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The Crimson Rooms
The Crimson Rooms
by Katharine McMahon
Edition: Hardcover

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "He regarded my resistance as an obstacle, simply to overcome", 10 April 2010
This review is from: The Crimson Rooms (Hardcover)
In 1927 London the forces of the Great War remain powerful in the lives of Evelyn Gifford, her mother, grandmother and her dear Aunt Prudence, all haphazardly ensconced gloomy Clivedon Hall Gardens. These spinsters are forced to face the inevitable. Although they have yet truly accepted the reality of their situation and seem destined to eke out a life of penury, they are still reeling from the loss of James, Evelyn's beloved brother who was killed in the War. Soon enough Evelyn is feeling the familiar tremor of apprehension because now, as always, will begin the series of events that have bought the telegram telling her James was dead. But life must go on, and Evelyn, who -as the novel opens - is seeking employment as a lawyer and is finding it a tall order in this world where the legal profession is as obstructive as it is dominated by men who want nothing to do with women. Certainly if James was alive his path would have been far smoother with a combination of his own talents and his father's connections.

Then in the small hours with the dream of James still fresh, the arrival from Canada of Meredith and Edmund, her son and James's child both coming unreachably out of time. The house seems to sag under the weight of the new arrivals, the Giffords truly flummoxed at the appearance of this strange woman and her little boy. James had written a fortnight before his death, but he had never mentioned this woman Meredith who is short of money and wants her boy to have an education as much as she wants to love in the house presumably rent free. Telling them she was a nurse on the hospital to which James was sent when he was wounded, the women of Clivedon Hall are positive that he might want a lot of money which they don't have. As the new fragments of James dangled before Evelyn, Meredith soon becomes obtuse, passing judgment on the constrained lives of Meredith and her family. Her manner is very direct, something to which they were not accustomed: `I want you to be on my side, I want a life here, And I want to see Edmund settled in school." It's almost as is she had stage-managed the sequence of events. James's death still a raw wound in her consciousness, the pain made all the more acute by the addition of one small detail, a scrap of paper unspeakably stained upon which James had scrawled Meredith's name.

Eventually finding employment in the service of the wiry-haired Daniel Breen of Breen & Balcombe and his partner Theo Wolfe, Evelyn is given the job of defending Leah Marchant accused of kidnapping her own child in foster care; she couldn't get it back by legal means so she snatched it while it was left outside a butcher's and her two little girls, surrendering them to the care of a children's home who are now refusing to hand them back on the grounds that she is not a fit parent. Beyond Leah's sad story, Evelyn is also given the task of investigating the murder of Stella Wheeler, her husband Stephen the prime suspect. After a picnic Buckinghamshire he left her alone while he had a drink at a local hostelry. Her body was found in the woods nearby and nearby, along with Wheeler's own military gloves and his Webley service revolver. Shot through the heart in a secluded area, Wheeler perhaps hiding his gun and gloves next to her body. Instructed be Breen to uncover Stella's secrets in the Wheeler house and its abandoned contents, she soon discovers a link between Stephen forming part of a firing squad in the War and his wife meeting her death through a shot in the heart.

McMahon gorgeously ties the threads of Evelyn's everyday-life with the social difficulties of a woman of her station along with the ghost of James as he marched off to war. Her heroine is made all the more realistic and poignant by the intricacy of emotional connections: the shocks, and journeys and the new faces of demanding people Leah, Marchant. Meredith herself, poor Stephen Wheeler, in his prison cell, and her new love, the dashing Nicolas Thorne whose smile hovered over her inner eye "like the Cheshire Cat's," the most beautiful man she had seen in years, and Carole, a waitress who worked with Stella, telling Evelyn she stayed out all night and wouldn't say where she'd been. Evelyn engulfed in this new tragedy is determined to defend Wheeler with every last atom of her breath even as she copes with the rusty emotions generated by two stillborn love affairs and the sense that even though James was gone, her life was full enough, love was what she wanted. In McMahon's London of tea rooms and omnibuses, gabled cottages and grand Georgian homes, cobbled alleys, and ladies with silk stocking and hats adorned with pleats and feathers, a bloody war that goes on and on in the minds of the author's characters.

The ghost of the murdered Stella and the gradual unraveling of evidence against Wheeler, along with the dilemmas of Meredith, becomes all too much and Evelyn finds herself caught up in a conflict of conscience torn between her growing attraction to Thorne and her duties to Breen. The mark of a consummate storyteller, McMahon's book is elegant and intimate, retaining an air of constant sophistication while also reveling in the revelations that there are darker forces at work, and the beloved James was not all he seemed to be. Mike Leonard April 2010.

