Archive | June 2016

Review: Odds on Miss Seeton by Heron Carvic. Farrago

Scotland Yard has a problem. Actually, lots of them, most likely–but it’s just the one that they need Miss Seeton’s help with. It’s simple, really; Scotland Yard just wants Miss Seeton to make a sketch for them. Since she’s a retired art teacher, easy assignment.

It might have been, but there’s a little more to it. The sketch that’s sought is of an elusive major crime boss, head of a syndicate taking over gambling clubs and casinos. Oh, and since Miss Seeton’s feats have become rather widely known, it is decided that she will carry out this little mission disguised as Mrs. Amos B. Herrington-Casey, a ninety-year-old woman known for her wealth, fondness for gambling, heavy makeup and extravagant jewelry. Miss Seeton reluctantly agrees to visit the Gold Fish casino in disguise, and sets out to fulfill her appointed task with her signature dedication to duty.

Anyone who has read any of the Miss Seeton stories is already on edge, because while we don’t know quite what is coming, history dictates that it will be neither simple nor stealthy. And once again, Miss Seeton does not disappoint.

Turns out the crime boss, Mr. Thatcher, is acquainted with the real Mrs. Herrington-Casey, and thus sees through Miss Seeton’s impersonation. Miss Seeton does succeed in producing a helpful sketch, but in the process she has incurred the wrath of Mr. Thatcher, who determines that Miss Seeton and her friends must be extinguished.

With the help of some stalwart friends, armed only with her purse, brolly, and a hatpin, Miss Seeton and her troupe take on a nasty crop of evildoers bent on her destruction. As an added bonus, there is a nice little romance (or maybe two?) moving into full bloom.

Enjoyable and ingenious, as always. No classical music clues in this one. There are some trumpet calls at the horse races, though. (What’s that? Miss Seeton and horse racing?). You’ll have to read it.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for making this book available for me to read and review.

Review: An Untimely Frost by Penny Richards. Kensington Books

An Untimely Frost is a well-written story of a courageous and unconventional woman character in 1881 Chicago. Lilly Long is haunted by the tragic history of her mother, murdered when Lilly was just 11 years old. Raised by a kindly couple who become surrogate parents, Lilly’s life has progressed well–until now. She has made a career for herself as a Shakespearean actress, and was married just four months ago to–she thought–the man of her dreams.

But the dream turns out to be more of a nightmare; her new husband robbed her of all her savings and then deserted her. Heartbroken, Lilly decides on a challenging new direction. Using her considerable acting skills and steely determination, she succeeds in being hired as a Pinkerton agent, and after a short training period she is sent on her first assignment.

As is often the case in such tales the assignment seems simple enough–locate the owners of a deserted house named Heaven’s Gate, owned by a pastor who has apparently disappeared, leaving stories of treachery and deceit in his wake. Going to the town of Vandalia, Lilly starts on her course of discovery. But she finds that people in the town are reluctant to discuss the disgraced minister and his family. Visits to the ghostly, deserted Heaven’s Gate yield few clues. Lilly is about to report back to the Pinkerton agency that she has been unsuccessful in her quest. But just on the brink of leaving, things start to change, and Lilly finds clues that lead her on, to a startling conclusion that nearly costs her life.

This is a book that will appeal to fans of historical fiction and admirers of resourceful female protagonists.

My thanks to the publishers for making this advance copy available for me to read and review.

Review: Yellowthread Street by William Marshall. Farrago

I have to apologize to NetGalley and Farrago. Farrago has graciously auto-approved me for its NetGalley offerings. For that, I am truly grateful. I LOVE the Miss Seeton books, also published by Farrago. But this book and I are just not a good fit

I made it through about two chapters. The author sets an exotic scene in 1970s Hong Kong, and indeed he writes with humor. But the humor is a bit too dark for me. Once I encountered bodies dismembered by meat axe and another scene of amputated fingers, I was done.

I think this is likely an excellent book judging from comments of other readers. But it’s not for me.

