Monday, February 29, 2016

Brotherhood in Death- J.D. Robb

Brotherhood in Death- J.D. Robb (In Death series #42)
Berkley- Penguin Random House
Release Date: February 2, 2016

Synopsis: Dennis Mira just had two unpleasant surprises. First he learned that his cousin Edward was secretly meeting with a real estate agent about their late grandfather’s magnificent West Village brownstone, despite the promise they both made to keep it in the family. Then, when he went to the house to confront Edward about it, he got a blunt object to the back of the head.  Luckily Dennis is married to Charlotte Mira, the NYPSD’s top profiler and a good friend of Lieutenant Eve Dallas. When the two arrive on the scene, he explains that the last thing he saw was Edward in a chair, bruised and bloody. When he came to, his cousin was gone. With the mess cleaned up and the security disks removed, there’s nothing left behind but a few traces for forensics to analyze.   As a former lawyer, judge, and senator, Edward Mira mingled with the elite and crossed paths with criminals, making enemies on a regular basis. Like so many politicians, he also made some very close friends behind closed—and locked—doors. But a badge and a billionaire husband can get you into places others can’t go, and Eve intends to shine some light on the dirty deals and dark motives behind the disappearance of a powerful man, the family discord over a multimillion-dollar piece of real estate . . . and a new case that no one saw coming.

Warning: Spoilers!

Unlike so many, the In Death series manages to get better and more vividly alive with every addition.  Wonderfully written, with twists and turns to each case, the reader sees new aspects of the futuristic New York City and new layers to familiar characters in each book.

Brotherhood gives us more layers to one of every reader's favorite people: Dennis Mira. The husband of Dr. Charlotte Mira, readers have fallen in love with the sweet, slightly absentminded professor right along with Eve.  Here we get more scenes with Dennis, and meet his cousin Edward- Dennis' polar opposite.  A former senator, heavy into appearances and society, Edward and his wife Mandy are as far from Charlotte and Dennis as it's possible to get.  When Edward's case goes from a disappearance to multiple homicides, Brotherhood is one of those books where you have a hard time feeling sympathy for the murdered men.  First because they (and almost everyone they associate with) are horrible human beings, and then as motives become clear, because of the men themselves.  

One of the things that gave Brotherhood additional layers was that throughout the book, almost every character finds themselves asking: what is justice? "Justice is served" is a sign hung with each of the murdered men.  The more Eve and her team look into the case, the more it becomes obvious that the murder victims are being killed by women they made victims over the years- rape victims.  Do the women have the right to administer their own justice? Eve, Roarke, Peabody, McNab, even APA Cher Reo ask themselves this. Do multiple wrongs make a right? Brotherhood bring up moral gray areas (and areas that don't usually seem gray) and the reader finds themselves questioning their own philosophy right along with the characters.  

Along  with the darkness, Robb mixes in enough light to help break up the tension in all the right spots.  There are some wonderful scenes between Dennis and Eve that make you love Dennis Mira even more than you thought possible.  And there is an unexpected, prefect friendship scene between Eve and Peabody that I loved.  Of course there is also some great humor- a room full of dolls, Eve gets to threaten a computer system in creative ways we haven't seen in awhile.  And there's a graphic, not to be missed description of the only reason Eve would learn to sew that will make you grin every time you think of it.

A wonderful, thought-provoking addition to the In Death canon, and an absolute must read!  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Highlander Undone- Connie Brockway

Highlander Undone- Connie Brockway
Mountlake Romance
September 15, 2015

Synopsis: While recovering at his uncle's estate from life-threatening wounds sustained in the Sudan, Jack Cameron- a loyal Scottish captain in the British army- is haunted by the words of a dying officer: one of Her Majesty's Black Dragoons is aiding the slavers they were sent to suppress in order to get rich. How will he find the traitor without alerting him to an investigation? Cameron finds a way while listening to the voices beneath his open window- particularly those of Addie Hoodless and her brother Ted, a famed artist commissioned to paint portraits of the Black Dragoons' senior officers.  Jack decides to pose as an artist to infiltrate the close circle of friends at Ted's studio to listen in on unguarded conversations of the officers. But this also means tricking Addie. And if his real identity is exposed, Addie's life will be in terrible danger.

