Saturday, December 29, 2012

'The Diviners'

Imagine that it's lunch time, and you're sitting in the breakroom where you work.  Open in front of you is a book so intriguing, so spellbinding that you don't even taste the food you're putting into your mouth.

That was me, for two days.  

The spellbinding book was 'The Diviners' by Libba Bray, author of the Gemma Doyle trilogy.

It's a big book; a long story; but one well worth telling.  It's set in an age I love so dearly:  New York during the Roaring Twenties, when gin was the booze of choice (and also illegal; it was Prohibition), and Rudolph Valentino, the famous silent movie star, had just died.  It was a time of fearless young women and brash young men.  It was exciting and everything was possible...but just around the corner was the Depression.

Lively seventeen year-old Evangeline ('Evie') O'Neill, at the center of a scandal in her stodgy, boring town of Zenith, Ohio, is banished to her Uncle Will's home in New York.  Although her parents consider it a big punishment, Evie sees it as anything but:  Experiencing independence in one of the most exciting cities in the world.  But her uncle, the curator of the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult (a.k.a. 'The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies'), has no desire to show his niece around.  He is obsessed with the occult, and soon his help is required in helping catch a killer who proclaims that the end of the world is near at hand and The Beast will soon appear.

But Evie, unbeknownst to her uncle, has a special gift that could help catch the murderer.  And, as she soon discovers, there are others who are just as 'special'.  

Reading about these gifted individuals brought to mind an almost primitive version of the Justice League, but without the capes, golden lassos, and invisible airplanes.  These Jazz Babies had to rely on their gifts and wits, but were sometimes unable to save some close to them from gruesome ends.

This new book is a bit of a departure for Ms. Bray.  I found her Gemma Doyle books a bit more serious.  But 'The Diviners', despite the very dark undertone and pulse-pounding action, conveys vibrant youth and resilience during a time where 'anything goes'.  You experience the knowledge that good will always triumph over evil, that anything is possible, despite the allure of stardom, parties, and dancing.  Libba Bray is a very, very good storyteller; her characters, good and bad, are brought to vivid life.  

Although I hated that the story had to end, I realized that it really didn't...

...the set-up for the next book lingers on the brain, there to entice us.

And that is Libba Bray's special gift.

'The Diviners' is published by Little, Brown and Company.  Available in bookstores and your public library.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

'The Hour of Peril'

When it comes to non-fictional tales of war, this Book Hog generally can't get through them.  But when it comes to real-life mysteries, I squee all the way home...especially if the story is well written and holds my interest.

And so it is with Edgar award-winner Daniel Stashower's new book, 'The Hour of Peril'.  Although Mr. Stashower, author of 'The Beautiful Cigar Girl', and 'Teller of Tales', a biography of Arthur Conan Doyle, knows his 'stuff' and isn't afraid to show it, I was almost afraid that he might hit a bump in the road with his newest book.

But, once again, I was wrong.  Happily wrong.

'The Hour of Peril' is the story of Allan Pinkerton, founder of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency.  I was pleased to read about Pinkerton's early life and just what influenced him to start a detective agency.  He had an eye for talent, and his employees were faithful, discreet, and good at their jobs.  

But when a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln is discovered, Pinkerton is soon embroiled in one of the most difficult cases of his career.

It is the eve of the Civil War, and Lincoln has just been elected president.  On the way to Washington D.C., a plot to assassinate him when he reaches Baltimore, Maryland is discovered.  Pinkerton warns Lincoln, who doesn't seem too concerned.  But the closer the train gets to Baltimore, the urgency becomes very apparent to the president-elect.  

Pinkerton sends not only a few good men to infiltrate the plot, but he also sends in Kate Warne, his first female detective.  When some of these detectives are at the point of having their covers blown, you sweat right along with them as they use their wits to avoid detection.  Their various methods of communication fascinated me.