Review: Miss Seton Sings by Heron Carvic. Farrago

Miss Seton sings. Yes, she certainly does. The author seems quite fond of classical musical references: we have elements of Bizet’s Carmen in “Picture Miss Seton” and now a bit of Rimsky-Korsakov becomes an important thread.

This story finds our Miss Seton flying out of her comfy village life. There is a problem with counterfeiting, and the powers that be see fit to send Miss Seton to confer with officers of a Geneva bank about the problem. Seems simple enough. But it isn’t, of course. For one thing, Miss Seton’s fame has preceded her and stories of her valor and cunning have created all manner of misperceptions. This story is awash with plots and counterplots, counterfeiting, art theft and jewelry scams. There is an extensive international cast of authorities, officers, agents, police, and bad guys. Misunderstanding and misdirection abound. Miss Seton visits Geneva, Genoa, Paris, and London (including an onstage cameo appearance in a revue at the Casino de Paris). She faithfully follows her earnest path amid the voluminous drama surrounding her. Poor Miss Seeton finds herself with “a sense of becoming a shuttlecock, airborne in a game the rules of which had not been explained.” It is said we each have a guardian angel. Miss Seton must have a dedicated angelic squadron assigned to her, as she always seems to emerge unscathed or with a few minor bumps scrapes. Some of her valiant defenders, alas, are not so fortunate. And the villains of the piece don’t end up well at all.

It is all quite outrageous and far over the top. And terribly funny. My biggest problem in reading the book was that I frequently found myself laughing so hard I couldn’t see the page for the tears in my eyes. Bravo, Mr. Carvic!

Review: This Doesn’t Happen In the Movies: A Reed Ferguson Mystery #1 by Renée Pawlish. Creative Cat Press

In creating Reed Ferguson, the author has provided us with an appealing Sam Spade wannabe, a big fan of old detective novels and classic film noir. Inspired by his fictional heroes, Reed decides to open a detective agency. He doesn’t need the money–he has a nice inheritance from his “obscenely rich” grandparents. But Reed has never been successful in his work, despite his law degree. He’d like to change that and, incidentally prove his worth to himself and his parents.

His first case involves Amanda Ghering, a ditsy but attractive blonde (with dark roots) who wants Reed to find her dead husband. Reed senses Amanda will be trouble, and he’s right. It doesn’t take him long to discover Amanda is lying and she drinks too much. But a job is a job, so Reed persists, and runs into situations he never found in the movies.

Ultimately, with the help of his loyal but not over-bright neighbors and Cal, a reclusive computer supergeek, Reed finds answers from Bogie and Lauren Bacall and The Big Sleep. Oh, he also encounters a gaggle of police, real and fake, and a bunch of bad guys and gals.

The book reads like it’s channeling Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Bogie, The Maltese Falcon, and (especially) The Big Sleep. Fans of realistic police procedurals will likely find many flaws in Reed’s methods. But they should lighten up because that doesn’t matter. Ultimately, it’s just great fun.

Review: “Curious Minds: A Knight and Moon Novel” by Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton. Random House – Ballantine.

Where to start with this over-the-top, but remarkably enjoyable, book? Maybe with the title. The thought processes of some characters are certainly curious, including those of the eccentric multibillionaire Emerson Knight. But at least with Emerson we sense that he, like Hamlet, has method in his madness. Other minds (mostly the bad guys’) lurch ominously beyond curious into downright pathological. The curiosity of our heroine, red-haired Riley Moon, is aroused as she strives to fulfill Emerson’s stated desire to view his gold reserves. The story itself certainly gets curiouser and curiouser, like Alice’s Wonderland. Besides channeling the inspired lunacy of Lewis Carroll, reminders of other classics from children’s lit abound: the reckless runs of Mr. Toad; Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” and Dorothy’s determined trek through Oz.

Dorothy/Alice’s role in this story is played by freshly minted Harvard grad, feisty Texas transplant Riley Moon. True, there’s no lion, but there are zebras; an armadillo instead of a scarecrow; no Tin Woodman but lots and lots of gold. Standing in for Auntie Em is Aunt Myra, who proves her worth as the countrywide saga plays out. The Wizard? Oh, that would be the transcendental and resourceful Mr. Knight.