With so many interesting books out there to read, it sometimes takes me a little while to get to even some of my preferred authors. Such was the case with Highlander Undone, which came out September 2015.  I always enjoy Brockway's books, and this was no exception.  She can always be counted on for wonderful, intricate characters and Jack and Addie now join those ranks.  Both have layers they try to keep anyone from seeing, past troubles and traumas as well as present conflicts.

Addie is finishing her year of mourning for her late, unlamented husband. I loved how she chose to go through the mourning not because it was "expected" or "the thing to do" for Society in general, but out of respect to her in-laws.  Sadly, we never meet the in-laws in this book, but based on Addie's memories they must have been good, kind people who had no part in forming the abusive monster that was their son. They actually warned a young, infatuated Addie not to marry him! But she does marry him, and regrets it. She believes ever soldier must be like her abusive husband- and considering that the soldier friends he always had around him were certainly like him, that's not as irrational as it could have seemed.

But it's also very inconvenient for the soldier who falls in love with her! Jack's sense of duty to both his men and his country pushes him to discover the Dragoon changing orders and profiting from the slave trade- both because he despises the stain to the military and equally because he despises the slave trade and was genuinely fighting to help people.  What I liked best in Jack was that there was never a moment in the book where he rationalized his undercover work and assumed that when everyone he was tricking found out, they would forgive him.  From the beginning he was sure everyone, especially Addie, would despise him for lying, but he still felt it was the only way to unmask the traitor.  I would have thought much less of him if he ever just shrugged and said everyone would understand, that he'd had no choice.

Brockway handles the subject of domestic abuse in a sensitive and careful manner, never describing specific memories that might be upsetting to readers who have been in similar circumstances while also never downplaying the seriousness of the subject. We see Addie develop from an abused woman who is sure she deserved everything her husband did to her into the confident and brave woman she must have been before her marriage.  She learns her own strength, and to trust her judgement and her heart.

A must read for Brockway fans and a great introduction to the author for newcomers!

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Cast of Falcons- Steve Burrows

A Cast of Falcons- Steve Burrows
Advanced Reader Copy: Release Date: May 7, 2016

Synopsis: A man falls to his death from a cliff face in western Scotland. From a distance, another man watches. He approaches the body, tucks a book into the dead man’s pocket, and leaves.  When the Scottish police show visiting Detective Chief Inspector Domenic Jejeune the book, he recognizes it as a call for help. But he also knows that answering that call could destroy the life he and his girlfriend Lindy have built for themselves in the village of Saltmarsh, in north Norfolk.  Back in Saltmarsh, the brutal murder of a researcher involved in a local climate change project has everyone looking at the man’s controversial studies as a motive. But Sergeant Danny Maik, heading the investigation in Jejeune’s absence, believes a huge cash incentive being offered for the research may play a crucial role.  With their beleaguered Chief Superintendent blocking every attempt to interview the project’s uber-wealthy owners, Jejeune and Maik must work together to find their answers. But will the men’s partnership survive when the danger from above begins to cast its dark shadow?

This is the third book in the "Birder Murder Mystery" series that began with A Siege of Bitterns, but was the first in the series that I read.  Probably this is a series where you would get more out of the characters if you read the books in order.  Coming late to the series, I think I missed some of the back stories and development of the main characters.  There are many references to events that probably happened in the other two books, and the dark times and troubles the characters have had.  None of these problems are really recapped in this book however, leaving a first time reader without much sympathy or empathy for anyone.  I found the characters mostly one dimensional, with attempts to make them unique lying in things like a love of Motown, or birding.  Some instances, like DCI Jejuene's conflicts with his brother or Sergeant Maik's loyalty to Jejeune, suggest that they may be more deeply written in the earlier books and you are already supposed to know everything important about them by the time you read this.

Like the other books in the series, the title refers to the collective noun of birds- the always popular "what do you call a group of . . ." question.  Like the author, the main character, Detective Chief Inspector Jejeune is a bird-watcher, and there are lovely descriptions of the countrysides of Scotland and north Norfolk where the story takes place that give the reader a wonderful image of the area, while seeming completely natural to the story.  The mystery is an excellent blend of what starts out as two seemingly unrelated deaths- one accidental and one most definitely murder.  The murdered scientist is connected to a research institute owned by a Middle Eastern prince.  Does the motive surround his research on carbon capture and climate change, the prize money for successful research, or his desertion of the institute for a university?  And what does it have to do with an accidental death of a stranger is Scotland or the Prince's cast of gyrfalcons?  

