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L. J. Roberts (Oakland, CA, USA)

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The Firebird
The Firebird
by Susanna Kearsley
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars "The Firebird" is a wonderful read., 8 Jun 2013
This review is from: The Firebird (Paperback)
First Sentence: He sent his mind in search of me that morning.

Nicola Marter has a gift but it's one with which she is uncomfortable. However, when a woman comes into the art gallery for which she works, she is intrigued by the history behind an item the woman desperately wants to sell. Asking the help of Rob McMorran, briefly a former lover, whose gift is even greater than her own, they travel to St. Petersburg, Russia looking for answers for a gift given to the woman's ancestor, Anna, by Empress Catherine. In order to find the answers, they much follow Anna from Scotland to Belgium to Russia, seeing her life through the years.

A curious, but intriguing open fades to precise descriptions bringing you back to reality. A curious, but intriguing open fades to precise descriptions bringing you back to reality. One thing I remember about the movie "The Da Vinci Code" were the scenes when the characters saw locations as they once were. Ms. Kearsley's descriptions obviously reminded me of that as they are just that vivid. No matter the time period, the sense of time and place is clear and compelling.

Kearsey has a wonderful voice, with a lovely wry humor, reminiscent to that of Mary Stewart's earlier books. She draws you into the story, the locations and the characters, bringing them all to life. Her dialogue is natural and flowing with regional accents to provide veracity yet not to the point of making reading difficult.

The level of Ms. Kearsley research is very apparent. Whether it be, the history of the Jacobites, or the various locations and actual historical characters, you know you can trust the information which has been overlaid with a very good story. Insofar as the abilities of the modern characters, while I do believe in people having the abilities of telepathy and psychometry, I'm not certain anyone has them to the level of the characters. However, my criticism is very small in comparison with how essential those talents are to the story and how well it made the whole plot work overall.

The story set in two time periods; contemporary and the 1700s and the transitions are done very smoothly. You never feel lost. What is even more remarkable is that both stories are equally strong. There is never a sense of wishing there were more of one story than the other. Although they move from one to the other, it was as though I was reading two books simultaneously and loving them both. While perhaps not a mystery in the true sense of the word, there is the mystery of finding out about the history of the object which sends Nicola and Rob on their travels.

Ms. Kearsley creates wonderful characters that are fully developed and come to life. None of them feel as though they are secondary characters as each has a significant role to play. However, I must say that for those of us who read "Shadowy Horses" and "The Winter Sea" there are wonderful connections to both of those books. At the same time, new readers will have no sense of confusion from not having read them--except to have missed out on two wonderful reads.

There is a wonderful building of romantic tension in each story line. These are not impassioned bodice-rippers--okay, there was just a tiny bit of bodice ripping--but waltzes that gracefully build to satisfying conclusions.

"The Firebird" is a wonderful read. I am always entranced by Ms. Kearsley's writing. She is one of my "don't bother me, I'm reading" authors, and it's so delightful when one find those.

THE FIREBIRD (Novel/Mys-Nicola Marter-Europe-Contemp/1700s) - VG
Kearsley, Susanna - Standalone
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013

The Crowded Grave (Borzoi Books)
The Crowded Grave (Borzoi Books)
by Martin Walker
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars "The Crowded Grave" contains all the elements of a very good read., 8 Jun 2013
First Sentence: For once, the chef de police of the small French town of St. Denis was carrying a gun.

It is a busy time for police chief Bruno Courrèges. Local farmers of geese and ducks are being set upon by members of PETA who oppose fois gras. A local archeology site has turned up four skeleton's-- three that could cause a significant change in the science of evolution, one much more recent who was murdered--and now the head of the dig has gone missing. A high level summit is about to take place between representatives of France and Spain over the Basque separatists. And Bruno has two attractive women and a new magistrate with whom he must contend.

Walker's evocative descriptions transport one to the sights, sound, smells and tastes of Provence. Each book being set in a different season--in this case, Spring--heightens the experience even further.