Hester: The Missing Years of the Scarlet Letter
Hester: The Missing Years of the Scarlet Letter
by Paula Reed
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars "A sinners redemption is an instructive thing", 3 April 2010
History and fantasy are wedded in this engaging melodrama centering on the life of Hester Prynne and the events after The Scarlett Letter. Soon after the deaths of Arthur Dimmesdale and her husband Roger Chillingworth, Hester is surprised to discover that all of Roger's considerable wealth both in America and England is to go to her daughter, the young Pearl. Even as Hester still coverts eight years of shame, and the dark shadows of the role roger played in Arthur's death, Pearl is given the means to find her own happiness. Beautiful and rich - and in a few years on the verge of womanhood - and in the hope that Pearl's money will produce opportunities to her that Hester's family's poverty had once denied her, mother and daughter sail for England with the intention of staying in London long enough to settle the estate. England however is a changed place, retreating into a kind of inward-facing gloom, the country is without a King. Charles is dead, the Lord Protector Thomas Cromwell is in charge, wielding a tenuous grip on the country. Still, Hester plans to raise Pearl quietly here and cultivate the connections a baron's granddaughter is due. Staying with her child hood friend Mary Starke Wright at the ornate and rich Wright House, Pearl and Hester enjoy a year of quiet freedom. Certainly Mary's daughter Jane thrilled at having Pearl a girl so close to her age staying. Mary is now well off since she wedded her husband, Colonel Robert Wright who is in service to Cromwell and his Rump Parliament. Robert is a man of great means, and has shifted with the potical winds of the time. Hester soon learns that Mary has no choice but to chose her husband, a devoutly religious man, who values character in men, silence in women and obedience in children.

Haunted by the shame of the scarlet letter that punished her daily and the knowledge it imparted - the ability to look into a man's eyes and see what was in his heart, Hester pursues her agenda, that of ensuring Pearl's security, Mary and Robert offering her social connections as Robert moves ever more deeply into Oliver Cromwell's circle. Hester soon finds herself dining at Whitehall Palace, requiring both revelation and restraint, she is A summoned by Cromwell himself and offered a chance root out traitors and lend her talents to the benefit of the great commonwealth a commonwealth that had committed regicide but had yet to effect any stable form of government in exchange. Far more knowledgeable in the ways of the world and the appetites of men than she lets on, Hester is forced to look directly into men's eyes and confess the truth, becoming a burden upon their souls, and a constant reminder of their darkest secrets. To secure the future for Pearl she uses her feminine wiles and political skills in innovative ways, For Cromwell she's a woman who is intent to expose the truth and lead men back to righteousness and for the dashing and enigmatic Major John Manning she's a passionate muse, only too willing to meet for secretive sexual trysts and them drawn in to Hester his conflicts first by expediency and then by intimacy. Placed ever more tightly into Cromwell's confidence, Hester finds herself drawn into accounts disseminated regarding the evasive behavior of accused traitors whenever they tried to look at her. Ever upon the precipice between truth and falsehood. Hester is torn with her loyalties, her restless need to analyze, adapt and accommodate, and her passion towards Sir John manning, her need to protect of her daughter and her confessions to an aging and embattled Cromwell of her journey from sin to redemption.

Meshing fiction with history, this novel is unique not just because of the author's reinvention of a famous literary heroine but also because of its emphasis on the political machinations of an England that remained on the brink of civil war. From the very start of 1654 conspiracies spread like the pox and in an effort to keep the reigns of power, Cromwell pursues alliances with Spain and France as the royalist movement gains momentum with plots to assassinate him constantly coming to light. Despite the critical need for a strong leader, Cromwell refused to take the crown, the English people clamoring for a return to royalty, however weak. As Hester observes, with Cromwell's abundant hair and vast forehead, what had begun as a passionate desire to serve his country becomes an insatiable hunger for power.

Even when Reed's story sometimes skirts around the parameters of romance fiction, (and we are forced to suspend disbelief), she manages to impart a persuasive and compelling rendering of the battle between the royalist course, the cruel reign of Cromwell and the eventual restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in which Pearl and Hester play a pivotal role. Against this dramatic background, Hester and Pearl seek to fit in, Pearl growing older and more beautiful and rebellious by the day, and Pearl constantly haunted by the scarlet letter and Arthur, her once and only true love; it is the shadows of the letter that are a constant reminder of her sin. Even as Cromwell seeks to harness the vestiges of her talent - and her sight, the illuminated sin stays upon every breast and the dark confessions are whispered between innocuous words. While the nature of God, morality and sin are important themes echoing throughout, it is Hester who rises above political expediency and fights for her independence - even on the heat of desire she misses all traces of lies. Convinced that she has sinned and never repented, ultimately, Hester concedes to her daughter's maturing desires after having ten years of grand adventure, moved in powerful circles, helped shape the whole world by helping restore Charles II to the throne. Mike Leonard March 2010.

