April 14, 2016

Calculations and Compromises

One Hundred Twenty-One Days, by Michele Audin, translated by Christiana Hills, (Deep Vellum Publishing), 200 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a novel that is so original it almost defies description. The characters are an assortment of mathematicians. The time period spans World Wars I and II. The style—well, the style varies depending upon which chapter you’re reading. As the reader works her way through the book’s many voices, the reader experiences a depiction of the processes by which we make choices and compromises during difficult times. Some of our mathematicians collaborate with occupying forces, some don’t. Some speak out when they see incipient fascism, some don’t. All of these actions are presented obliquely, requiring close attention. Given its intellectual and stylistic richness, I don’t doubt that this title will be one of my favorites of the year—and one I’ll be rereading sooner, rather than later.

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April 12, 2016

Touch of Poison

A Fierce and Subtle Poison, by Samantha Mabry, (Algonquin Young Readers), 288 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

Lucas is the son of a wealthy American developer who spends his summers living in a Caribbean hotel owned by his father. For years, he’s heard stories about the mysterious house at the end of the street. It’s perpetually shuttered, its gates locked. The man who owns it is a scientist who’s said to have driven his wife to madness. If you write a wish on a slip of paper and toss it over the wall surrounding this house, common knowledge claims that your wish will come true.

After his girlfriend disappears, Lucas finds himself drawn to this house, and he befriends Isabel, the girl who lives there. Isabel is even more unusual than rumor has it. She’s poison. Her breath can kill. Her touch leaves a rash and sores that last for days, along with debilitating weakness.

Lucas and Isabel become amateur detectives, trying to uncover the secrets behind the disappearances of several young women. Given who Isabel is, the threats aren’t only external. By working with her, Lucas puts his health, and ultimately his life, at risk.

The publisher presents this as a title for ages 12 to 18, and readers in that group will find this an engaging read. balancing menace, mystery, and romance.

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April 11, 2016

Murder and Printing in 17th-Century London

A Death Along the River Fleet: A Mystery, by Susanna Calkins, (Minotaur), 336 pages, release date 12 April, 2016

Minotaur, a publisher I rely on for good historical mysteries, has presented readers with another winner: Susanna Calkins’ A Death Along the River Fleet. Our heroine, Lucy Campion, is in the unusual position of being a female printer’s apprentice in 17th-Century London. Calkins depicts the time period effectively. Although a female printer’s apprentice may appear something of an anomaly, Lucy Campion, as presented, feels genuine. She recognizes her position as unusual and has worked hard to achieve it.

A Death Along the River Fleet opens with Lucy Campion, on her way to the print shop, suddenly confronted by a woman in a blood-stained nightgown. Not surprisingly, Lucy Campion quickly finds herself immersed in this woman’s story. The woman, it turns out, is a daughter of nobility, with no memory of how she came to be wandering the streets of London. Campion hopes to unravel the woman’s story—and as she tries to do this, it becomes clear that the threat the woman faced is still out there.

I find myself hoping that Lucy Campion will continue to experience adventures, and that I’ll be able to rejoin her thanks to the well-researched, engaging prose of Susanna Calkins. This fascinating woman has the depth and complexity to become a very rich figure indeed, one whose presence is every bit as engaging as the mysteries she solves.

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April 07, 2016

A Welcome Return of Russell and Holmes—and Hudson

The Murder of Mary Russell: A Novel of Suspense Featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, by Laurie R. King, (Bantam), 384 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

I love Laurie R. King’s Russell and Holmes series and will read anything new she comes out with that lets me spend time with this pair. That said, two of her last three novels in this series, The Pirate King and Dreaming Spies, haven’t seemed as magical to me as most of the titles. They were still good reads, but the settings and backstories just felt a bit too involved and unlikely for my taste. I can happily report that The Murder of Mary Russell has all the strengths of the best titles in the series. There’s no exotic location, no ninjas or film directors—just Russell, Holmes, and Mrs. Hudson, along with a few supporting characters and a new villain. The Murder of Mary Russell relies on top-notch plotting and characterization to keep readers interested.

The Murder of Mary Russell allows readers to spend more time than they have in the past with Mrs. Hudson, housekeeper and enigma. Just as Locked Rooms gave readers a richer understanding of Russell, her experiences, and values, The Murder of Mary Russell makes Mrs. Hudson a fuller, more engaging character.

If you’re already a fan of King’s Russell and Holmes series, rejoice! You’ve got some delightful reading ahead of you. And if you’re not familiar with this series, now would be a good time to introduce yourself to it.