Bruno is a very likeable and appealing character. He is very much part of his small community and protective of its residents. He is part of their lives and understands them. His approach to law enforcement is always to abide within the letter of the law, but to do what is just, and provides the best solution to the people involved.

An excellent description comes from Bruno himself, "He could imagine what young magistrates might think of him, an ex-soldier who hunted and drank and who tired never to arrest anyone and cared little for the subtleties of modern law enforcement with its counseling and political correctness." although this makes him seem harsher than he is. The woman he most loves now lives in Paris and he can't imagine life anywhere but in St. Denis. It also leaves out that he built his own house, grows most of his own food, makes wine, rides horses, and cooks. The descriptions of food and its preparation were mouth-watering and somewhat amusing. Above all, he is no one's fool.

I always learn something from Walkers' books. The archeological information is fascinating with the subject of the dig being a discovery that could change thoughts of the evolution of man from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnin. There was also and interesting, and well-handled, perspective given on the controversy over fois gras. However, some of the history from WWII, the French Resistance, the Spanish Civil War, the Basque separatists, and the "Dirty War" in Argentina, was a bit confusing to me. I certainly know of them all, but not necessarily how they fit together politically. Still, it made me look things up and was fascinating. It also led to a moment of introspection... "Generation after generation, so many bodies must lie scattered in the soil of France, so many battlefields where the bones must lie thickly together. ...France is built on a heap of bones, he thought; we are the sum of all the dead that went before us."

"The Crowded Grave" is a very good read. It has all the best elements of character, sense of place, a bit of humor, some suspense, and a compelling plot. I'm happy to say the next book is already waiting for me.

THE CROWDED GRAVE (Pol Proc-Bruno Courrèges-Provence, France-Contemp) - VG+
Walker, Martin
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011

Life After Life
Life After Life
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 9.49

146 of 159 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating read, but I can't recommend it unreservedly., 11 May 2013
This review is from: Life After Life (Hardcover)
First Sentence: A fug of tobacco smoke and damp clammy air hit her as she entered the café.

Ursula is born...and dies...and is born again. Each life lasts a little longer. With some, we pick up where the previous left off. With others, she has been able to change her course and, possibly, the course of history.

Atkinson uses her unique voice to tell us a story of reincarnation, but not in the usual woo-woo sense. In fact, she does not follow the classic philosophy of reincarnation as the character of Ursula is always reborn at the same point in time as the same person. You know each life will end; you know the next life will show zen-like progression. The difference, however, is that there are times when Ursula can alter an event which will then change the course for that life.

This is no romantic fantasy; some lives are decidedly unpleasant. What the book lacked, for me, is a sense of connection. The one certain element, in real life, is that life will end. Whether there is reincarnation or eternity, we don't know and it is the not knowing which gives life import and significance. Atkinson has removed that gravitas. While this makes the reading of each life interesting, it does remove some sense of really caring about the fate of the character. What is also missing is any real sense of how Ursula's life fits in with those around her; how she impacts them, and they her.

That's not to say, one doesn't become involved. Absolutely, you do but almost in the way of watching an inevitable accident. In that, it reminded me of "The Time Traveler's Wife" as one chapter is painfully grim. In another, Ursula commits an act which could have changed world history. Unfortunately, we're given no follow-up; we have to surmise the outcome for ourselves as her life starts again.

Atkinson does provide us with a character about whose life we become curious. She creates an excellent sense of time. The pre-war and World War II years become real to those of us who didn't live them. She writes excellent dialogue. There are elements of philosophy, satire and humor, as well as introspection..."Ursula craved solitude but she hated loneliness, a conundrum that she couldn't even begin to solve."

"Life After Life" is a fascinating read; it's compelling and certainly kept me reading to the end. It is intriguing and thought-provoking, occasionally grim and rather depressing, and undoubtedly not for everyone. Atkinson is an excellent author, one who ordinarily ranks among my favorites. Although I am very glad I read this book, I can't recommend it unreservedly.