Last Nocturne
Last Nocturne
by Eccles
Edition: Hardcover

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Maybe life could deal you a better hand if you sometimes followed your heart rather than your head.", 1 April 2010
This review is from: Last Nocturne (Hardcover)
In The Last Nocturne, Marjorie Eccles links the deaths of two men to the lives of an aristocratic Edwardian family, her characters treading the foggy streets of central London while also reveling in the art of turn-of-the-century Vienna where impoverished artists eke out a living and love and loss take place in the shadows of an impending war. Despite her mother's better judgment, and her long acquaintance with Edwina Martagon, a letter appears out of the blue from wealthy socialite Edwina Martagon asking if her dearest friend would be prepared to let Grace help her out. Placed in service in Edwina's house in London to assist her with her voluminous correspondence and the details of her extremely bus social life, Grace soon finds herself enveloped in enough a complicated web of secrets and lies centering around the Martagon family.

Although Edwina is preoccupied making preparations for her daughter Dulcie's coming out, she's till devastated over the death of her husband Eliot, an artist manqué, who had hung around the fringes of the art world promoting those more talented than himself. He has recently developed a vested interest in the small and exclusive Pontifex Gallery, just off Bond street. There was never any satisfactory explanation for why Eliot Martagon, a man in excellent health, his life flourishing should have shot himself dead six months ago. He'd left no note and the interests of propriety, a verdict of accidental death while cleaning his gun more acceptable than suicide had eventually been given.

Grace, our eyes and ears and our cipher for much of what goes on in Embury Square. She expected her time there to be plain sailing, although this proves to be a far more elusive concept. Edwina is over bearing and demanding, gravitating between a rigid self-control and sense of loss; while Dulcie harbors a desperate frustrated ambition to be an artist. Grace takes to Dulcie, but she's also caught the attentions of Edwina's son Guy Martagon. Lean, loose-limbed, elegant and moody, Guy is more interested in winding up his father's affairs and of righting the worlds wrongs. An enigmatic personality, he beguiles grace with his exotic adventures in foreign parts that had kept him away from hone for years.

In tight, muscular prose, Eccles shepherds her characters through the early days of their loss before reality catches up with them. Events become even more complicated when Chief Inspector Philip Lamb is called to investigate the apparent suicide of a young man Theo Benton, twenty-five years old, destroyed by his own hand. Theo plummeted to a premature and unnecessary death from a terrace in Adelaide Crescent. A young man at the very height of his success, a painter with a growing reputation, he was also exhibiting his work at the Pontifex gallery and had been working on a series of paintings - nocturnes he called them, similar only in that they were all painted towards dusk, each painted what to the casual eye is nothing but a shadow. For Lamb and his assistant Detective Sergeant Cogan, the crime scene offering up few clues, except an unframed portrait, a conventional study of a child of about eight or nine.

Central to this story is the mystery behind why either man needed to kill himself, Theo by jumping out of the window and Martagon by blowing his brains out. While Eccles' portrait of Edwardian life is important in the Last Nocturne, more striking is the constant heartbeat of Belle Epoch Vienna and that of the forbidden ,heartbreaking love affairs of Isobel Amberly who anxiously watches her lost dreams of the past. Isobel is somehow linked to Theo and Eliot, but she's also linked to Julian Carrington, a banker born with a silver spoon in his mouth and assigned to Vienna. His position and his wealth giving him access to that affluent and fashionable section of Viennese society and he's also too willing to curry favor with the gorgeous Isobel. Yet Isobel also finds herself caught up in the lighthearted vie de boheme of artist brothers Bruno and Viktor Franck; and later the gypsy woman Miriam Koppel and her daughter Sophie whose visions add important layers to the plot.

As Isobel's dramas play out in Vienna, Julian Carrington becomes Eliot's nemesis while back in London, Guy walks the quiet gas-lit streets, his quick impatient stride brooding about how he would ever manage to clear up the mystery of his father's death, which is still confounding him. All is in danger of being exposed when a letter arrives instructing the family solicitor to invest a substantial sum for the support of some child or other. Edwina convinced at a deception, that her husband was all the time aboard leading a double life. The letters mentioning Vienna, but then Edwina confessing she no longer has them, they are lost fallen into unscrupulous hands, and then another letter demanding money for their return. The author races from one character to another, each blindsided by their suspicions, a case of Victorian joyously and forbidden love affairs, bohemian artistic sensibilities are balanced against murder, and the devilish side of human nature is exposed where the power of love is in danger of being destroyed forever. Mike Leonard March 2010.