Although there was a slightly slow start to the book, with plenty of red herrings and an excellent twist at the end A Cast of Falcons was a good murder mystery- made better (for me) by the fact that I couldn't solve the mystery before the characters did.  I have to admit that despite enjoying the ending, I probably didn't enjoy the book enough to go back and read the others in the series.   

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson & The Empire of the Imagination- Annette Gordon-Reed

Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson & the Empire of the Imagination- Annette Gordon-Read, Peter S. Onuf
W.W. Norton & Company; Liveright
Advanced Reader Copy: Release Date: April 13, 2016

Synopsis: Annette Gordon-Reed teams up with America's leading Jefferson scholar, Peter S. Onuf, to present an absorbing and revealing character study that dispels the many clichΓ©s that have accrued over the years about our third president. Challenging the widely prevalent belief that Jefferson remains so opaque as to be unknowable, the authors—through their careful analysis, painstaking research, and vivid prose—create a portrait of Jefferson, as he might have painted himself, one "comprised of equal parts sun and shadow" (Jane Kaminsky). Tracing Jefferson's philosophical development from youth to old age, the authors explore what they call the "empire" of Jefferson's imagination—an expansive state of mind born of his origins in a slave society, his intellectual influences, and the vaulting ambition that propelled him into public life as a modern avatar of the Enlightenment who, at the same time, likened himself to a figure of old—"the most blessed of the patriarchs." Most Blessed of the Patriarchs" fundamentally challenges much of what we’ve come to accept about Jefferson, neither hypocrite nor saint, atheist nor fundamentalist. Gordon-Reed and Onuf, through a close reading of Jefferson’s own words, reintroduce us all to our most influential founding father: a man more gifted than most, but complicated in just the ways we all are.

This newest addition to the works exploring the life of Thomas Jefferson is a must-read for American History buffs.  It is not as much a biography as it is an exploration of the world that Jefferson lived in, and the idealized one that he created in his mind, his "empire of the imagination".  Instead of reading as a chronological biography of his life it explores themes that were important to Jefferson: home, family, politics, music, etc. and how these reflected and influenced his views of the world and how he saw himself in that world.  It is the process of his life, not the simple bullet point highlights, that this book explores. 

The most important foundations of Jefferson's life centered on his home and his family.  I was interested to read how deeply this reflected in his approach to politics and how he saw the new republic developing.  It was especially interesting to consider that, due to travel, politics, and death, the ideal family that Jefferson obsessed over is one that he himself never truly had, or didn't have for long.  There is an extensive look at the issue of slavery and the question that haunted Jefferson in life as well as in history: how could he be against slavery, that "peculiar institution" and yet own slaves himself? While this is a question that in some ways can never fully be answered, Gordon-Reed and Onuf examine it from Jefferson's political, practical, and moral views and come to some interesting conclusions.  The same is done for his relationship with Sally Hemmings and the entire Hemmings family. 

  During an election year it was especially fascinating to look at politics in Jefferson's day. One was not expected to run for political office to benefit oneself (any hint of ego or self interest in politics was looked at with great suspicion) but for how the individual could benefit the greater whole. Even while Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Hamilton and others were dividing into Federalists and Republicans, they were against  multiple parties. The idea was that you were a patriot and therefore there was no dissent. Not very practical when put into real world situations, but interesting to think about.  

I greatly enjoyed this book and this style of looking at an individual's life through the themes that run through it and the larger picture. Instead of being yet another tired biography of a man who has had endless biographies written about him, Most Blessed of the Patriarchs puts Jefferson into the larger picture of his world: both the actual world and the 'empire of imagination' that helped him remain to this day one of our most remembered presidents and Founding Fathers. 
I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Old Magic- Nicholas Clapp

Old Magic: Lives of the Desert Shamans- Nicholas Clapp
Sunbelt Publications
Published: 2015