LIFE AFTER LIFE (Novel-Ursula-England-1910) - Good
Atkinson, Kate - Standalone
A Reagan Arthur Book, Little, Brown and Company, 2013
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The Perfect Ghost
The Perfect Ghost
by Linda Barnes
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 4.26

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It was okay; the surprise ending wasn't surprising., 11 May 2013
This review is from: The Perfect Ghost (Hardcover)
First Sentence: Teddy, you would have been proud of me.

Somewhat agoraphobic Em Moore was part of a writing team focused on the biographies of the famous. Now that her partner, Teddy, is dead from a single-person automobile crash, it is up to Em to finish the book on film director Garrett Malcolm. It takes all her resolve, but Em travels to Cape Cod and finds Malcolm is more than just a story; he's a very appealing man, with secrets. Em tries to learn more about his late wife and about his connection to alcoholic actor Brooklyn Pierce. In the meantime, Detective Snow isn't ready to sign off on Teddy's death as accidental.

One of the most important elements of a story is the character. Are they interesting? Can you empathize with them. In the case of Em, the answer to the first is "yes". However, for me, the answer to the second is "no", which is a shame. It's not necessary to particularly like a character, which is a good thing in this case. Although the descriptions of her panic attacks and insecurities were compelling but they weren't enough to keep her interesting and, after a time, became quite tiring.

Perhaps it was partly due to the story being told in first person with very long passages of narrative and very little dialogue that caused the story to feel very, very slow. What's worse is that most of what dialogue there is, is internal and directed toward the dead Teddy. Garrett was the most interesting character, exemplifying all the ego, and fickleness ascribed to that persona, correctly or not. Unfortunately, of Detective Snow, we see almost nothing.

The setting is wonderful, and there were good description and pieces of historical information. However, I suspect unless you know the area, details of driving Route 2 to Storrow Drive or around Fresh Pond Circle wouldn't mean much to most readers unless they had a map. Descriptions should allow the reader to see, hear, feel and smell a location. There was sadly little of that.

"The Perfect Ghost" isn't without merit. It did keep me interested enough to read through to the end without putting it aside. For me, the "surprise" ending wasn't particularly surprising, but it was nice to have my suspicion confirmed. Ms. Barnes is a good writer, her early Michael Sprague and Carlotta Carlyle books are proof of that, and it is nice to see her back. I am very interested to see what she'll write next.

THE PERFECT GHOST (Novel/Mys-Em Moore-Cape Cod, MA-Contemp) - Okay
Barnes, Linda - Standalone
Minotaur Books, 2013

Breaking Point (Joe Pickett)
Breaking Point (Joe Pickett)
by C.J. Box
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 13.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Boy, can this guy write! He kept me up until 2 a.m., 11 May 2013
First Sentence: On an early morning in mid-August, EPA Special Agents Tim Singewald and Lenox Baker left the Region 8 Environmental Protection Agency building at 1595 Wynkoop Street in downtown Denver in a Chevrolet Malibu SA hybrid sedan they'd checked out from the motor pool.

When Joe finds a cut fence and his neighbor, Butch, on Wilderness land, he doesn't think too much about it. However, when the EPA and Feds come in and insist on taking over an investigation of two murdered EPA agents found on the neighbor's land, Joe seriously questions their motives and methods. In order to keep things as controlled as possible, he agrees to lead the agents into the mountains to track Butch down.

Boy, can this man write!! The story is completely engrossing; all the more so as the premise is taken from a true story. If anything, I can't quite understand why he is not as popular and widely read as other, similar authors. It's certainly not for lack of storytelling. Perhaps it is because he calls out the wrong-doing of some who work for public agencies and misuse their positions. I appreciate it, as it is one way to keep such agencies in check.