The Information Officer
The Information Officer
by Mark Mills
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "They'll be watching you closely", 26 Mar. 2010
In this cinematic war-time novel Mills combines the elements of espionage with a love story in a setting that is evocative as it is beautiful. Central to the Information Officer's machinations is the young and handsome Major Max Chadwick, assigned to the Mediterranean island of Malta as the axis powers perpetually strafe the island, intent to wipe out every aspect of the Allied presence. Working in the Information Office and disseminating information to the locals to embolden their resolve, Max offers up for public consumption a cocktail of cold, factual and apparently unbiased news. Along with the monitoring of enemy radio stations in the Mediterranean, this the kind of work best done in the shadows of government. But Max's position and his very existence on the island is threatened when a serial killer is found to be murdering "sherry queens" dance hostesses who work the bars and bawdy music halls that infested the lower ends of Valetta, a disreputable quarter dubbed the Gut.

Max is even more disturbed when he's Called the mortuary, the body of a woman found in the street, the girl young and innocent beauty that the cold pallor of death can't erase. There's a raw and ragged gash ran from beneath her right ear toward her collar bone . She's not just an unlucky victim of the war, but a man who had violated and killed them. The only evidence a his pocket a torn shoulder tab Freddie ;had recovered from the clenched girl's fist. It is these heinous crime that thrusts Mill's complex spunky protagonist into his role as a defender of innocent victims, war-time Malta rife murder and mayhem with opportunities for espionage made all too real.

The victims have carefully selected from the lower reaches of society, their deaths tainted with just enough ambiguity to arouse suspicion and get Maltese tongues wagging. But Mark is frustrated by Malta Command who simply suppress the matter, quite content it summed for local girls to keep on dying. The result is an unsavory hodgepodge of imagination run wild, exacerbated by the journalist's inflamed rhetoric and the loss of common sense in favor of public panic and rage against an unknown threat. Max is sure a monster is on the loose who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, but his investigations produce random associations that won't hold up in court is not the point.

Meanwhile, Max's British colleagues revel in their little get-togethers, especially his commander, the self important Captain Pendleton, his ex-pat friends Rosemund and Hugh, a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Artillery, and his colleagues Freddie and Elliott, the tall American. But it's the handsome, hopeless Max who is torn between two such different women: Mitzi, a Maltese girl of mixed ancestry a brings a blanket over his confused feelings and also Lillian with her tales of dead girls and cover-ups deaf to the dictates of his weary body, thoughts of Lillian and Mitzi swirling endlessly, aimlessly around and around in his head, overlapping intertwining. As Malta is decimated finding solace in the warmth of her body. Brief and breathless, Mitzi shows no signs of guilt over her betrayal of her husband Lionel, just a hunger and urgency in the arms of Max. Max is a solemn soul at the best of times. The seed of fear germinates in his chest when Lillian goes missing, suggesting something far more sinister. Max is blind to Lillian's feelings but to his own too, and he makes a terrible mistake one that will plague him for the rest of his life.

Mill's prose is as grand and as cinematic as the trials of his intrepid hero, Malta is brought vividly to life. laced with a old fashioned cinematic grandeur, a biblical landscape, sun-bleached, shade-less harsh to the eye. The town and villages scattered like dice on a table top, Valetta and her twin harbors, lay a seemingly endless expanse of viridian-green water as Max walks the streets searching for answers, pummeled by the bombing runs, the splatter of shell bursts smudging the sky, the arcing lines of tracer fire from the Bofers joining the fray. This is a world filled with desperation, sorrow, hope and forgiveness where human drama is summoned with bold strokes. Exhaustion is blunted by fear, the Maltese exhibiting a kind of resigned apathy, a weary fatalism against the whistle and shriek of falling bombs, the thump and crump of explosions, the staccato bark of the Bofors. Meanwhile, the truth is fed to them to shore up their morale, Max and his friends caught up against a bureaucratic behemoth, that has ruled their lives, feeding off the downpour of bombs. From the trials of war to the machinery of administration, Max doesn't number himself among them, insulted, intimidated, threatened with court-martial, even blackmailed, Max survives to fight another day. The true identity of the killer is shrouded in mystery, puppet master surveying them all from on high, constantly pulling their strings and jerking their limbs, a surprising and unexpected enemy. Mike Leonard March 2010.

The Wives of Henry Oades (Random House Reader's Circle)
The Wives of Henry Oades (Random House Reader's Circle)
by Johanna Moran
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars "Berkeley bound. One town just as foreign sounding as the next and no less distant.", 22 Mar. 2010
From London to New Zealand and onto Berkeley California, this colorful historical novel crosses the oceans, offering up exotic locales along with a fair bit of adventure as the hero - and both heroines - are faced with almost insurmountable struggles, the collateral damage of rigid Victorian mores and a great deal of danger. After securing the position of an accountant in Wellington, Henry Oades leaves the hawkers and filth, the soot-belching chimney pots of London and packs his wide Margaret his children John and Josephine off to New Zealand. Under a pewter sky they sail on the enormous and majestic Lady Ophelia. The voyage is hard with only the kindly Mrs. Randolph to help Margaret through her troubles. Wellington is at first a idyllic story book place, and Margaret swept up by this new land: "it is good to get to know other things and places." Introduced to Cyril Bell, the sail maker's and Mim Bell, the first few months are a challenge with the arrival of twins and reports from Henry that a Maori lad was publicly flogged, the lad royal, the governor saying there is bound to be trouble.

