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Blue in Washington "Barry Ballow" (Washington, DC United States)
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A Man's Head (Penguin Classics)
A Man's Head (Penguin Classics)
by Georges Simenon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.22

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intricate - One of Maigret's most interesting cases 4+, 24 July 2013
"A Man's Head" is a total delight. Author Simenon strings out a serpentine murder mystery that only hints of guilty parties along the way to its conclusion. This one starts with the assisted (by Inspector Maigret) escape of a convicted murderer who is headed for the guillotine within days. The escapee leads the police on a chase around Paris and the suburbs, and ultimately to a focus on a Czech student and an American socialite.

What's especially interesting about this short novel is Maigret's apparent bafflement about what is actually happening as a merry chase unfolds. Fine, complicated characters are involved, and the usual Maigretian thought process shifts into gear.

This is an early book in the long series (1931) and quite short. A highly entertaining read.


Riding the Rap
Riding the Rap
by Elmore Leonard
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.22

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Raylan and the three stooges - 3-, 24 July 2013
This review is from: Riding the Rap (Paperback)
This isn't one of Elmore Leonard's best books by a long shot. Somehow the plot is in slow-mo and the characters just aren't that interesting or compelling. Poor Raylan Givens, the star of several books and a very successful TV series, is reduced to being an almost inactive bystander.

The storyline, in a nutshell, involves the kidnapping of Raylan's girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. This is Harry Arno, a crooked bookmaker (introduced in "Pronto"), who is reduced to blithering victim here. His tormentors are three idiots--one dumber than the next--who are clueless as to how to conclude the ransom caper and accordingly become increasingly violent and impotent. Raylan, resourceful man of action, dithers with ambivalence through all of this. He isn't clear about how his relationship with his current girlfriend is going; his new acquaintance with a pretty fortune-teller is undefined; and he can't quite figure out how to rescue the kidnapped Harry Arno.

I'm a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, but I would advise anyone reading through his vast production of generally great novels, to skip this one.


A Treacherous Paradise
A Treacherous Paradise
by Henning Mankell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.59

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Madame of Mozambique, 21 July 2013
This review is from: A Treacherous Paradise (Hardcover)
Incomparable Henning Mankell's new (non-Wallander) novel tells an extraordinary tale of two plus years in the life of a young Swedish country woman who flashes through geographic locations and civil and social standings that leave the reader astounded at moments. The woman is more than anything else a witness to the social and economic problems the of early 20th Century, including rural poverty, colonialism and its enabling white racism. Her own young life evolves so rapidly in the few years chronicled in the story, that she can neither comprehend nor explain what is happening to her. That is left up to the reader, and that requires considerable reflection and ultimately self-examination against the mirror of contemporary society.

While "A Treacherous Paradise" opens in 2002 with the finding of an old journal, the story actually begins in 1903 with the departure of the protagonist, Hanna Renstrom, from her poverty-stricken farm in rural Sweden. She is sent away by her mother, who sees no future for Hanna on the farm, and in fact, fears for her life. The 18-year old girl winds up in the employ of a prosperous businessman in the coastal town of Sundsvall. Her employer/sponsors subsequently assigns her to work as a cook on a steamer bound for Australia. She is quickly involved romantically with an officer on the ship, who she marries when the vessel makes a port stop in Algiers. By the time the boat has arrived in Lourenco Marques (Mozambique) some weeks later, she is a widow--her husband having died of a tropical fever. Hanna jumps ship and winds up ill in a hotel/brothel where she needs weeks to recover from what turns out to be a miscarriage. Weeks later, she accepts a marriage proposal from the owner of the hotel/brothel; and several weeks after that, she is a widow again, as her new husband dies of humiliation and/or a misused aphrodisiac. Hanna is now a wealthy woman and as the new owner of the town's most prosperous business, person of consequence in the European community of Lourenco Marques. It is at this point that the character starts to come of age as the stark differences in the lives of the White colonialists and the indigenous Black population become more visible to her and her personal moral compass begins to direct her life.

There is a wonderful bit of monologue from the protagonist that eventually appears that is at the heart where Hanna finds herself. "I live in a black world in which the whites use up all their energy deceiving both themselves and the blacks, she thought. They believe that the people who live here wouldn't be able to survive without them, and that black people are inferior because they believe that rocks and trees have a soul. But the blacks in turn fail to understand how anybody could treat a son of God so badly that they nail Him onto a cross. They are amazed by the fact that whites come here and rush around all the time in such a hurry that their hearts soon give way, unable to cope with the never-ending hunt for wealth and power. Whites don't love life. The love time, which the always have far too little of." :

Hanna's"apotheosis" is inevitable, but the specifics of her future are ultimately left open and unclear by the author. According to author Mankell, who modeled the based Hanna character on an actual Swedish brothel owner in Mozambique of the period, the original "Hanna" also disappeared from history.