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April 06, 2016

A Painting with More than One Mystery at Its Heart

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos: A Novel, by Dominic Smith, (Sarah Crichton Books, Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 304 pages, release date 5 April, 2016

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is a wonderful example of a novel inspired by art. In this case, the artist is a fictional construct, but a very believable one—the first female member of a guild of master painters, admitted to the guild in 1631. Her husband is a master painter as well. While he paints landscapes, she paints flowers and dreams of new kinds of landscape paintings picturing the world seen from different, unexpected angles. Smith’s 17th Century Holland is bleak and believable. Sara de Vos is saddled with her husband’s debts after he deserts her and finds herself an uneasy resident artist in the home of a wealthy eccentric. It’s a life that requires constant perseverance in the face of one tragedy after another.

In more recent times, only one of Sara de Vos’s paintings survives: a bleak landscape, viewed from the perspective of a young girl who stands barefoot in the snow. Ellie Shiply, once an artist, now adjusting to life as a graduate student Art History, agrees to paint a forgery of this work. She’s told that what she is doing isn’t intended for criminal purposes, but it’s not long before her forgery hangs on the wall of the painting’s owner in place of the original. When a detective hired by original owner finds Shiply, her life is changed forever—both because of her fear that the forgery will put an end to her academic career and because of the relationship she finds herself building with the owner.

The two narratives twine years later when Shiply curates an exhibition of female Dutch painters and both the original and forgery are offered on loan from owners who believe them to be genuine.

Smith’s characters are flawed in exactly the right ways, with faults balanced by kindnesses or vulnerabilities of different sorts, so that readers can imagine slipping into their skins and living their lives both past and present. Waiting for a resolution of the problem of the two paintings—and for the impact it will have on Shiply’s life—makes the novel compelling reading. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos stands up well, and distinctively, among other achievements in this genre, like Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls or Nina Siegal’s The Anatomy Lesson. Readers with a love of art, of history, and of the mysterious are in for a treat.



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April 04, 2016

Plague, Labor, and a Mystery

The Butcher Bird: A Somershill Manor Mystery, by S. D. Sykes, (Pegasus), 336 pages, release date 4 April, 2016

Set in the Kentish countryside and London immediately following the plague epidemic of the late 1340s, The Butcher Bird offers a compelling mix of mystery and historical imagining. Oswald de Lacy, not quite twenty and a third son, had never been particularly important in the de Lacy family At seven years old, he was sent to a monastery to prepare for an eventual life as a monk. But the deaths of his two older brothers during the plague forced him out of the monastery and into a rather unwelcome role as Lord of the manor. Religious training did little to prepare Oswald either as a landowner or as a leader of the families renting lands on the family estate.

In the post-plague years, the feudal structure of English society is beginning to crumble. With nearly half the work force wiped out, surviving laborers find themselves able to demand higher salaries. While law requires that they be paid at pre-plague rates, they are increasingly questioning the structures that had shaped their lives, choosing to leave areas their families had inhabited for generations in order to seek better pay and opportunities in cities or on other manors with more generous Lords.

Oswald’s hands are full trying to balance the competing demands of the laborers on his estate and the local nobility, who are determined not to grant any increased pay or new opportunities to those who work their lands. But once the body of an infant is found impaled on a thorn bush (just as shrikes, “butcher birds,” store their pray for later eating), Oswald’s challenges increase. While Oswald is determined to find a rational explanation for this crime, the local families quickly embrace tales of a gigantic bird brought to life by a madman who has been an unsettling presence since his wife and children were killed in the plague.

The puzzle is sufficiently complex to keep the narrative moving forward, but in many ways the chief delight of this book is the opportunity to imagine the daily lives of those living at this time. This is S. D Sykes’ second Somershill Manor mystery, and like the first it is carefully researched and engagingly presented. In addition to the tensions between folk beliefs and rationalism, the world of medicine is fracturing, with some practitioners beginning to question humor-based medicine and trying new, simpler cures, focusing more on cleanliness than on exotic ingredients like badger dung.

One can only hope that Sykes will be offering more titles in the Somershill series and that she’ll lead us on through the Fourteenth Century and the swiftly changing life of that time.

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March 31, 2016

A Welcome Return of M. J.Carter’s Blake and Avery

The Infidel Stain, by M. J. Carter, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 432 pages, release date 29 March, 2016

One of the real joys of reading is discovering characters you love and having the opportunity to get to know them over time as new books featuring them come out. This is very much the case with Jeremiah Blake and William Avery, who were introduced to readers by M. J. Carter in last year’s The Strangler Vine.

Blake and Avery are one of those odd couples who can flourish in the world of detective fiction. When readers first met them, they were based in India. Blake was a British agent gone rogue, who had long since abandoned faith in the British cause in India. Avery was a young officer, still believing in the British cause, but increasingly disappointed with the lack of opportunities for advancement—and beginning to question much of the British story about the nation’s role in India.