Box's characters rank among the best. Joe is a man of strong morality and integrity, but knows there are times when justice must prevail over the letter of the law. He's also not perfect, which makes him even better. His marriage has gone through rough patches, but they're stronger for it. His daughters are growing up and are written very realistically for their ages. I like that Nate, a favorite character of the series' fans, makes an appearance, albeit a small one. For those who've not yet read the series, there is enough information to jump in and not feel lost. However, do yourselves a favor--start at the beginning and catch up. It's well worth the reading.

There is incredible sense of place. The tension and suspense are palpable. His ability to convey emotion is tangible. You feel Joe's anger, fear, jubilation and sorrow.

The sign of a really good book is when you had intended to turn the light out and 10 p.m., but find yourself still reading until 2 a.m. in order to finish, and the ending leaves you a bit stunned. "Breaking Point" is that good.

BREAKING POINT (Lic Invest-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp)-Ex
Box, C.J. - 13th in series
Putnam, 2013

Speaking from Among the Bones (FLAVIA DE LUCE)
Speaking from Among the Bones (FLAVIA DE LUCE)
by Alan Bradley
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Delightful read; one of my favorite of the series., 11 May 2013
First Sentence: Blood dripped from the neck of the severed head and fell in a drizzle of red raindrops, clotting into a ruby pool upon the black and white tiles.

Pre-teen Flavia de Luce is excited about the opening of the 500-year-old tomb of Saint Tancred and is determined to witness the event. However, the first body uncovered, is that of Mr. Collicutt, the church organist--dead, wearing a gas mask. With her skill at chemistry, detection and a little help, Flavia has yet another murder to solve.

From the beginning, it is clear that Flavia is a delightful, unusual protagonist. She is 14 and wonderfully irreverent. When discussing how to get a bat out of one of the church organ's pipes, her suggestion is for her sister to " Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor? Full throttle. That out to fix the little sod." One cannot help but love her. She is an outsider in her own family. She is brilliant, yet has her insecurities. Her sisters have told her she's adopted so she collects samples of everyone's blood to test for matching. Her best friends are Gladys, her bicycle which she anthropomorphizes; and Dogger, the shell-shocked soldier who was with her father during WWII and now works for the family. There is such a wonderful bond between Dogger and Flavia. She is daring, but not fearless.

It cannot be overlooked that an older man has created such a vibrant, and realistic, young character. In an interview, he talks about how children of that age are undervalued and too much overlooked yet it's a wonderful age as they are just on the cusp of adulthood. The story is told in first person and Bradley has such a wonderful voice..."Whenever I'm a little blue I think about cyanide, whose color so perfectly reflects my mood."

The story is very much character-driven. The series started when Flavia was 11 years old; she is now 14 and we are starting to see her mature. However, those who come into the series late needn't worry. Bradley provides sufficient back story for each of the characters for new readers to know who they are and the relationships between. He also introduces a fascinating new character in the shape of a flora archeologist with a Rolls Royce named Nancy.

Bradley has a wonderful eye for detail and period. He provides us with a real sense of post-war England, still in the stages of uncertainty about the future. He is also able to make chemistry fascinating.

Although character drives the story, the plot doesn't at all suffer for it. We are taken down curious and shadowy paths. We, mistakenly, think we know where we are going, and we're wrong. We're given a delightful dessert filled with fascinating tidbits of information, suspense, resolution and a whopping cliffhanger--but not in a bad way--iced with humor and emotion.

"Speaking form Among the Bones" lags just a touch in the middle, but finishes with a roar. It is a wonderful book and now ranks among my favorites of the series.

SPEAKING FROM AMONG THE BONES (Ama Sleuth-Flavia de Luce-England-1950s) - VG+
Bradley, Alan - 5th in series
Delacorte Press, 2013

The Dead Caller from Chicago
The Dead Caller from Chicago
by Jack Fredrickson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 14.87

3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read but I feel that the author is capable of much more, 11 May 2013
First Sentence: It was March, well past midnight, and it was cold.