But it is Lincoln who soon takes center stage.  A man of warm humor and sharp wit, he at first seems quite lackadaisical about the plot.  But Pinkerton manages to describe the danger that is just around the corner, and the president finally comes to understand that some people would rather kill him than to see the United States become a slave-free country.

'The Hour of Peril' is certainly one of the great untold stories of the Civil War era.  Pinkerton took a huge gamble (and was embroiled in a major controversy) in foiling the plot.  Such a well-written, suspenseful and educational story is being published at a very good time; 'Lincoln', the film starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the president, is stirring up great interest in everything Lincoln.

Although some of the book was a bit slow-moving, I stayed faithful to the storyteller and closed the book having learned a great deal about an incident of which not too many people are aware.  Thanks to Allan Pinkerton and a host of brave people, our republic avoided a major catastrophe.

'The Hour of Peril' should appeal to not only fans of Civil War history, but also mystery lovers. 

'The Hour of Peril' will be released in February 2013 by Minotaur Books, a division of St. Martin's Press. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'Ordinary Grace'

Extraordinary stories can be presented in the simplest of gift wrap.  Perhaps it's brown paper.  Or the Comics section from the newspaper.  A wrapping that gives the reader no indication as to what is waiting inside.

But when I hear the name William Kent Krueger, I think of Minnesota and his major protagonist Cork O'Connor.  I think about murder and intense investigation.  I visualize Mr. Krueger's spot-on descriptions of nature's beauty in small-town Minnesota.  It would be a story wrapped in intense colors.

But his new novel, 'Ordinary Grace' was not what I expected from him.  I was truly moved by the story, and memories of my own childhood came flooding back.

Written in his trademark style, the story is simply told, full of memories of a small town in the sixties, when the nation was welcoming a young president.  A time when kids could play outside after dark.  When ice cream was a reward for good behavior.  A time before the internet stole children's innocence.  

But every era has crime, and the young narrator of this story, with his younger brother, set out to discover just who murdered three people.  It's not full of guns and violence and police.  

Instead, it's full of families in crisis, the courage of finding strength in simple faith, and secrets the boys cannot possibly understand until they are hit square in the face with the knowledge.

Tragedy comes calling in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota.  Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his younger brother, Jake (who suffers from a stuttering problem), find themselves pulled out of their simple boyhood and thrust into a situation they are not equipped to understand.  Their father, a Methodist minister, and their mother, brilliant, beautiful and talented, have raised their sons and their college-bound daughter in the best way they know how:  with a simple faith.  But this faith is tested when murder takes the lives of three people.  The boys find their world torn asunder, but it is only through honesty and courage that they are able to hold onto the last vestige of their precious youth.

Full of adultery, betrayal, and secrets, 'Ordinary Grace' is written in a simple style, yet the impact is enormous.    

It is that unexpected gift wrapped in the simplest of paper.

'Ordinary Grace' will be published by Atria Books (a division of Simon & Schuster) in March 2013.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

'The Stonecutter'

It's Christmastime  and people are running hither and yon, in search of the perfect gifts.  It's party time, food time, stress time.  In my opinion, the worst of it is the music.  Don't get me wrong:  I really enjoy Christmas music, but in small doses.  If you are a retail worker, you know that Christmas music tears apart your soul to the point that you want to pull out a gun and shoot the overhead speakers.

But I have a better suggestion.  When you, long-suffering retail worker, get home, pick up a good mystery novel, settle into a comfy chair, and let a phenomenal author take care of that stress.

Camilla Läckberg, author of the Patrik Hedström mystery series ('The Ice Princess' and 'The Preacher'), brings us the third book about Patrik and Erica and the mysteries that call for their investigative skills.

Erica and Patrik are now parents to a baby girl, and although they have read various books on raising a child, they are overwhelmed with the responsibility.  Erica is suffering from postpartum depression, and Patrik is spending just a bit too much time at the police station.  But when a child is found murdered, he finds himself devoting even more time and energy to the case, which keeps him from nurturing not only his child, but also his life partner.  

