On a recent weekend, this reviewer and her husband were having an early Saturday dinner at a local restaurant. Of course there were televisions mounted in the corners of the dining room playing the afternoon college football games one expects to see. The game nearest our table featured the University of Tennessee Volunteers. The game held no fascination for me; however, when the camera pulled away from the field for a long view of the stadium, I nearly screamed, “OMG, it’s Neyland! Dr. Brockton’s office is underneath it!” That’s a real testament to the fascination and connection the Body Farm novels have created for me.

Thank you Jon Jefferson and Dr. Bill Bass.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on October 4, 2016.

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Triple Tess

Three Tess Monaghan Tales from Laura Lippman

Fans of Laura Lippman need no introduction to private investigator Tess Monaghan. Mystery fans that have yet to read these wonderful books, listen up! Tess is a one-woman force of nature – half Irish, half Jewish, and a Baltimore native through and through. (William Morrow has just re-released the Tess books in new trade paperback editions.)

In a Strange City: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 401 pages)

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The connection between Edgar Allan Poe and Baltimore, the city where he died, is the jumping off point for this, the sixth book in the Tess Monaghan series. John P. Kennedy, an eccentric antiques dealer, asks Tess to find out the identity of a mystery man – a cloaked figure that delivers three roses and a half bottle of cognac at Poe’s grave on the anniversary of the poet’s birth. The cloaked man has apparently duped the antiques dealer by selling him a fake.

Naturally, Tess allows her curiosity to get the better of her and places herself in harm’s way by staking out the gravesite waiting for the action to begin. Rather than the customary figure making the gesture, there appears a second cloaked man. The second man shoots the first and escapes! This is too much for Tess and, as is her habit, she works the case even when her client disappears.

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Author Lippman takes some literary license with the name John P. Kennedy. Kennedy was, in real life, a wealthy man from Baltimore who assisted Poe with his writing career. Readers will become steeped in Baltimore’s culture, or lack thereof as she takes every opportunity to ensure an immersion experience.

By a Spider’s Thread: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 354 pages)

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Tess gets off to a bad start with prospective client, Mark Rubin, an orthodox Jew, whose wife has disappeared with their three young children. Rubin, a furrier who inherited the business from his father, fervently believes that he has had an ideal marriage and is clueless as to the reason behind his family’s disappearance.

This time around, in the eighth book of the series, Tess’ work takes her outside Baltimore via a network of kindred spirits, female detectives who have formed an online assistance network. Rather than a Baltimore-centric story, By a Spider’s Thread focuses on what it means to be part of a Jewish family. Author Lippman provides a serious look at what happens in a family when lies and trickery put everyone at risk of loosing everything, including their lives.

No Good Deeds: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $14.99, 366 pages)

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Laura Lippman’s background as a newspaper journalist serves her well in crafting a tale wherein Tess is hired to teach the unseasoned reporters at the Beacon-Light, the Baltimore daily, on how to conduct an investigation for a story. A federal prosecutor’s unsolved homicide is the focus of her first assignment.

Happily, the story – the tenth in the Tess Monaghan series – opens with a narrative from Edgar “Crow” Ransome who has been Tess’ boyfriend for some time now; although, not without a previous break in their relationship. Crow is younger than Tess, a free spirit who volunteers his time and effort at the East Side Soup Kitchen when he’s not booking music groups for the bar where he works for pay.

This installment of the series expands Crow’s appearances and brings with him a new relationship. Crow befriends a young fellow named Lloyd who lives on the street and primarily survives by his wits. Never mind that one of the tires on Tess’ vehicle is punctured while Crow has it on the wrong side of town while assisting at the soup kitchen. One thing leads to another resulting in the Beacon-Light training assignment crossing over into the world that Lloyd inhabits.

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Ms. Lippman gives her readers an in-depth exposure to life on the streets in Baltimore, which is difficult at best and downright deadly when the wrong groups of denizens converge. Add in the discussion of racial bias prevalent throughout the city, and it’s obvious this series is more than homage to Ms. Lippman’s hometown. She is always a reporter, of the honest variety.