Suddenly Moran is propelling her characters from one violent scenario to another pitting the innocent Margaret and her children against the anger and cruelty of the Maori race. Violently kidnapped, the Maori fill their cottage, brandishing rifles. A hideous tattooed four, with mouths yawning wide, tongues wagging obscenely, they do unspeakable things to Mim while her son Oscar is trussed like a lamb. The fear a "salty blinding, vicious thing," clogging Margaret's throat and ears. Henry finds himself alone as he desperately tries to find his wife but the trail is cold. Just a handful of family men against a sodding band of savages. While he orders a memory stone to be placed over Meg's grave, Weeping for each individually. Saving John for last Henry realizes its time to leave these lawless islands, home to the Maori.

Historically precise, Henry's life is characterized by loss and suffering. His story is of a hapless male caught between two women, especially the strong and competent Margaret, so wrapped she almost feel the heat of her husband's suffocating embrace and she refuses to accept the possibility that they might grow old and die a natural death is captivity. As might be expected, Henry finds love again in Berkley, falling into the arms of Nancy even though his heart is still with Margaret. When he becomes a dairy farmer, in the service of Ned Barnhill, life presents new challenges. Nancy likes Henry fine gentle as he is and she trusts him, finding contentment and eventually taking her new husband's advice, until a surprise appearance notified The Daughters of Decency, incensed that two women are calling the same man "husband. "

In this world where bigamy is a grievous sin against god, Margaret's ultimate goal is of course, is to reconnect with her husband, while Nancy fights to keep her new marriage and her life with Henry in place. But both women are naïve to society's moralistic expectations and all of the obstacles that await them. The journey to New Zealand and later to Berkeley gives this tale much of its Victorian piquancy, but it is Henry, Margaret and Nancy's battles against the strictures of the day that reflect the realities of nineteenth century social life. Most colorful are the days Margaret spends in captivity with the Maoris and her daring escape as she remembers only the road's sharp stones, the sand flies, the headaches, and the ceaseless fantasies of Henry and home. Although the final third of the novel stalls a bit with its accusations of bigamy, these passages are important in the context of the three characters' complicated lives. Ultimately though its the sense of love and friendships, the bonds of women that ultimately prevails in this story as two very different woman are unceremoniously thrust together, along with the small transactions that take place between them, both forced to carry all of the burdens and expectations of one man. Mike Leonard March 2010.

The Red Door (Ian Rutledge Mysteries)
The Red Door (Ian Rutledge Mysteries)
by Charles Todd
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "She refuses to let herself' feel anything", 16 Mar. 2010
The setting is Hobson, Lancashire 1918 a young woman reads letters from her beloved, off fighting in the war. She tries to imagine his return, the cry of welcome and of love and hope, and show her gratitude for his safe return at last. Meanwhile, the focus shifts to the Teller family, the renowned missionary Walter Teller, and his brothers Peter and his wife Amy Edwin his wife Amy, sister Leticia and Walter's wife Jenny who reside at Witch Hazel Farm in Essex. It is here that Todd's complex plot is built upon the questionable motives of this well-to-do family and their efforts to cover up and affair of the past. Certainly Peter Teller has been having a hard time of late. With his damaged leg behind repair whose nightly whisky dulls the pain, the ache of torn muscle and smashed nerves. It is into this family that Inspector Ian Rutledge descends, the ghosts of the war still clear in his mind and the voices of Hamish MacLeod ever present at the back of his mind though the man himself lay dead in his French grave.

It has been a difficult long twelve months after Rutledge's return to Scotland Yard a year ago. Forced to investigate a case where individuals are attacked at knifepoint with Rutledge himself the recipient, something suddenly comes up. Walter Teller mysteriously goes missing in London. Seeking treatment at the Belvedere Clinic for some sort of nervous condition, a paralysis which had come as quickly as it suddenly disappeared had, in the middle of the afternoon dressed himself and walked out of the clinic on his own. Jenny and the rest of the family can shed little light on the disappearance - he had come to London to speak to his bankers while his son Harry is off the Harrow shortly. Rutledge's investigative skills are piqued, while Jenny and the family come to the clinic at once. Jenny is the one in distress, telling the Inspector her husband is a good man who takes his responsibilities seriously. Perhaps his brothers know something they haven't told the police.