Free-lance investigator Dek Elstrom is still trying to fight his local city hall to regain zoning rights to the tower--no castle, just a tower--in which he lives, but strange things start occurring. A large hole is dug for a new McMansion in a block of bungalows, a phone call from someone thought to be dead, and Dek's best friend and loved ones suddenly disappearing. Dek is on the trail of answers and trying to stay alive.
I have two admissions from the very start; 1) I have loved this series but, 2) this is not my favorite book of the series.

Among Frederickson's strengths is his ability to create a vivid atmosphere from the very beginning. He has a great eye for detail and conveys it in a way that you are part of the scene. You feel the cold, you experience the turbulence of the boat ride and the driving rain; the tension becomes real and the atmosphere, threatening.

He also has an excellent ear for dialogue, whether in the narrative or between characters. It's clear, it has the right edge to it and just enough dry humor.

The main characters are impossible to resist; Dek, who is trying hard to rebuild his life and his wonderful brilliant, completely devoid of any fashion-sense friend Leo are interesting and people about whom you want to know more. A few characters, however, feel as though they have become a bit of a joke that has gone on too long.

The weakest element, I felt, was actually the plot. It seemed we didn't really know what was going on until nearly half-way through the story. Sometimes, this can work. In this case, it was only the appeal of Leo and an act of faith that draws you on.

"The Dead Caller From Chicago" is still a good read. If anything, I feel my frustration is in feeling that Mr. Frederickson is capable of doing so much more. I'm waiting.....

THE DEAD CALLER FROM CHICAGO (Myst-Dek Elstrom-Chicago-Contemp) - Good
Frederickson, Jack - 4th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Dying Fall: A Ruth Galloway Investigation (Ruth Galloway 5)
Dying Fall: A Ruth Galloway Investigation (Ruth Galloway 5)
by Elly Griffiths
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.89

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the best of the series., 11 May 2013
First Sentence: At first he isn't even scared.

Forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway is shocked to learn that a friend has died in a house fire. Thing take on an eerie quality when she receives a letter from him, written days before he died. He talks about an historic archeological discovery but also that he's afraid. With her daughter Katy and Druid friend Cathbad, Kate heads north to Lancashire. What she doesn't plan on is that DCI Nelson, father to Katy, will also be there, his former hometown, with his wife and family.

If a completely compelling, albeit somewhat horrific, hook is what captures your attention; you can't do better than here. Griffiths immediately draws you into the story and makes you want to keep reading by making each chapter more intriguing than the last. This is not a book you'll put down.

Griffiths is very good at creating complicated relationships wherein you have sympathy for each of the characters involved. That takes real skill, and she has it. She also introduces characters very well and If you've read previous books, you become reacquainted; if you're new to the series, you never feel lost wondering who they are and how they fit together. Sadly, not all authors are good at this. There are the favorites, of course; Ruth and Cathbad in particular. Children can be awkward, yet Katy is neither precocious nor annoying, but very realistic. One of the most appealing new characters is Sandy, Nelson's friend and fellow DCI.

The atmosphere and tension created are excellent. The history related to the story is fascinating. I've always been a fan of Griffiths' ear for dialogue and her occasional subtle humor.

"A Dying Fall" is a book which broad appeal as it works on so many levels. It may just be my favorite or second favorite, book in this series so far. What most pleases me is to know that there will be more books coming.

A DYING FALL (Trad. Myst-Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) - VG+
Griffiths, Elly - 5th in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

What Darkness Brings (Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries (Hardcover))
What Darkness Brings (Sebastian St. Cyr Mysteries (Hardcover))
by C S Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 12.54

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of the stronger books in the series; a very good enjoyable read., 11 May 2013
First Sentence: The man was so old his face sagged in crinkly, sallow folds and Jenny could see pink scalp through the thin white hair plastered by sweat to his head.

Friends of Sebastian St. Cyr need his help. One has recently been found dead, leaving behind a wife and child. The second is Russell Yates, husband to St. Cyr's great love, Kat. Yates is accused of having murdered Benjamin Eisler, a very wealthy dealer of gems, and of stealing an extremely rare and valuable blue diamond; the Hope diamond.