All three books are highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

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Love Story

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Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser (Harper Wave, $25.99, 320 pages)

When a deadly disease strikes, it’s often not clear whether this is harder on the afflicted person or those who surround him/her. This is a point well made in the memoir Marrow: A Love Story by Elizabeth Lesser. Lesser’s sister Maggie battled lymphoma cancer which went into remission, only to return after seven years.

Maggie had one chance for survival, a bone marrow transplant from the perfect donor. That perfect donor happened to be her older sister, Elizabeth. If successful, Maggie would live on with her sister’s blood literally coursing through her veins. In a sense, the sisters would become one, the team known as Maggie-Liz. But the sisters had not gotten along superbly well in their five-plus decades of living, so they realized they would have to overcome the issues that had sadly separated them in the past.

Marrow is a fascinating look at how two people worked extremely hard to find love and forgiveness among the ruins of pain and suffering. Lesser makes clear, however, that what worked for her and Maggie might not work for others. (If there’s a flaw in the telling, it is that Lesser often gets caught up in the forest – the world, the universe, the meaning of Existence, instead of focusing on the trees – the lives of her and her sister.) And yet, this is an inspiring tale of courage. It’s also a reminder that love conquers all, even when death stands poised to strike.


Well recommended
.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This book was released on September 20, 2016. Elizabeth Lesser also wrote Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow.

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All In the Family

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A Game for All the Family: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow, $26.99, 447 pages)

By now, if all were well and this were a normal weekday morning, Ellen would be in her forest-green school uniform and on the bus, almost at Beaconwood. Alex, in torn jeans and a sweatshirt, would be asleep on a train from Berlin to Hamburg, en route to his next German concert.

What genre designation is appropriate for this book? Firstly, there never is a “normal” or even an ordinary day portrayed within its covers. We jump right into the rambling narrative of Justine, a woman who has recently left her demanding career in London to move to the country with her husband, Alexander, and teen daughter Ellen.

Alexander is a well-respected opera singer who travels frequently to venues around Europe; therefore, his home base can be almost anywhere. Ellen has been enrolled in Beaconwood, a private school that bears no resemblance to the one she attended in London. Justine hopes to fulfill her fantasy of Doing Nothing, as she like to announce to anyone who will listen.

Some of the chapters are set in an alternate typeface that designates them as the work of a writer who is composing a novel about a family with some bizarre issues. Perhaps it is a work of fiction, or even a thinly disguised expose of an actual family in serious need of an intervention.

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The plot skips around and has a jerky home-movie made in the 1950s quality. There are myriad odd occurrences and very strange characters that pop in and out of the tale. Justine is the subject of menacing anonymous phone calls that include death threats. One might wonder what has happened to set previously stable author Sophie Hannah on this wild, unpleasant and twisted ride.

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Woman with a Secret: A Novel by Sophie Hannah (William Morrow Paperbacks, $14.99, 416 pages)

Ms. Hannah’s prior work, Woman with a Secret, also suffers from a choppy beginning and a bit of confusing plot shifts. Here too are the trademark typeface shifts that she has employed in past novels. Woman with a Secret needs a list of characters to assist the reader in deciphering the multiple perspectives depicted throughout the tale. The husband and wife team of police detectives featured in the plot do not share a last name and their co-workers are numerous to say the least.

This time around the main character, Nicki Clements, is a woman who yearns for excitement in her “normal” life in the suburbs of London. She’s a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter whose past haunts her. Damon Blundy, a caustic columnist for the Daily Herald, is found murdered with his mouth taped shut with tape. Nicki receives countless sinister emails from a person she cannot identify. Somehow she is linked to the murder. Her first-person narrative and the third-person narrative from the other characters’ perspective give the reader the feeling of being spun around with a blindfold in place. Once the blindfold is removed, it’s anybody’s guess what lurks in Nicki’s past and why she’s linked to Damon Blundy’s death.

