IMG_0083When I requested this book from NetGalley, I vaguely thought it would somehow be about Jack the Ripper. What I found, though, was an intricate, unique, if somewhat wordy story revolving around William Pinkerton of the American Pinkerton Detectives and Swell Mob Prince Adam Foole. Pinkerton and Foole collide over the death of Charlotte Reckitt, one of them hunting her and one loving her. What begins as a seemingly simple story takes many twists and turns throughout to an ending that leaves room for a sequel.

Pinkerton has traveled to London to find Charlotte Reckitt, who he thinks has information about the mysterious Edward Shade, a man who apparently obsessed Pinkerton’s late father. Just as Pinkerton closes in on Reckitt, she jumps off a bridge. Days later, her mutilated body, minus its legs, shows up in pieces. At the same time, Foole returns to London from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Charlotte asking for his help. Despite her betrayal of him years before, he responds.

The story begins to get all twisty once Foole and Pinkerton have the same goal – find out who murdered Charlotte Reckitt. Betrayal, deceit, and loyalty all drive the major passions of this story, which neatly ties up all the loose ends around Charlotte Reckitt, Adam Foole, William Pinkerton, and Edward Shade. For now.

Price does a fine job of drawing compelling characters, and his story is fresh. I was reminded of Caleb Carr’s classic The Alienist a few times while reading this one. Pinkerton, while totally driven to catch the bad guys, is also smart and has a sensitive side. Foole, the slick con man, also has a conscience and loves deeply. The secondary characters, Molly and Fludd, are appealing for their devotion and loyalty to Foole. I want to read more stories about all of these characters! My only quibble with this was the length. As I was reading an Advanced Reading Copy, I expect there is room for some editing. My issue here, though, was only my impatience to get on with the story because it was so good. I do suggest that the reader keep a dictionary of 19th century slang handy, because there’s lots of it here.

By Gaslight is a fine entry into the 19th century crime fiction class, and Pinkerton & Foole have the potential to become a Holmes and Moriarty should the author choose to write more about them. I hope he does. Highly recommended.

IMG_0082Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series has been one of my go-to’s for years, both for my own reading and for recommending to others.

Until, however, the 11th entry.

A Dangerous Place completely put me off the series because of the horrifying (and, in my opinion, unnecessary) tragedy our heroine experienced right at the beginning. I can’t remember being so shocked at a twist in a series. So, I put Maisie away for awhile.

Then In This Grave Hour was published this year, and I thought I’d get reacquainted with the series. I found an older and wiser Maisie, to be sure, but also a woman who has experienced tremendous grief and is only just recovering some semblance of “normal” life. She has returned to London and restarted her detective agency with the ever trustworthy Billy. She has the means to live comfortably, and she does, even if alone and lonely. Then, England goes to war with Germany, which changes everything…and nothing.

Finding the mysterious Francesca Thomas in her garden late one afternoon, Maisie is once again plunged into a mystery. Thomas, a secretive and powerful attache with the Belgian Embassy, asks Maisie to investigate the death of a former Belgian refugee who was found executed outside his place of work. While Maisie takes the job, she knows that Thomas has not been entirely truthful with her. As Maisie delves deeper into the investigation, she uncovers a web of deceit stretching back to the First War. This part of the story seemed incidental to the bigger story of Maisie herself. The plot here was a little muddied and not terribly compelling. The real story here is Maisie.

While the Thomas investigation gives us the professional side of Maisie Dobbs, the declaration of war reveals the unsteady and somewhat raw personal side. Maisie must cope with the possibility of her beloved “nephews,” the offspring of best pal Priscilla, going off to war and never coming home. She is also drawn back to Surrey, where her father, stepmother, and mother-in-law are coping with children from London being resettled to the country. Maisie is particularly taken with a small girl who doesn’t speak and doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. Though both father and stepmother warn her not to get too attached to the child, Maisie can’t help herself.

In This Grave Hour is a watershed moment for Maisie. She has restored her career, she appears to have made as much peace as possible with her losses from A Dangerous Place, she is tentatively reconnecting with an old male friend, and I am predicting that the introduction of Anna, the displaced child, foreshadows a shift from Maisie the Student to Maisie the Teacher. She is slowly stepping into Maurice’s shoes (for those of you who haven’t read Maisie, Maurice was her mentor), bringing the series full circle. Winspear has won me back, and I am once again eagerly anticipating the next entry in the Maisie Dobbs series. Highly recommended.

IMG_1317I am enrolled in this intense, mind-expanding online course called altMBA. It starts at the end of April and is produced by author Seth Godin. I am anticipating a life-changing experience, or at least a month of utter craziness.

I received a big box of course materials two weeks ago and dove right in to reading all the books. I started with this one because, you know, PLAY! I had high expectations that were immediately dashed as I realized that this is, at its heart, a philosophical treatise. A six month stint with Aristotle in the early 90’s caused me to hate philosophy with the heat of a thousand suns. However, because this book is part of the altMBA course, I kept at it and, truthfully, found some really interesting nuggets that made me underline, write notes, and really think.

Until I got the the chapter on genius. Dude, I could not even get past the first page of that chapter. I even tried reading while listening to one of those “Deep Focus” playlists from Spotify. No go.

Maybe I’m just too old for this kind of philosophy. It was cool in college to sit around and debate the great philosophers. Now, I just find them all pretentious bull-shitters who lived their lives ambiguously. Make a decision. Take a side. Get shit done.