Harris has many great strengths as a writer, one of them being vivid and detailed descriptions that transport the reader into the Regency period. She provides a look at the lives of all economic strata, from the very wealthy to the very poor and orphaned, bringing both the period and the people to life.

The story is filled both with historical characters and events as well as bits of fascinating, and not always pleasant, details of life during this time. She even includes the growing fascination with the occult, but in a factual, academic manner.

The characters are appealing and interesting. Sebastian is even the dashing, brave protagonist with young Tom, his "tiger" (footman) at his side. I am glad that Sebastian is finally starting to mature in his relationship. Hero is independent, educated and appropriate in history's role of wealthy women who worked to bring about social change. Paul Gibson, the former regimental surgeon, is a character I find particularly intriguing, studying anatomy and forensics in an age when that was still very new and the former--procuring human bodies--illegal.

This is a series that is, in many ways, truly written as a series. Although, in the end, the main mystery is solved, we are left some left unsolved and many threads to carry forward into subsequent books. This is not at all a negative, but lends to the appeal and fun of reading the series.

"What Darkness Brings" has all the elements that make a really good story; great characters and dialogue--if a bit modern at times--a very strong sense of time and place, plenty of intrigue, excitement, red herrings, romance and conflict. Ms. Harris is also a very visual writer, particularly in the action scenes. I'd consider this to be one of the stronger books in the series. It was definitely a very good enjoyable read.

WHAT DARKNESS BRINGS (Hist Mys-Sebastian St. Cyr-England-1812) - VG
Harris, C.S.
Obsidian, 2013

Midnight at Marble Arch (Thomas Pitt 28)
Midnight at Marble Arch (Thomas Pitt 28)
by Anne Perry
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars Meets the high standard of Ms. Perry's writing. Highly recommended., 11 May 2013
First Sentence: Pitt stood at the top of the stairs and looked across the glittering ballroom of the Spanish Embassy in the heart of London.

Charlotte and Thomas Pitt are attending a glittering society ball. Charlotte notices a young woman who seems to be afraid of a young man who refuses to leave her alone. The young woman runs away and through a glass window to her death. A wealthy banker, also at the ball, returns home to find his wife brutally assaulted and dead. Although Thomas Pitt, now head of Special Branch, can't openly investigate, he asks for the help of his former boss, Victor Narraway.

From the very beginning, Ms. Perry's descriptions place you within the scene and make you feel part of the story. You also become completely involved with the characters, as she also describes emotions very well.

The characters are wonderful. They become people you care about and want to follow. I'll admit I did try to figure out Great Aunt Vaspasia's age. As Charlotte is now 40, I would guess Vaspasia to be in her late 70s/early 80s. She's a wonderful character, no matter her age. One thing I did particularly like about this book is that it is an ensemble cast relying still on Charlotte and Thomas, but more on Victor Narraway, as well as Aunt Vaspasia and solicitor Peter Symington. Another thing I truly appreciate is that the characters grow and develop with each book, including seeing more of the Pitt's daily life and their children.

Perry has also taken historical figures and either used, or referred to them, in their appropriate roles--Rudyard Kipling, Randolph Churchill, Dr. Jameson and Cecil Rhodes--as well as incorporating important events of the time, such as the search for gold and Boer War. This adds life and veracity to the story.

With each book Ms. Perry focuses on a social issue critical to the period as well as in today's headlines. While some may find her focus on this issue to be heavy-handed, I felt it well-done and as critical a focus for the story as it is necessary to address today. The subject is well handled with the level of outrage and import it deserves. Beyond that, it is a very good mystery. You think you know who's guilty, but are you right? Or is there a surprise waiting for you? Sorry, you'll have to read the book to find out.

"Midnight at Marble Arch" held to the high standard of Ms. Perry's writing and confirms her place among the very best mystery writers. Highly recommended.

MIDNIGHT AT MARBLE ARCH (Hist Mys-Pitt series-England-1896/Victorian) - VG+
Perry, Anne - 28th in series
Ballentine Books, 2012

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