Monday, April 30, 2018

The Demon Crown

The Demon Crown is James Rollins' 19th solo novel. While it is a Sigma Force novel, it is a bit unusual because the threat they are fighting against is a prehistoric wasp.

At the conclusion of book 8 in the series, Bloodline, the Sigma Force crew had eradicated Japan's Kage, also known as the Guild, a terrorist group.  However, at least 2 of them survived.  One of them, Seichan, is now working with the Americans and Takashi Ito, has formed a smaller, tougher group whose intent is to replicate a Pearl Harbor attack on Hawaii.  Takashi hopes it will bring an Imperial Japan back to power.

A secondary plot concerns James Smithson, the creator of the Smithsonian Museum.  Upon his death in 1829 in Italy, he was buried with a chest.  He left papers that mentioned a secret artifact that could leash hell upon the earth.  He called it the demon crown and ordered that it be buried with him.  When Smithson's grave was about to be uprooted by a quarry in 1903 Alexander Graham Bell, a Smithsonian Regent, immediately took a group to Italy and brought back Smithson's bones and the chest which contained a vial filled with amber and bones.

Over the early years of U. S. history the Librarian of Congress personally ensured the security of Smithson's personal papers and the chest but in 1944 a robbery took place and they were stolen by Japanese agents.  A few Sigma Force members later wondered whether this robbery was the reason for dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for no one knew if the vial held a weapon.

On May 6 in the present day a swarm of wasps entered the city of Hana on the island of Maui and killed 54 people with their venom but injured a thousand more.  Commander Grayson Pierce and girlfriend Seichan are vacationing in Hawaii when the swarm arrives and instantly react to the event.  The Sigma Force deployment begins.

I was enthralled with the book until the halfway point when I realized how far-fetched the plot was.  It was still thrilling but it was bizarre.  Author James Rollins is a veterinarian by trade and his scientific and historical facts have always been accurate in the past  so I gave him the benefit of the doubt and continued reading.

He added a special touch with the addition of chapters written from the wasps' point of view.  We now know how they think and why they act a certain way.  As a woman I was amused that after the mating ritual the female wasp eats the male wasp.  I thought this addition was quite creative, especially coming from a male author.

The thriller formula was followed exactly.  It began with a killer hunting down a victim, high stakes were maintained for the main character, the action kept moving as complications were heaped on the Sigma Force crew, the clock was ticking toward a deadline that suddenly was shortened and ended with the world restored but the world is a different place.  I like when an author who writes a novel consistently every year does not get bored and change the formula. Many authors have fallen to boredom and written a few poor novels but Rollins has been consistent with the thriller formula.

This may be James Rollins' best book to date.  It certainly was his most creative.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Salt Houses

Salt Houses is Hala Alyan's debut novel and it is terrific. The story follows several generations of the Yacoub family which originated in Jaffa, Israel and were displaced to Nablus, Palestine after Israel was created in 1948.  With the 1967 war they moved to Kuwait City and with each successive war they were displaced to Beirut, Amman, Paris and Boston.

The story opens in 1963 in Nablus, Palestine with the family matriarch Salma preparing coffee leaves to read for her daughter Alia who is about to marry Atef Yacoub. Salma sees in the dregs a drooping roof and houses that will be lost for her daughter and her future grandchildren but doesn't tell her daughter nor the women assembled what she sees.  Instead she says that she sees a baby coming in the first year.

Alia is a modern Arabic woman.  She does not wear a headdress like her sister Widad and her prayer life is fleeting when she is young.  She, Atef and her brother Mustafa are the best of friends and meet daily to smoke, drink and discuss the politics of the day.  Alia remembers a little about her family's life in the port of Jaffa on the Mediterranean Sea before the Israeli's forced them to leave and remembers her father never recovering emotionally from the loss. The family was middle class and did not end up in a refugee camp. They never would.  Their wealth would take care of them.

In 1965 Mustafa's visits to the local mosque change from being social to religious and political as an imam inspired him. However, when the war drums began pounding in 1967 Mustafa wanted to leave Palestine.  Atef called him a coward and off to war they went. In a few days they were in prison.  Atef never told his wife that it was his doing that kept them in Palestine and that Atef gave up Mustafa's name to the Israelis, who promptly killed him. 

After prison Atef moved himself and Alia permanently to Kuwait City to start a new life and a family of their own.  Each chapter focuses on a different family member at a different time in history to give the reader a seven decade history of this family.

Salt Houses is a different type of story about the displacement caused by war.  This family was wealthy and never ended up in a refugee camp. However, every few years they had to uproot themselves, find a house in a new city and somehow make it feel like home.

