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Music, Murder, and Stolen Art

Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure, by Bonnie MacBird, (Collins Crime Club), 320 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

These days, the literary world has a wealth of new titles riffing on Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes. Bonnie MacBird’s Art in the Blood is a welcome addition to this body. Of the many Holmes variations I’ve read (and I am a huge fan of Holmes variations), Art in the Blood comes closest to matching the pacing and voice of the Conan Doyle originals.

In this title, a depressed Holmes, who has recently succumbed once again to his cocaine addiction, is faced with a trio of mysteries, all of them with the Earl of Pellingham and his estate at their center. The Earl’s illegitimate son has disappeared and his estranged mother, a French cabaret singer, fears the worst. Several boys who work in the Earl’s silk mill have turned up brutally murdered. In addition, the Earl, an obsessive and unscrupulous art collector, is suspected of having obtained a stolen French art treasure: the Marseilles Nike.

Holmes has a great deal of help in his investigations, some welcome, some not. He’s glad to reunite with Dr. John Watson, whose wife is visiting relatives. He’s deeply ambivalent about the guidance being offered by his brother Mycroft, with whom he is in constant competition and who is quite ready to use Sherlock for his own political ends. Then there’s the detested (by Holmes at any rate) French criminal investigator Vidocq (an actual historical figure), who claims to have left his life of crime behind in his new pursuit of justice.

This bounty of mystery and characters makes for lively, multi-stranded reading. MacBird succeeds in keeping readers guessing about the various whos of the who dunnits. She also recreates the personalities of and relationship between Holmes and Watson quite effectively. I hope there will be many more Holmes novels from her.

October 09 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Religious Tensions and a Murder in the 6th Century

Murder in Megara: A John, the Lord Chamberlain Mystery, by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer, (Poisoned Pen Press), 256 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

I read my first John, the Lord Chamberlain, mystery a year and a half ago and found it engrossing, not just because of the mystery at its heart, but because of the glimpse it gives into 6th Century life under the Emperor Justinian—particularly its depiction of the religious tensions at this time. Justinian has embraced Christianity, which is now the state religion, but many people still adhere to older faiths, including John, who worships the warrior God Mithra.

At this novel’s opening, John and his household find themselves in Megara, John’s childhood home, having been banished by Justinian. The citizens of Megara seem remarkably ill-disposed toward the newcomers. Partly this has to do with a number of shady enterprises villagers are involved in. But this is also due to the fact that Megara is a Christian city, home to a monastery—and the villagers attribute all sorts of acts of violence and voluptuousness to those practicing “pagan” religions. John tries to reconnect with childhood friends, but they are wary of being seen as too welcoming to him.

When John’s estranged stepfather is found murdered in the ruins of a temple on John’s property, John finds himself hounded by both villagers and the City Defender, who seems eager to accept even the wildest of the villagers’ tales, while treating John with suspicion.

This mystery is satisfactorily solved by the novel’s end, but it’s not just the who dunnit that will propel you through the book. The religious tensions of the 6th Century are fascinating in their own right and also provoke thoughts about the role of organized religion in our own time.

October 08 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Marvelous YA Novel about the Perfection of the Imperfect

The Nest, by Kenneth Oppel with illustrations by Jon Klassen, (Simon & Schuster), 256 pages, release date 6 October, 2015

Kenneth Oppel is one of those YA authors I read with great pleasure. He’s a master of narrative suspense and deftly balances the magical and the ominous. The Nest is no exception.

Steven, the novel’s central character, is a highly anxious child, with a long list of fears and compulsive behaviors. And now a new baby’s been added to the family—a baby with serious health problems that may result in death or life-long impairment.

When an angel-like wasp appears to Steve in a dream promising to “fix” the baby, Steve welcomes her efforts enthusiastically. But as the plan to fix Steve’s new brother progresses, Steve begins to see that imperfections, even tragic ones, can be an essential part of who we are.

This book pulled me in from the beginning and I read the second half in one mad rush on an afternoon when I had plenty of other tasks on my “to-do” list. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt compelled to race through a novel in this way—that’s how good The Nest is. In fact, I expect it will become one of “the essentials,” the titles I read over again every few years because their pleasures don’t dim, and I can always find something new in them.

This is a book to give to yourself and to the other dedicated readers in your life, regardless of their age. Its magic transcends limits of age or genre.

October 06 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Closets Full of Stars

Rules for Stealing Stars, by Corey Ann Haydu, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 336 pages, release date 29 September, 2015

Rules for Stealing Stars straddles the worlds of fantasy and reality. Silly (short for Priscilla) and her family have permanently moved into what used to be their summer home. The primary motivation for this move is the condition of Silly’s mother: volatile at the best of times, a heavy drinker, she now moves between rage, despair, and catatonia. Silly, her three sisters, and their father all wrestle with this burden in their own ways. That’s the reality.