I think I read enough to grasp the concept Godin wanted to convey for the course. We’ll see.

gatherI have written before of my love for Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa books. I swear, I become more enamored with Cloud County and the Tufa with every entry in this series. Bledsoe’s latest, Gather Her Round, does not disappoint. My favorite characters are back – Bliss Overbay, Bronwyn Hyatt Chess, and Mandalay Harris – plus some new folks who show great promise. In this instance, Bledsoe begins with a horrific accident when Kera Rogers is attacked and killed by a wild pig. Kera’s death reveals a love triangle that becomes deadly when one boy who loved her finds out she was seeing his best friend. Soon after, the scorned lover becomes responsible for the death of his friend, also killed by a wild pig, which sets in motion a deadly hunt and plenty of human emotion.

Bledsoe has created a remarkable world within a world in Cloud County, and keeps adding fascinating characters. I am so intrigued by how Mandalay’s story is unfolding and am eagerly awaiting how Bledsoe will resolve the tension between her and Junior Damo. Two new characters who I hope to see in future stories are Janet, the musical prodigy, and Flick, Junior’s dangerous protector. If you haven’t read the Tufa stories, don’t start with this one. Go get The Hum and the Shiver and start from there. You’ll thank me!

IMG_1310It seems like there’s been a proliferation of novels in recent years that feature women who masqueraded as men so they could fight in a war. Some are better than others, and I will mark Neverhome by Laird Hunt as one of the better efforts.

We first encounter Ash Thompson as a green recruit training to engage in action during the Civil War. Hunt elects not to dwell on the methods Ash uses to disguise herself, and instead focuses on Ash’s personality and strength. We come to see early on that Ash is not a typical 19th century woman, and we learn why as the story progresses. Indeed, Ash and her husband really have, in many ways, flipped their roles…but it works.

Ash distinguishes herself early on in battle, and in sharpshooting. She also earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” when she gives up her own coat to cover the nakedness of a woman cheering on the regiment as it passes by. As the story progresses, though, we come to understand that Ash is not a saint, but despite all the horrible things that happen to her, she remains steadfast and true to herself.

Hunt’s writing is evocative and skillful, and his character development is spot on. His ability to tell this story of the “woman in disguise” and make it interesting, readable, and, ultimately, heart-wrenching places him at the top of his field. An author who can take me all the way through a book and lull me into thinking I know how it’s going to end, then punch me in the gut and tell me I was wrong is an author I will watch. Laird Hunt is one of those authors. Recommended.

IMG_1299A dream turned inside out. That was California.” Helen Rice, the protagonist in Anita Mishook’s masterful debut novel, Helen, certainly finds truth in this statement. We first meet Helen as she travels from New York to California to join her older sister and her family in lovely Glendale, California. The sisters, Polish Jews orphaned jointly by the Great War and influenza, survived great hardship and made it to New York, where Sarah labored to ensure Helen acquired the best education possible. Now an adult, Helen finds herself drifting and decides to join Sarah, her husband Harry, and their two children in the land of golden opportunity.

However, Helen soon learns that sunny California has a dark and dirty underbelly which includes gangers, corrupt cops, and Nazis. Helen, passing as a “Good German Girl,” becomes the darling of a dangerous group of Nazi supporters known as the Silver Shirts. At the same time, Helen’s friend from New York, a spy for the Anti Defamation League, arrives and immediately enlists Helen as a spy. Helen, by default, begins to live a dangerous double life, culminating in foiling a Nazi plot and triggering a new life as a double agent.

Mishook, a psychologist, developed Helen’s story out of research into her own family history. She uncovered evidence of the emergence of an American Nazi Party in California in the 1930s as she researched her mother-in-law’s immigration from Poland to California, and spun that family history into a readable, informative novel. There are wonderful and disturbing nuggets of historical information here about the motion picture industry and American Nazis, much of which I never knew. Mishook’s writing is smooth and conversational, and she handles dialog well, especially given this is her first novel. The character development is skillful, resulting in some very well-drawn personas. Helen, for example, walks a fine line between irritating, charming, shallow, and badass. She’s a rather vain, unformed young woman who has drifted through her life pretty much guided by her older sister. We watch her move from uncertain girl still depending on older sister Sarah to tell her what to do, to a more confident, daring young woman who has a purpose.

Other characters like Harry and Ralph are interesting, while Joe and Winona could have used a bit more development. However, these characters all fit their roles just fine and contributed what was needed to the story. If I have one quibble with this story, it’s a small one. Sometimes authors really, really like a descriptive phrase and tend to repeat it multiple times throughout a book. That happened here, with the author repeatedly describing Helen as “chewing the soft interior of her cheek/lip” during moments of uncertainty. By the end of the book, the inside of Helen’s mouth should have been a bloody pulp if she chewed her cheek so much! But, that is a minor quibble with an otherwise wonderful book. I hope Mishook continues to produce novels and am looking forward to her next one! Recommended.

dragonwatchFablehaven fans, rejoice! Kendra and Seth are back and as badass as ever!

Dragonwatch opens with a mysterious early morning meeting between Grandpa Sorensen and a shady, cloaked being, where Grandpa is warned of a coming disaster. Kendra, out for her morning run, over hears some of the conversation and realizes that she and Seth will likely be called upon to do battle again. This time, however, more will be asked of the two than ever before. Can they handle the responsibility?

As with the earlier Fablehaven books, Mull creates a vivid landscape filled with all sorts of glorious and deadly creatures. At center stage in Dragonwatch are, of course, DRAGONS! Celebrant the Just takes his places among Dragons of Literature here, right up there with Smaug, Orm, and Saphira. Mull moves the story along at a rapid pace, and successfully keeps Kendra and Seth pretty normal kids who just happen to have mystical powers. The dialog is breezy and colloquial, which will appeal to readers and keep them going. The story arc begun here leaves so much room for more entries in this series that fans will be thrilled and left eagerly awaiting the next. Well done, Mr. Mull. Well done.