Clearly it's as if Walter never existed then his clothing comes to light on the back of a costermonger near Covent Garden. Perhaps he had deliberately disappeared for whatever reason to deal with a completely different way of life. Edwin and Amy search for Walter themselves while the emotions of Jenny are raw, her tears not far below the surface Then there's a murder in Hobson, a woman called Florence Teller. There are no witnesses, no sign of robbery, no physical assault, nothing to go on but the woman's body found in the front passage of her house. The crime adds another complicated layer to this mystery as Rutledge is positive that Florence somehow related to the rest of the Teller family. Yet another murder and accusation of murder in the Teller family and Jenny's innocence sacrificed. The clues appear to lie with a dove gray parrot and the broken handle of a cane with blood on the knob, a missing box of letters, and a rose garden, a memorial to a wife's memory. The irrefutable facts are that Teller or someone had driven away around the same time Florence Teller was murdered. Perhaps Peter was a catalyst for her death.

A gorgeously imagined Edwardian mystery, the image of a lonely woman weeping over a lost love and reading hidden missives to her lover Peter Teller reverberates throughout. Is this a family connection that Edwin Teller might know, perhaps distant cousin, or an unrelated family of the same name. The echoes of the Great War reverberate throughout, wartime taking a terrible toll on those who remain teaching everyone that telegrams bring bad news, someone missing, A death. The end of hope. For Rutledge, the flashes of shells and the guns of France still pound in his head, the stones of the past anchored forever amid the torrent of his days, redirecting, obstructing. thwarting and frustrating him at every turn. It is the dark corners of London know how to keep secrets, but the real tragedy takes place in rural Lancashire as a woman is deserted, left waiting by her red door. Mike Leonard March 2010.

Dear Strangers
Dear Strangers
by Meg Mullins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.89

4.0 out of 5 stars "Certainly life cannot recover any misplaced link.", 12 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Dear Strangers (Hardcover)
This dense novel, filled with evolving family dynamics focuses on two siblings Oliver and Mary Finely and their efforts to find their adopted sibling. In the process, author Meg Mullins exposes layer upon layer of fascinating revelations, her story hinging on an incident of mistaking identity and an accidental shooting that changes the lives of all her characters. With an emotional honesty, the author presents the shifting insecurities of Oliver as he embarks on efforts to video people's lives, so they can have memories of their loved ones and making his living on other people's pasts. But lately Oliver has had a sense that his life is finally coalescing into something else. A purpose, a fact finder, sleuth, he parks in front of a gourmet market downtown, remembering a piece of summer twenty-one years ago, as he spies on this boy Jared. With the toughness around his eyes, his wiry arms and jagged teeth, and a birthmark that fits him in a way Oliver had been unable to imagine it fitting anyone, Jared is Oliver's long-long brother. Remembering his childhood with his mother and Mary and their neighbor "Mr. Nice Guy" the discovery of Jared, only increases Oliver's thoughts of the baby they adopted but had to give up after his father suddenly died of a heart attack. As steps into Jared's childhood, manipulating time for both if them, the assembled shreds of an invented past come together in order to convey the truth about what might have been.

Floating in and out of Oliver's childhood, Mullins recounts Oliver's efforts to produce a dossier of emotional evidence to illustrate his case and photographs that might offer a glimpse of their common loss. Meanwhile, another narrative thread focuses on Mr. Scap, a premier divorce lawyer who has a sizable wealth, his ability to listen to the doubt, heartache and anger of people is a quality that sets him apart. Lately Mr. Scrap is preoccupied and is turning over in his mind the travails of Missy Rolondo and the stalking of her husband, Andy. Clearly, Mr. Scrap and Oliver seem to be somehow crippled. Oliver becomes ever more obsessed with meeting Jared, while also falling for the beautiful Miranda who secretly takes photos of the other who takes photos of strangers in their homes. Meanwhile, Mary is trying to escape her childhood by taking the skies. Now an air stewardess, Mary has leaned to practice detachment as a way of floating through the pain of life. The baby they gave up for adoption has gradually receding from her. She gave up her childhood detective work long ago, along with becoming British, climbing trees and wishful thinking which could have doomed her to chasing the phantoms Oliver is after.

All of these characters reminded again of how quickly everything can change even as much of the drama is seen through the respective lenses of Miranda and Oliver. A sensitive, artistic soul, Oliver is not equipped for the difficult times ahead and as his loneliness is magnified, it's as though himself is in a photograph and it is fading, watching himself disappear. When tragedy strikes it is the bonds of family moments of and the gentle revelations that create an unbreakable bond that is inexplicably sustained through the years and for Mullen's characters, the everyday mundane sorrow becomes seductive when unwieldy and exotic even when the pain of tragedy is pinning you to the bed. Oliver is reminds them of not of life's fragility, but of its resiliency; not just how unjust it can be, but how merciful it can be and how a brother can be lost and then miraculously restored. Mike Leonard March 2010.