The fantasy comes as the girls learn that their closets in the former summer home are gateways to alternate worlds, some terrifying, some comforting. As their mother’s condition worsens, the sisters find themselves spending more and more of their time in the closet worlds, trying to escape the family’s daily struggle.

The publisher describes this as a novel for readers in grades 3 through 7, but it deserves a wider readership. Its length allows for a deep immersion in the life of Silly’s family, and the different challenges each girl deals with will resonate with adults, as well as the grade-to-middle school crowd.

October 01 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

A Whimsical Look at Owls

Owls: Our Most Charming Bird, by Matt Sewell, (Ten Speed Press), 128 pages, 50 illustrations, release date 22 September, 2015

I’ve spent enough time watching on-line owl boxes to know a bit of their less darling side. They’re fierce predators. They swallow their prey whole, later coughing up a wad of bones and fur—all that’s left of the mouse or vole or gopher or bunny. A family of owls can go through upwards of 24 little mammals in a single evening, providing Dad’s a good hunter.

But to be honest, I am, nonetheless, charmed by owls. If you don’t look at things from the vole’s perspective, watching a pair of owlets tussle over the latest entrée can be almost heart-warming. The adults are nothing less than majestic (if their majesty is sometimes a bit oddly proportioned). The owlets go from wobbly, featherless mini-dinosaurs to fluffy mini-yetis wearing tutus and swiveling their heads in ways that seem impossible, and then somehow take on the majesty of their parents.

Sewell’s owls are most definitely charming. While his paintings aren’t realistic, they capture the essence of the different owl species: posture, head shape, coloring, definitive markings. If you know owls, you can see that he has a knack for capturing the gist of them. If you don’t know owls, you may want to work through his book with your laptop on, so you can pull up photographs to compare to his illustrations.

Sewell’s prose is crisp and good-natured, often humorous. Reading it adds to the fun, though just looking at the pictures is rewarding in itself. This is a book that will leave whimsical adults, budding birders, and the picture-book crowd, well, “charmed, I’m sure.”

September 28 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Monster, Machine, Human, Brother

This Monstrous Thing, by Mackenzi Lee, (Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins), 384 pages, release date 22 September, 2015

This Monstrous Thing is a steampunk retelling of the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Set in the eighteen-teens, it depicts a Europe in which prosthetic limbs and organs have been invented, but making and using them is seen as usurping God’s role as creator. The public consensus is that anyone making or making use of these artificial body parts is no longer human.

Alasdair Finch is one of the “Shadow Boys”: the engineers building and maintaining these prosthetics. He is, in fact, something of a prodigy and has secretly brought his brother Oliver back to life after Oliver’s death falling from Geneva’s great clocktower. Alasdair’s partner in this work is none other than Mary Shelley, who lives with the already married Percy Bysshe Shelley and his friend Lord Byron in a Geneva mansion.

Like the book that inspired it, This Monstrous Thing confronts readers with the question of what it means to be human—and also with questions of social stratification, prejudice, opportunity, learning, and violence. In some ways these questions resonate particularly well in this setting, since modern-day readers are accustomed to prosthetics. What the book’s society finds abnormal and threatening is commonplace for us.

Like Shelley, Lee has a knack for creating complex characters, neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Their actions are driven by ambition and fear, as well as by love. Alasdair’s reanimating of his brother may be a great humanitarian undertaking or a hideously selfish project. Mary Shelley uses the brothers as a way of recapturing her pre-Shelley youthful boldness and isn’t completely honest with them about her own identity and actions. The reanimated Oliver is beastly, with little of his human self remaining; he may present a treat to the lives and safety of others as long as he lives.

Ostensibly, This Monstrous Thing is a young adult novel, aimed at middle and high school readers, but its richness and prose style make it rewarding reading for adults as well—particularly adult familiar with Shelley’s Frankenstein.

September 22 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Reclaiming an Imaginary Friend

Crenshaw, by Katherine Applegate, (Felwel & Friends, Macmillan), 256 pages, release date 22 September, 2015


Life is tough in Jackson’s family. His parents are perpetually under- or unemployed. They move from apartment to apartment, sometimes living in their car—and Jackson feels particularly responsible for the well-being of his younger sister.

Into this situation enters Crenshaw, an imaginary friend from Jackson’s past: a human-sized cat, who skateboards and loves bubble baths. Jackson is nonplussed at Crenshaw’s arrival, worrying about his own sanity. But Crenshaw’s advice—”tell the truth”—is valuable, and at least the family dog appears to see him.

The publisher presents this as a book for children ages 8 to 12, and almost any reader in that age range is going to find this novel both engaging and comforting. The cadence of Applegate’s prose means the book would also work well as a read-aloud title for younger children—and some adults, myself included, will certainly find time with Crenshaw time well spent.