I liked this book for many reasons. My own grandmother was uprooted from a rural farm in Sweden at about the same time as this novel takes place. Poverty and a lack of a future sent her and two sisters off the U.S. to work as indentured servants for a few years before gaining independence and a real life. She and Hanna in all probability shared the same fears, homesickness and hardships. I also spent a few years in post-colonial Africa where lingering racism and exploitation were dominant elements of the social and economic realities. Finally, this story does push the reader to do some thinking--interesting that I was reading this at the same time the Zimmerman/Martin case was decided and President Obama has suggested some national soul searching on how we deal with the differences in racial communities in the U.S.

So--recommended with the caveat that it's not a particularly easy book to digest. It's not meant to be, and is all the better for it.


Dead Lions
Dead Lions
by Mick Herron
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.91

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good new author alert---a pleasing net full of red herrings, 18 July 2013
This review is from: Dead Lions (Hardcover)
Mick Herron is a new author for me, but a very happy discovery. His "Dead Lions" espionage thriller brags a serpentine plot, great characters and a lot of wit. It may be lazy to make comparisons, but it seemed like the book was channelling both John Le Carre and Reginald Hill--hard to do better than that.

"Dead Lions" is set in contemporary Britain, but the story has its feet deeply set in the Cold War era. There's plenty of action, most of it unexplained until the last chapter of the book. Meanwhile, the story dissects the ins and outs, rivalries and bureaucratic in-fighting of the British secret service (MI5 at least). The real heroes of this thriller are the band of problem kids at Slough House--the low rent office space where those who have screwed up or have otherwise lost favor at the main MI5 office (The Park) have been shelved indefinitely. When the dust clears at the conclusion, it is this group of odd ducks who unscramble the very twisted plotting that threatens 9/11 chaos in London.

This is an intelligent and often funny book that should make author Herron a hot property in the future. I will definitely be watching for his next book.


Hostile Shores (Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures)
Hostile Shores (Alan Lewrie Naval Adventures)
by Dewey Lambdin
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.97

4.0 out of 5 stars Crisscrossing the Atlantic - good 19th Century historic fiction, 15 July 2013
My first experience with the Alan Newrie series and a good one at that. While "Hostile Shores" contains just one real swashbuckling sea battle, I found the detailed descriptions of life on a 19th Century naval vessel very entertaining. These included the dimensions and rigging of the ships, design of the ship's living quarters (for officers), foodstuffs and meals, clothing, sailing tactics, the monotony of sea duty, etc. The author has apparently done a great deal of research for this series and its feel of authenticity adds to readability of the novel.i

Protagonist Alan Lewrie is very likable and not overly burdened with psychological baggage. He's not without some faults, but they're the kind that are admirable in an action novel. While I enjoyed this story with its relatively modest helping of blood-and-guts action, I'm looking forward to reading other books in the series with more of the swashbuckling stuff.


Bad Monkey
Bad Monkey
by Carl Hiaasen
Edition: Hardcover

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Unarmed and dangerous, 12 July 2013
This review is from: Bad Monkey (Hardcover)
Carl Hiaasen never runs out of satiric material when he mines the demographics of Florida, and this time around he's drawn a bead on Medicare scammers (the medical scooter), filthy restaurants, McMansion builders, retirees with too much money and too many houses and power boaters. Somewhere in the middle of this hilarious stew is the story of an Oklahoma school teacher who takes up with her underage AP student and follows up with an "alumni" program a few years later.

"Bad Monkey" features the usual off-center protagonist with the right moral compass but an unerringly capacity to alienate the establishment (his police department employers, in this case). The book opens with the discovery (on the end of a sport fishing line) of a human arm with the middle finger in the upright position. It romps from that point forward. And the monkey of the title? Well, the sidebar in this otherwise Florida-centric story is the inclusion of a Bahamas location, where the villains and heroes duke it out with a humble fisherman who has lost his house to a developer. Also on hand is a sex-crazed senior citizen voo-doo queen and an out of work and out of sorts capuchin monkey. The latter (thankfully) is not portrayed as cute or heroic, though he does have one glorious moment when confronted by a black-hat opponent.

Funny, funny read. May Hiaasen and Florida never stop producing this stuff.


History of a Pleasure Seeker
History of a Pleasure Seeker
by Richard Mason
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Bel--but benign--Ami - 4+, 10 July 2013
Delicious story of a handsome, lower-class Dutchman (Piet Barol) with great charm, manners, street-sense and dripping pheromones whose position as a tutor to a neurotic child in Belle Epoque Amsterdam him the fair-haired boy of the household. Barol is ambitious, but not scheming or avaricious. He genuinely wants to succeed at his job and to please his wealthy employers. Ultimately, he conquers each member of the boy's family as well as all of his fellow servants. His sexual attraction is strongest for his employer's wife, who quickly assigns him "extra" duties that are no longer performed by her abstinent husband.