 

We aren’t provided with a yellow brick road, but the comprehensive collection of vehicles used along the way should satisfy the most avid car fancier. We visit the highs and lows of Manhattan; view with awe the gilded vaults of the Federal Reserve, continuing right on through to Las Vegas and Area 51. It appears this is just the first of the adventures of Knight and Moon; it will be intriguing to see how these splendidly inventive authors can top themselves. They have set a high mark.

My thanks to the authors, publisher, and NetGalley for making an advance copy of this book available to me for review.

Review: “Maggie Dove: A Mystery” by Susan Breen. Random House – Alibi

It all starts with Maggie Dove’s oak tree–the one her father planted when she was just a girl. When her unfriendly neighbor Marcus Bender starts pushing her to either chop the tree down or move it, gentle Maggie becomes very angry. But when Marcus ends up lying dead under that oak tree, Maggie’s world is turned upside down.

Maggie, 62, was a very successful writer of mysteries, but her writing career was cut short by the death of her beloved husband, followed by the tragic loss of her beautiful only daughter Juliet. Maggie retired, has a comfortable if circumscribed life in her village, shadowed for years by her grief and loss, although she continues to be a Sunday School teacher.

But Marcus’ death is found to be murder; life in the village becomes more complicated and even dangerous. Maggie’s dormant sleuthing instincts are awakened as she starts following lines of questions. One by one, potential suspects are reviewed and discarded, until only one remains. Maggie finds that her life is forever changed by her experiences as her cloistered life expands to embrace new friends and new challenges. This is an entertaining, intriguing, and ultimately heartwarming story.

My thanks to the publisher who made this advance copy available to me through NetGalley.

The Importance of Play for Children

Girls and boys, come out to play,

The moon doth shine as bright as day;

Leave your supper and leave your sleep,

And come with your play-fellows into the street

ChildrenPlayingCleanedUp copy 2

Play is vitally important to children. The singing game quoted above dates from at least the early 18th century, a time when most children worked all day. Here, they are exhorted to leave their supper and sleep in favor of playing in the moonlit streets.

 Children have played since ancient times. There are Biblical descriptions of children playing in the streets, and of Wisdom playing in the world at the dawn of creation. In ancient Egypt, the tomb of the boy Pharaoh Tutankhamun was filled with treasure and playthings for the young King’s final journey.

Children play in the midst of war. During World War II, Anna Freud was in England, caring for children who had experienced air raids, were separated from their mothers, and had varying experiences of disruption and loss in their family lives. But Freud writes descriptions of children playing joyfully in bomb sites and throwing bricks retrieved from crumbled walls.

 Children play when there is nothing to play with. Ella Lyman Cabot (1921) relates the story of settling her three-year-old daughter for an afternoon nap. Tiptoeing back an hour later, she was met with merry sounds. Mystified, she opened the door and found that the resourceful tot had removed a lacing from one of her shoes and had transformed her right foot into a spirited steed racing at great speed, controlled by shoe-string reins.

 Play is essential for the child’s development. In 2011 the developmental and relational importance of play was reaffirmed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

                                                           

References:

Cabot, E. L. (1921). The art of play. In Seven ages of childhood (pp. 28-39). Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company/The Riverside Press Cambridge. Retrieved from http://books.google.com.books/

Freud, A., & Burlingham, D. T. (1943). Children and war. New York: Medical War Books/ Ernst Willard.

Milteer, R. M., Ginsberg, K. R. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media  Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2011). Pediatrics; originally published online December 26, 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-2953   Retrieved at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/12/21/peds.2011-2953

Beauty in Peril

Review: “A Beauty Refined” by Tracie Peterson. Bethany House Publishers

Through the courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley, I was graciously offered an advance copy of this book to read and offer a review, which follows.