September 20 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Apprentice Apothecary Solves Serial Murders

The Blackthorn Key, by Kevin Sands, (Aladdin, Simon & Schuster), 384 pages, release date 1 September, 2015, publisher recommended for ages 10-14

I wish that Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key had been around when I was in sixth grade. It combines so many of the topics I was obsessed with at the time: mysteries and detective work, magic and alchemy, and  characters my own age whose lives were much more adventurous and dangerous than my own.

Christopher Rowe, the central character (and the character I’d imagine myself as, never mind the difference in our genders), has luckily fallen into an apprenticeship before he “ages out” of the orphanage that he’s called home. Many of his peers wind up as servants or common laborers—or are just tossed out into the street to survive however they might, but Christopher is taken in by by Master Benedict Blackthorn, an exceptionally gifted apothecary and an exceptionally gentle man.

Christopher manages to get himself into trouble regularly—the book opens shortly after he’s experimented with homemade gunpowder and an improvised cannon with unhappy results. Trouble brews in the larger world, as well. Just five years after the restoration, Puritans and Catholics alike resent King Charles’ Rule. Meanwhile, apothecaries have become the victims of a series of murders credited to the Cult of the Archangel—though no one really knows who the cult members are or what their goals might be.

Using skills he’s learned from his Master—cryptography, alchemy, chemistry—Christopher determines to stop the Cult of the Archangel before they can do more harm. Not surprisingly, the gun powder-making comes in handy before the novel is through.

The language of the novel didn’t always leave me feeling I was in Restoration England; its rhythms and vocabulary seemed a bit more modern. Nonetheless, the character of Christopher was so compelling that he made his world real to me, despite the lack of more period-inflected dialogue.

If you know any late grade-schoolers or early middle-schoolers who dream of adventure in a world where magic still seems possible, The Blackthorn Key would provide them with a satisfying read.

September 17 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Murder in Reconstruction Atlanta

The Scribe: A Novel, by Matthew Guinn, (W. W. Norton & Company), 304 pages, release date 14 September, 2015

The Scribe is one of those can’t-put-it-down novels. Set in post-Civil War Atlanta, it pulls readers into a time of immense social turmoil and division. Plantations have lost their work forces; a few Blacks have managed to rise economically, earning both respect and hate; Atlanta is banking on an International Cotton Expedition to redeem itself in the world’s eyes and to draw in investment.

This novel’s central characters are an unlikely pair of investigators: Thomas Canby and Cyrus Underwood. Canby left Atlanta in disgrace three years before, unwilling to participate in the cover-up of criminal activity among the city’s upper classes. This makes him the perfect man to call in for an investigation that promises nothing but difficulty and that’s too sensitive for local police to handle. Underwood is Atlanta’s first Black police officer, added to the force against significant resistance and kept on the periphery of law enforcement (he is not, for example, allowed to carry a gun).

Canby and Underwood  investigate a string of murders that grow increasingly confusing. The first victims are wealthy Atlanta Blacks, but as others are killed, the murderer’s purpose becomes less and less clear. One thing all the murders have in common is the letter carved into the forehead of each victim.

The mystery here is engaging, but this is a book to read for its context as much as its plot. Guinn’s Atlanta comes to life like a many-limbed monster. The city’s economic elite are its arms: hiding, misrepresenting, interfering, strangling. This Atlanta may not be a comfortable place for readers to visit, but it is a fascinating one.

September 14 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

Root Recipes that Can Beat the Wintertime Blues

True to Your Roots: Vegan Recipes to Comfort and Nourish You, by Carla Kelly, (Arsenal Pulp Press), 288 pages, release date 1 September, 2015.

I want to eat vegan, but so often that involves either compromising taste or investing more time than I really have to spare. If you’re like me—or if you’re just looking to broaden your cooking repertoire—you’ll appreciate True to Your Roots for offering delicious, not-too-fussy recipes.

The chapters of the book offer recipe ideas for the entire day. I’m a salad/side dish/main dish kind of cook, and Kelly gives me plenty of options. These include Carrot and Walnut Ravioli with Carrot Top Pesto; Kohlrabi and Chickpea Burgers; Water Chestnut and Chestnut-Stuffed Tofu.

She also includes breakfast, juices, and desserts, as well as starters and condiments. Each chapter offers a dozen or more recipes, so even if, like me, you focus on a particular meal or type of dish, True to Your Roots will offer you many possibilities.

I particularly appreciate Kelly’s emphasis on root vegetables. I find it easy to cook delicious, meat-free meals in the summer, but doing the same thing in winter feels daunting. By emphasizing variety Kelly demonstrates that root-based meals can go well beyond the oven roasts and purées that most of us are familiar with.


September 10 2015 | Uncategorized | No Comments »

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