Although I loved Camilla's first two books in the series, 'The Stonecutter' had me absolutely involved.  Did the rich, retired neighbor do it?  Or was it his sworn enemy?  Could it have been the mentally-challenged boy?  My mind was doing the old 'back-and-forth' as I tried to figure out who did the deed.  It kept me reading and the challenge was too good to be true.  Camilla adds a bit of backstory to this saga; the history of a horrendous woman and the man she destroys.  It all adds up...and the fun is in the guessing.  

But it is always Patrik and Erica and their delicate relationship that keeps me turning the pages.  Add a newborn and the pages turn even faster.  I appreciated the fact that Ms. Läckberg writes about postpartum depression in such a vital way; not only does Erica have to deal with it, but she also has to comfort the friend who lost her child to a murderer's rage. 

So, sit back and read.  Ignore the music, but celebrate the holiday in one of the the best ways possible:  With a good cup of tea, a soft chair, and the possibility of escape via a wonderful mystery.    

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

'The Kings and Queens of Roam'

Author Daniel Wallace first grabbed my attention when I saw the filmed version of his novel, 'Big Fish'.  Wildly imaginative and brought to the screen by the brilliant Tim Burton, I knew that I had to read the book.  

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, I love fairy/folk tales, and 'Big Fish' was very satisfying and, in it's own little way, strangely weird.  And Book Hog likes nothing more than 'weird'.

Now Mr. Wallace has presented us with another great read:  'The Kings and Queens of Roam', a tale at once enchanting, and at the same time, very dark and disturbing.

Helen and Rachel McAllister are sisters who live in their crumbling family mansion in Roam, a town that was at first meant to be the center of the U.S. silk industry, but is now dying a slow death.  Helen is older and bitter and cursed with an ugly face.  Rachel is beautiful...and blind.  She depends on Helen for almost everything, and in doing so, is open to Helen's lies.  Helen convinces Rachel that the world is a dark and dangerous place and Rachel couldn't possibly live on her own.  

But Rachel makes a surprising choice that changes the perspective of both sisters.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' is extremely clever and very inventive, filled with thoughtful ghosts who have more wisdom than the living.  It is awash in love and longing, love gone wrong, love changed in a most surprising way.  

And it will stay with you.  

With open arms, I welcome Mr. Wallace's newest addition to the world of folktales.  I thank him for keeping weird alive.

'The Kings and Queens of Roam' will be released in early May 2013, by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

'The Chalice'

On November 5, 2011, I posted a review of 'The Crown', a wonderful story written by Nancy Bilyeau.  Not only did this well-written story make me dust off my knowledge about the reign of Henry VIII, I was intrigued by the small supernatural aspect.

When the story ended, I really hoped that Ms. Bilyeau would write a follow-up to the adventures of her heroine, Joanna Stafford.  I was pleasantly surprised when it landed on my desk.

'The Chalice' takes place in 1538 England, where bloody power struggles between the Crown and Religion are still taking place.  Joanna Stafford, reluctant investigator, has found a new home now that she and her fellow nuns and brothers have been thrown out of their abbey, thanks to Henry VIII's hatred of all things Catholic.  Her life outside the abbey is full; she is the guardian to her cousin's son, and she is determined to start a new weaving business.  And, still, she is conflicted by her feelings for the sheriff Geoffrey Scovill and her close friend, Brother Edmund.  But her old enemies are back, and new ones threaten her very existence if she doesn't do what they require.

There are stronger supernatural elements in 'The Chalice'; although Joanna is reluctant to fulfill a prophecy foretold by three different seers, she realizes that the life of the king and the future of Christendom are in her hands.

'The Chalice' is full of well-researched historical details, and although it might seem a bit confusing at times, it is well worth the read.  And you just might find yourself sitting on pins-and-needles while waiting for the third book in the series.

I know I am.

'The Chalice' will be released in early March 2013 by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.