Small Wars
Small Wars
by Sadie Jones
Edition: Hardcover

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "O, God the Son, look down upon thy little one. Amen", 7 Mar. 2010
This review is from: Small Wars (Hardcover)
An exceptional writer whose prior novel The Outcast established her talent for compelling characterization, Sadie Jones presents a unique love story against the British colony in Cyprus in the 1950's. Major Hal Traherne is stationed for a month with his Clara wife Clara and their two daughters Meg and Lottie in Limassol, where the army has rented them a house. Amid the sounds of motorbikes and Cypriot voices, the banging shutters of other houses, Hal and Clara find themselves immersed in a war of intelligence and a war of subterfuge and of rumor. Three years of conflict so far has seen restaurant bombings and soldiers' vehicles ambushed on remote roads, along with street fights, graffiti ads and countless arrests. Certainly a fledgling desire for Cypriot independence has hardened into a terrorist campaign where the British Government is backed into a corner.

Hal, a man from a staunchly military family, is full of idealistic zeal through trying to change the Cypriots hearts and minds. The idea is for protection as well as rule and Hal is here to root out terrorism and to protect the population from it. While Clara attends to the girls, together with Adile, a Turkish Cypriot, Hal, acting on orders from his superior, Colonel Burroughs, goes away for a stint of "proper fighting." His task is to root out the terrorist Loulla Kollias, a member of the EOKA organization with the mission culminating in a raid on his farmhouse. Left alone at home Clara tries to accept the reality of their situation. The house is empty and there's evil around her, hiding itself. She didn't want Hal to think that she wasn't coping. She befriends Mark and Deirdre Innes, and later, Captain Davis who experiences a shared, unspoken sympathy for Clara that is mysterious and comforting. Davis is battered by his obsession with Clara or perhaps by love.

Cushioned by familiar desire and rejection, Jones' novel centers in the moral dilemmas of Hal and Clara, and that of Davis who becomes romantically fixated on the wife of a man whose authority and principle he admires and resents in equal measure. While Clara seems to be immune to the careless beauty of the world, and the soft shifting of her new baby inside of her, Hal dreads the darkness where the smallest defiant act could extinguish another British life. Alone in his command, he can feel the shifting mood around him: "A clarity of purpose, there was division and grief." Beyond Hal and Clara's fragile love story are the scenes of violence and turmoil - an ambush in a cave with twenty jerry-cans of petrol, the screaming of the men loud and echoing. And a land mine explosion on a beach, the two dead soldiers, along with graphic descriptions of carnage and blood and sand, a horse shot, sand on its breathless muzzle. The recreation of Hal's battles are chillingly atmospheric, filled with authentic historical detail and the empty despair of Britain as she tries to keep her slender grasp on Empire.

Later in the novel as the focus shifts from Cyrus to England, Cypriots and soldiers continue to play out the long game of complicity and enmity welcome and rebellion. The bloodshed entrenching each position as firmly as the friendship did. Peppered with complex characters, with Hal and Clara undoubtedly at the center, this novel paints a compelling portrait of a country on the edge, a soldier and his wife trapped in a rapidly disintegrating world, even as their love for each other continues to hold strong. Hal's only solace seems to be back in the arms of Clara, where the soft things happen to him as he lurches between disintegration and the struggle for control. Mike Leonard March 2010.

Living Room
Living Room
by Rachel Sherman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars `The idea would be to play up the outside, making it almost lie a surreal version.", 26 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Living Room (Paperback)
Rachel Sherman's novel is as simple and powerful and as bleak as the winters on Long Island as she follows the misdirected lives of three women. Fifteen-year-old Abby is stumbling through life. Her partner in crime is Jenna who continually flashes her lacy bra while both clandestinely smoke cigarettes outside of Abby's bedroom window. We first meet them as they are walking to the Living Room, the secluded area made up of a couch, old red leather cracking white in places, "as if a cloud were being suffocated, trying to get out." No one owns the living room and it , it is too far out to worry about teachers. It is a spot in the woods neat the school where some the boys hang out. Years ago, they carried their parents' basement furniture behind the school and put it beneath a bunch of ceiling-like trees.

It is here that the vulnerable Jenna and Abby finds solace with Alec and Chess, a boy from school touches her, his kisses hard and deep, his tongue searching for something inside her. Burdened by her home life, her mother Livia is unable to communicate with her daughter and her distracted father Jeffrey, while Abby emails her ailing grand mother Headie who has just been given a new computer by Jeffrey. Holed up in her apartment, Headie sends emails to her family and remembers life with her two husbands, "two rings, two men, one bigger than the other." Gene was a sweet man and never asked for much even though she had never really loved him., And later, Allen who seduced her, both of them together in the back room of the store, knocking against the winter clothes..