The Infidel Stain takes place in 1841, three years after The Strangler Vine. Blake and Avery have returned to Britain, but fallen out of touch. Blake lives in a run-down apartment in an immigrant-rich neighborhood in London and eats at a kitchen for impoverished sailors returned from India. Avery is living a prosperous, if unengaging, life in the countryside. The two are reunited to investigate a series of murders of London printers. The police have shown little interest in the cases, but a wealthy philanthropist wants to see justice pursued and is willing to pay Blake and Avery to do the pursuing.

Like The Strangler Vine, The Infidel Stain offers a detailed portrait of a fascinating historical moment. Britain  faces unrest brought on by the Chartist movement, a campaign to grant the vote to all men, regardless of property-holding status. The Chartists, while viewed as threats to the social order, are seen as sell-outs by the previous generation’s radicals, who sought the vote for women as well as men, and who questioned many assumptions about both faith and morality.

I admit to some disappointment at finding Blake and Avery out of India. I’d been looking forward to more of the portrait of colonialism that their adventures revealed, but they’re every bit as fascinating in London as they were while in India. The Infidel Stain is the kind of “meaty” mystery that offers far more than a puzzle at its center. Readers see life in 1840s Britain as it was lived by members of various social strata. While many characters operate with good intentions, real good is harder to define. The challenges—political, financial, moral—posed by London’s poor can’t be solved the way a particular set of crimes can be.

I’m eagerly waiting now for my next meeting with Blake and Avery, both because I want to spend time in their company and because I want to know more about the London in which they operate.

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March 30, 2016

A Year that Shaped America

The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics, by Stephen Coss, (Simon & Schuster), 368, release date 8 March, 2016

The Fever of 1721 is one of those works of nonfiction that readers can get caught up in like a novel. The characters (a number of whom have names readers will recognize) come from the fields of medicine, religion, and politics. They’re facing multiple conflicts—particularly regarding the best means of preventing the spread of smallpox and the growing resistance to British rule. Stephen Coss has a deft hand with the quick portrait and telling detail, so that readers come to feel they know the characters involved, despite the historical distance.

If you’re interested in medicine or American history—or just enjoy a good nonfiction read—you find The Fever of 1721 a real pleasure.

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March 29, 2016

Disease Detective

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective: In Pursuit of Smallpox and AIDS, by Mary Guinan with Anne D. Mathers, (Johns Hopkins University Press), 144 pages, release date 24 March, 2016.

Adventures of a Female Medical Detective recounts a dozen stories from the life of Mary Guinan and makes for quick, compelling reading. In the early 1970s, Guinan was the only female member of the Centers for Disease Control’s Epidemic Intelligence Service class—a two year training in international epidemiology. As a woman, she quickly found herself pulled into investigations in regions where interactions between male doctors and female patients were viewed as inappropriate.  She engaged in epidemiological research in Pakistan and Lebanon. She also served as an expert witness in the court case that determined the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to people with AIDS.

Her writing, assisted by Anne D. Mathers, is lively. Reading Adventures of a Female Medical Detective feels like engaging in a conversation with someone who is simultaneously a friend and an inspiration. Guinan’s stories, serve as a great introduction to the field of epidemiology. Don’t be misled by the fact that this title is published by Johns Hopkins University Press. This is a title that will not only fascinate adult readers, but one that could also introduce middle grade and older readers to this fascinating, challenging, and diverse line of work.

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March 28, 2016

Botany and Desire

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier, (Viking), 304 pages, release date 15 March, 2016

There’s no such thing as a bad Tracy Chevalier novel. There are brilliant Tracy Chevalier novels and rather good Tracy Chevalier novels, but that’s about the extent of the range. In other words, when a new Tracy Chevalier comes out, I know I’m in for some enjoyable reading. At the Edge of the Orchard falls in the middle of her range, not brilliant, but better than rather good.

This novel follows two historical threads: one of a violently divided family of homesteaders in Ohio, the other of the experiences of one son from that family as he moves west, arriving in California shortly after the start of the gold rush. The first thread is narrated in the alternating voices of husband and wife. The second is narrated in third person. In an odd way, this variety means that the second thread, which should be the most engaging, feels as if it’s holding readers at a distance.

Reading this novel can be an uncomfortable experience, but it presents an insightful view of the compromises we make when living with and building family—the times when not bad is good enough, even if it’s not ideal. The historical background of this novel is the growing English passion for Californian plants during the mid-19th Century, which adds to its interest.

You can trust that At the Edge of the Orchard will provide a worthwhile read, if not a life-changing one.

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