Synopsis: For a thousand generations, desert shamans of the far West sought order in the stars and in the mysteries and wonder of their grand, if unforgiving landscape. When summoned, they doctored the stricken, be they stoic elders or frightened little children. They conjured rains. Taking leave of reality, they rode whirlwinds and soared in magical flight. They epitomized a Native American ability “to relate to the land in ways beyond a Western way of thinking.” They’re gone now. But there remain telling accounts of how, day-to-day, they lived how omens foretold a shaman’s destiny, how he learned his craft, how he could exercise his power for both good and evil. How a shaman could travel to the land of the dead and (hopefully) return. Drawing on the lore of a dozen tribes, Old Magic conjures the year-to-year life of a shaman – a life of service to his people, a life fraught with torment and danger, a life often taking a man or woman to the edge of madness.

Old Magic is one of those rare books that combines careful research with a poetic, flowing, storytelling style of writing that makes a book not only educational, but enjoyable.  Clapp’s descriptions of the desert landscape draw the reader in, entice those who are unfamiliar with the desert, and connect to the experiences of those who have hiked and explored even a fraction of the desert.   The beautiful photographs included in the book evoke the beauty and harshness of the desert, and are perfect additions to experience the mysteries of the land and its’ magic.

Clapp describes experiences that have been related to him or recorded by early ethnographers from shamans, including coming of age ceremonies, dream quests, and healing ceremonies.  He explores what is known about different forms of magic among the Kumeyaay, Cahuilla, and Quechan, and how the culture of the shamans had to change and adapt with the coming of the Spanish. There are beautifully told early creation stories and explorations of the different roles gods and shamans played in the every day lives of the people.

 His careful research and sensitivity towards the subject matter offer respectful insight into shamans and magic in Southern California.  It encourages respect, understanding and additional interest in the enthralled reader.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

Tall Tail- Rita Mae Brown

Tall Tail- Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown
Random House Publishing Group-Ballantine
Advanced Reader's Copy: Release Date: May 17, 2016

Synopsis: During a sudden storm Mary Minor "Harry" Harristeen's pickup nearly collides with a careening red car that swerves into a ditch.  Harry recognizes the dead driver as Barbara Leader, a nurse and confidante to former Virginia governor Sam Holloway- her best friend Susan's grandfather.  Though Barbara’s death is ruled a heart attack, dissenting opinions abound. After all, she was the picture of health, which gives Harry and her four-legged companions pause. A baffling break-in at a local business leads Harry to further suspect that a person with malevolent intent lurks just out of sight: Something evil is afoot.  As it happens, Barbara died in the shadow of the local cemetery’s statue of the Avenging Angel. Just below that imposing funereal monument lie the remains of one Francisco Selisse, brutally murdered in 1784. Harry’s present-day sleuthing draws her back to Virginia’s slave-holding past and the hunt for Selisse’s killer. Now it’s up to Harry and her furry detectives—Mrs. Murphy, Pewter, and Tee Tucker—to expose the bitter truth, even if it means staring into the unforgiving eyes of history and cornering a callous killer poised to pounce.

I was introduced to the Mrs. Murphy series with the very first book, and absolutely loved it.  Murder mysteries, sleuthing cats and corgis- what wasn't to like? After the first few books however, Brown's writing style changed to the point that I didn't enjoy reading her books anymore.  After several years off I decided to try Tall Tail and see if things had changed for the better.

The book alternates chapters between present day and 1784, where the present day mystery has its roots.  History is one of Brown's strong points, and her excellent research makes the reader feel immersed in that time period.

That is about the only positive I found in this book. It was slow paced, and the mystery often felt pushed to the back burner in favor of Brown's now characteristic rambles about government, the world, and the human condition.  When the story finally reaches the end, things pick up slightly, but still feels disappointing.  There's a chance you haven't figured out the why before it's exposed, but you're certainly not surprised by the who.  Much of the book looks at the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same, and it is the rare few who learn from the past and their mistakes.   Far too many chapters end on what is supposed to be some kind of cliffhanger, or ominous statement- which works once or twice but gets old fast when used so frequently.  The great characters of Mrs. Murphy, Tucker, and Pewter are almost side characters here, and have sadly little to do to help the book plod along. 

Combining the present day and past story makes a clever way to explore this idea, but it's almost the only clever part of the book, and does not- in my opinion- make it worth the read.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley for an honest review.