By the time he eventually succeeds in curing his tutoree's main problems--agoraphobia and extreme obsessive/compulsivenes--his relationships with virtually everyone in the house have become so complicated that a change in venue is needed. This leads to a cruise on a luxury liner to Capetown, South Africa and further pheromonal success.

The saga of Piet Barol is continuously satisfying--piquantly erotic, rich in complicated relationships (almost Marx Brothersish at times), and skillfully evocative of the time (1907), place (Amsterdam, New York and Capetown) and culture (high bourgeois). Besides the protagonist Barol, author Richard Mason has invented some pithy, sympathetic and very interesting characters who play credible supporting roles in the story.

A fine read that finishes with the explicit promise of a second book to follow


The Ides of April (Falco: The New Generation)
The Ides of April (Falco: The New Generation)
by Lindsey Davis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Roman spring of Falco's daughter - more romance than detective thriller, 8 July 2013
If you buy this book thinking that it is an extension of the wonderful Falco series by Lindsey Davis, you risk some disappointment. While the period context feels similar (it's a few years after the last Falco story--circa 85AD) and the story effectively evokes the grime and hubbub of Rome, the book feels like a different genre.

The first third of the novel works slowly to establish the character of Flavia Albia, adopted daughter of the Falcos, as an independent woman working as an informer (detective). Most of this set up is done in a narrative from Albia's perspective, and that perspective often portrays the 28-year old protagonist as frivolous, cranky and more than a little man-obsessed. Little information is provided about the events that bring her up to the present (her late husband, the family's turn of fortune, etc.) The concurrent plot development--serial killer at work--is very slow in evolving and not especially compelling. When the plot finally starts to pick up some steam, there are some highly unlikely character developments that ultimately don't wash.

This wasn't a terrible book, but it was rather odd. As a successor to the Falco series, it didn't have the same crackle and pop in the dialogue or narrative; and how can you include references to the illustrious parents, Falco and Helena, without giving them at least a few lines of witty dialogue and/or role to play?

More telling for me, the lead character came across like the female protagonists in the Stephanie Plum and Amy LeDuc series--determined and resourceful, but preoccupied with wardrobe selections and potential bed partners. And in the latter context, she is not especially astute in picking winners.

I finished the novel wondering whether this might be the author's swan song. Maybe it's unfair to expect the same level of wit and tension book after book in a series, but author Davis has set a high standard for herself and for her readers over the years. So there it is.


A Death in Valencia: (Max Cámara 2)
A Death in Valencia: (Max Cámara 2)
by Jason Webster
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars Crime and politics in contemporary Spain, 5 July 2013
I like this series (two books so far) because the story lines are tied to current political and social issues in Spain, and more specifically, in the city of Valencia. In the first book, the future of bull-fighting was the center of discussion and action. In this second outing, "A Death in Valencia", abortion, urban renewal and government/developer collusion become the leitmotifs. The protagonist here is Chief Inspector Max Camara of the National Police--a Spanish version of the fairly typical senior copper, who has a lot of personal problems, burnout, lousy love life and growing professional ambivalence. The action starts with the murder of a paella restaurant owner who had been holding out against redevelopment of the neighborhood in which his small, but famous, bistro was located. The police procedural that is launched by the man's death leads to a tangle of corrupt politicians and childhood relationships.

Author Jason Webster knows his locale well and spins a good story in that context. His prose is clear and free-flowing. The storyline is inventive and agreeably logical for the reader. For me that usually means that the writer doesn't have to fall back on irrational behavior or natural disaster to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. The ending in "A Death..." makes sense and doesn't stretch too far getting there.

Good read from a talented writer.


Winter's Night, A
Winter's Night, A
by Valerio Massimo Manfredi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.15

5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary historic fiction - early 20th century Italy, 4 July 2013
This review is from: Winter's Night, A (Paperback)
A superb writer (and translator) at work in this saga of an Italian family stretching from the 1910s to WWII. A fine blend of story-telling and the author's political perspective (socialist and anti-fascist) that documents the lives of the large (six brothers and two sisters) Bruni family, Emilia-Romagno tenant farmers, who endure poverty, rapacious landlords, two wars and political repression with a mix of courage, passivity, resignation, wisdom and thickheadiness. Virtue and bravery are often not rewarded as the author makes an argument for social justice--by implication--in contemporary Italy.

The novel's great strengths are the well-sketched characters and their interactions as well as a smoothly flowing storyline that builds on vignettes, one after the other. Characters come and go, as one generation replaces the previous. While there is incremental progress for the Brunis and their extended families, the plagues of war, economic hardship and government repression are never distance.

"A Winter's Night" is so well done, that I'm going to try author Manfredi's other novels soon.


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