This is an appealing story in an interesting setting: Helena, Montana in June 1907.  The title is multi-referential. First, it surely refers to the refined beauty Phoebe Von Bergen, lovely daughter of Graf Von Bergen, accompanying her father on a trip to America in search of sapphires for a wealthy buyer. Second, it refers to the beauty of the particularly fine Yogo sapphire found in Montana–a gem rendered more valuable by the art of the master lapidary who cuts and shapes the raw stone, faceting it to eliminate flaws and to allow even more light to shine through. Third, we see the sapphire as an example of mankind, God’s creation that can become even lovelier entrusted to the Master’s hands.

Handsome lapidary Ian Harper and 12-year-old Kenny accompany Phoebe on her journey of discovery. At the start, the story is entertaining and intriguing. Phoebe is appealing; I loved reading descriptions of her elegant gowns; it is enlightening to learn of days in early Montana. We also learn a good bit about sapphires (did you know that they are not all blue?), and about the process of transforming raw stones into fine gems. Discussions of Christian faith appear often, with prayers, Bible references, and reveries. As the story unfolds, we learn that Phoebe’s story is not as ideal as it appears, and she is increasingly imperiled by dangers she did not anticipate.

In many ways, this is quite a worthy book. But for me, it became overlong, and I became increasingly frustrated with the decisions of Phoebe and her companions. While key characters were searching for Christian truths–God’s guidance and protection from difficulties–at some point I began to feel they needed to use a bit more of their Creator-endowed intelligence and good sense. Even after evildoing becomes apparent, Phoebe continues to put herself in harm’s way, trusting to God for protection and deliverance. I guess it makes for a more dramatic story, but I kept wishing Phoebe and her companions would exercise more practical avenues to assist the Almighty. There is an old saying to the effect that “God helps those who help themselves.” Sorry if that comment seems irreverent.

The Ghosts of Schooldays Past

Review: “Goodbye, Ms. Chips, An Ellie Haskell Mystery” by Dorothy Cannell. Random House – Alibi

I have long been a fan of Dorothy Cannell, and her heroine of many mystery adventures, Ellie Haskell. Thus, when the publisher kindly offered me the opportunity to review an advance copy of this book, I was delighted at my good fortune. This disclaimer is presented in the spirit of full disclosure: I had a positive bias toward this author’s works before I opened this latest opus.

Of course, Ms. Cannell did not disappoint. At the start we find Ellie, now happily married, with a handsome husband, a notable residence, and three adorable children. In other words, she is doing quite well. But when her dear friend Dorcas, now the new games mistress at St. Roberta’s boarding school for girls, asks Ellie to help out with a problem at the school, Ellie has decidedly mixed emotions. Ellie, along with Dorcas, attended St. Roberta’s for a time, and has fond memories of Dorcas. But ghosts–stories Ellie carries with her of events that she was part of while in residence at the school–haunt her recollections of her stay at St. Roberta’s. She carries a number of guilty secrets. For starters, she played hooky from lacrosse for a whole term, accidentally broke the nose of the beloved, now retired, games mistress Ms. Chips, and failed to come to the assistance of a fellow student falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Well, despite her qualms, friendship wins out and Ellie comes to St. Roberta’s and takes up temporary residence with three other “old girls.” Ellie’s appointed task is to recover the missing Loverly Cup, a coveted award given each year to winner of the area school’s lacrosse championship match. The situation worsens dramatically when Ms. Chips (now retired) is fatally injured in a fall down the steep steps of the school’s infamous Dribbly Drop. As the story progresses, we meet a number of St. Roberta girls, both old and new, and several faculty members. In the process, Ellie learns that she is not the only one haunted by old stories. The story is multi-layered: stories of old ghosts, haunted lives and secrets of various generations, what happened to the hallowed Lovering Cup, and the tragic loss of Ms. Chips, to list a few. How the author deals with this mixture forms the basis for a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable, and yet thought-provoking book. Ultimately, Ellie (and we) are reminded that life’s lessons do not end with our school days; learning is a lifelong process. Thank you, Dorothy!