The most heart-wrenching character, Headie gradually deteriorates, lying on her bathroom floor and watching the dancers twirling, still colorful, and still faceless. In her closet there hangs the pink and white nightgown she plans to be buried on when she dies, with a note pinned to the hanger: "Bury me in This." Meanwhile, Livia eats like a fat man, gorging herself on pre-made onion dip and chips, noting only her dreams into a Word document, not even sharing them with her husband Jeffrey. Dragged down by dreams colorful and filled with wishes, Livia's journey is one of quiet conflict and an absolute sense of human frailty in the face of Jeffrey's detachment. Later when Livia offers to redecorate the house of Simone and her partner Gail, there's a hint of attraction perhaps envy at their seemingly perfect lives, particularly for the beautiful Gail sun-kissed with apple cheeks, blue eyes and smooth skin., and barefoot with a thing gold ankle bracelet.

Sherman's characters are all spectators dancing on the edge of the stage. Headie, as if the dancers are above her, are looking at them as an audience member. Livia who remembers how Jeffrey once was - who slept with her, and watched her and loved her. And she wonders about her daughter always hiding from her. While Abby has secretive liaisons with Jenna and drinks a vodka, almost killing herself with alcohol, she stubbornly clings to her secret life in the Living Room, Sherman spins a tale about mothers and daughters and how motherhood stops you and relieves you both. Contrasting the constant confusion of adolescence, the author effortlessly shows the ramifications of loneliness from within and a family so self-absorbed in their prospective worlds, worlds that propel this story's rock-hard realism and brutal sense of urgency. Mike Leonard February 2010.

Noah's Compass
Noah's Compass
by Anne Tyler
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Those who forget the past tend to regret the future", 20 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Noah's Compass (Hardcover)
This gentle and unassuming book opens with a unusual incident that sets the tone for the entire life of Liam Pennywell, a middle-school teacher who lives in suburban Baltimore. Searching for contentment and meaning as his life becomes increasingly insular, Liam moves to a new and smaller apartment. From the outset, Liam is certain this will be the final dwelling place of his life. Convinced there are no new prospects were likely for him, Liam has accomplished all the conventional tasks - grown up, found work, gotten married and had children. But Liam's world is strangely skewed when he wakes up in a hospital room with a helmet of gauze on his head. All he can remember was lying on his back in the dark and appreciating the sheets. His daughter Xanthe tells him he was injured by an intruder who broke into his apartment and hits him over the head. He has concussion. The intruder must have gotten in through the patio door which he had left open. Inexplicably, Liam completely at a loss and doesn't remember a thing no memory of the incident, his lost memory like a physical object just beyond his grasp, An actual gap in his mind "full of empty blue rushing air."

The accident is a catalyst for Anne Tyler's deep exploration of Liam's inner-life - a man who feels he has ended up so alone. With two failed marriages, his first wife dead, three daughters who now lead their own lives, and a sister he seldom speaks to, the merest handful of friends, more like acquaintances, Liam's promising youth has somehow trailed off in a series of low-paying jobs far beneath his qualifications. He's naked and alone and unprotected and unloved, a mood he created by his current circumstances. An appointment with a Dr. Morrow follows as Liam attempts to explain the attack, but true change occurs when he meets Eunice, a personal assistant at Cope Development who offers to help Liam with his resume. When she shows up at his apartment carrying a bag of fried takeout chicken and begins to harbor personal feelings towards him, Liam in turn finds himself attracted to this uncommon younger woman, her plainness and innocence so much a part of her charm.

Embarking on a relationship with the same guilty secrecy, the same tantalizingly halfway physical relationship, Liam is plagued by the same lack of confidence. While Eunice alternates between shyness and startling boldness, Liam begins to study her character. Then there's a shocking revelation, and Eunice is driven frantic while Liam ponders the clues that had failed to alert him. As Liam sinks into a deep, bitter anger and a memory of the scene this so humiliating, so grimace-making, for the first time he realizes he isn't as alone. His ex-wife Barbara, his three daughters Kitty (who comes to stay), Xanthe, and Louise, and his grandson Jonah, all help him out of his difficult path in life and try to how him there indeed are a few moments of joy.

A subtle and sensitive look at the expectations of tangled, fraught lives, the memory the attack ultimately forces Liam to look back at a life ambushed by complexities. The story remains compelling throughout, a gentle look at a placid man on the downside of life where everything evolves - true love, family and friendships. While the accident facilitates a rediscovering of his family, Liam finds his niche in life, perhaps a path to redemption. The message is that life goes on, as will Liam, who finds comfort in the most unlikeliest of places, much comforted by his experiences in his search for happiness. Mike Leonard February 10.

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