If by now you are wondering what’s actually happening in Woman, I’m not going to tell you as it would take more space in this review than I’m willing to give.

Woman is recommended, for ardent Sophie Hannah readers; everyone else, no.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

A Game for All the Family was released on May 24, 2016.

Woman with a Secret was released in trade paperback form on April 12, 2016.

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The Ghost Soldier

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No Shred of Evidence: An Inspector Ian Rutledge Mystery by Charles Todd (William Morrow, $25.99, 341 pages)

Hurray for the mother and son writing team known as Charles Todd! In this, the 18th episode of the post-Word War I saga of Inspector Ian Rutledge, the story line is brilliant. Moreover, the intrepid inspector is moved on in the resolution of his wartime grief and haunting. The presence of Corporal Hamish MacLeod, the ghost of a soldier from Rutledge’s horrifying wartime experience, is kept firmly in the background, which allows Rutledge the opportunity to stay calm and focused through much of the tale.

Make no mistake; the usual British class warfare, so prevalent in novels depicting the early 20th Century between the haves and have-nots, is in full swing. The landed gentry of the town of Padsow, Northern Cornwall, or rather two of their daughters and two girlfriends have the misfortune of being spotted by a local farmer while they are out rowing on the River Camel. This particular farmer has more than one reason to seize upon the apparent attempted murder by the young ladies as they struggle to bring another boater onto their craft. Never mind that his craft is sinking rapidly!

Inspector Rutledge is called in to investigate the farmer’s claims because the original investigator has suffered a heart attack. Rutledge is unable to find his predecessor’s notes on the case and must start afresh. He is surprised to realize that he has a connection to one of the accused. To his credit, Rutledge manages to keep his cool and meticulously search for solid evidence that might lead him to the exoneration of the young ladies and the capture of a cold-blooded killer.

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This mystery is a must-read for Charles Todd fans.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A Step Back in Time

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The Taxidermist’s Daughter: A Novel by Kate Mosse (William Morrow, $26.99, 412 pages)

In a remote village near the English coast, residents gather in a misty churchyard. It is St. Mark’s Eve, when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk.

Alone in the crowd is Constancia Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter. Twenty-two and unmarried, she lives with her father on the fringes of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered on the remains of town, in a decaying mansion cluttered with the remains of his once world-famous museum of taxidermy. No one speaks of why the museum was shuttered or how the Giffords sank so low.

As the last peal of the midnight bell fades to silence, a woman is found dead – a stranger Connie noticed near the church.

A step back in time brings us to the early 1900s in Fishbourne, Chicester, West Sussex England. The author Kate Mosse (New York Times bestselling author of Labyrinth) is an accomplished writer of novels, non-fiction books and plays. Her writing style is consistent with the time she portrays. The specificity with which she slowly and gently unfolds her grisly tale is riveting, especially in light of the super fast action/thriller/mysteries we see today.

The physical book alerts the reader to the crafting and care embodied in The Taxidermist’s Daughter. Deckle pages add a touch of aged elegance, as do the illustrations marking each of the three parts of the tale and the start of each chapter. There is a detailed map of Fishbourne circa 1912 up front, which adds dimension and a sense of relationship between the sites where the action takes place. Readers would be wise to use a Post-It or page marker for ease in referencing the map. The Deckle edged pages are a bit difficult to separate for leafing back to the map.

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Connie, the taxidermist’s daughter, lives with her father, Gifford, on an isolated marshland in an old house. A sequence of events in the marsh, nearby town and church is set forth by an unseen narrator in one type font and a series of first-person missives in a flowing italic font is interspersed between events. The missives are haunting and threatening. Clearly, there is a past deed that warrants retribution.

A murky mystery unravels as though the past is meeting up with the present. Author Mosse provides a wealth of information about the indigenous birds and plants of Fishbourne. The detail with which she lays out Connie’s skillful practice of taxidermy approaches textbook accuracy.

Be very aware that this tale is not for the casual reader of English mysteries. There is much to be learned within these pages both in terms of technical knowledge and human psychology.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on March 29, 2016.

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