They placed importance on material possessions because there was nothing else permanent about their lives. Salma read Alia's coffee dregs in her first purchase as a wife in Nablus, a coffee set.  Salma cherished this set because the design pattern reminded her of the set her own mother gave her when she married, the set she had to leave behind in Jaffa.  This is typical behavior for the Palestinian diaspora; a girl receiving a piece of jewelry owned by an ancestor, etc...

I loved this family saga and while the story takes place in the past 70 years it is historical in that it shows the reader what life was/is like for the Palestinians.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

I've Got My Eyes on You

I've Got My Eyes on You is Mary Higgins Clark's 45th novel.  She has also co-authored 9 additional novels with 2 other people. This is a career total of 54 novels, quite the accomplishment.

The story opens with high school senior Kerry Dowling throwing a pool party for her high school graduating friends one night when she is home alone.  Kerry is dating Alan Crowley but was flirting all night with another boy Chris Kobel whom she will be going to Boston College with. She asks her guests to leave at 11 pm so she can clean up before her parents return the next morning.

Her next door neighbor, Jamie Chapman, watches the party from his bedroom window and comes over after he sees a man approach her with a golf club and then sees her entering the swimming pool. Kerry always invited Jamie to swim with her and Jamie does not understand why he was not invited to the party.

When Kerry parents return the next morning with her sister Aline they find her body floating in the pool.  The police are called and begin questioning every teen in attendance at the party in order to determine who her killer is.

The Queen of Suspense wrote another suspenseful novel here.  Each chapter ending pushed you to read the next chapter and the next and so on.  The author's choice of words made this easy reading.  I finished the book in one sitting.

There was some romance involved in the story that I felt was out of place.  Kerry's sister Aline began seeing the police investigator and a fellow teacher her first week back in town.  I cannot imagine any woman being interested in going out to eat with men she does not know right after a family member is killed.  That seemed odd to me. I would expect that a grieving sister would go straight home to her family after a day of work.

Aline was the amateur sleuth of the story, not the police investigator. That surprised me also. I  was expecting this book to be a detective story but the police detective used Aline to locate new information from the students who were in attendance at Kerry's party.  Aline began a new job as a guidance counselor at Kerry's high school the week after she was murdered and used the job to obtain information for the police.  I also thought that was odd, not something a normal person would risk doing.

Even with these anomalies, I've Got My Eyes on You was a great read which was just what I would expect from an author like Mary Higgins Clark.  She did not disappoint.

5 out of 5 stars!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Beyond the Ice Limit

Beyond the Ice Limit is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's 4th Gideon Crew novel and it is a sequel their 2000 book The Ice Limit. It is a stand alone novel so readers do not have to read the first book to understand the plot.

Five years before the events taking place in the book engineer Eli Glinn led a team to southern Chile to retrieve a meteorite.  A combination of a storm, an attack from a rogue ship captain and the strange behavior of the meteorite itself caused the ship to sink, killing most of the people on board.  A working hypothesis was made that the meteorite was a spore for an alien life form.

In the present year, Eli Glinn recruits Gideon Crew to build and detonate a nuclear weapon under the sea in order to kill the alien life form that he is worried might be growing where the meteorite was dropped into the sea. A crew is assembled and board a ship bound for Chile.  Undersea recovery efforts were able to obtain the sunken ship's black boxes and a video of the ship's last moments revealed that as the meteor hit the salty sea water it transformed into a different being.  Further tests showed that while the alien life form was under the sea it also extended 2 miles under the sea bed.  This gave it the potential to threaten the life of the entire planet earth if it wasn't destroyed.

Portions of the story seemed like science fiction with the alien controlling worms that infected the brains of most of the workers on the ship. With the advance of the worms there was a rush to detonate the bomb even though it was not large enough to reach beneath the seabed.

However, this was definitely a thriller.  I was hooked from the first page and could not stop reading until I had finished the book in one sitting.  Each chapter ended with enough suspense to keep me reading.  The scientific rhetoric was minimal so that a layperson such as myself could easily read through the book.

I now feel the need to read The Ice Limit even though I already know how it will end. I am curious about any details of the earlier story that I may have missed.

Highly recommended.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne's Lace is Susan Wittig Albert's 26th China Bayles Mystery and it is a good one.  Time has not lessened the author's ability to create great mysteries for this series year after year. Queen Anne's Lace is obviously the herb featured in the novel as it is the title of the book.  It was used by many women for family planning in times long past, specifically as an herbal contraceptive and abortifacient.  This usage is detailed in a secondary plot that occurred in the 1800s.

The story opens in Pecan Springs, Texas in 1885 with the death of Annie Duncan's husband Douglas in a train accident.  Annie was so distraught that she miscarried their first child, conceived with the help of an herbal tea, later that same day.  They lived at 340 Crockett Street next to another couple, Adam and Delia Hunt.  The two men had been best friends since childhood and Adam began helping Annie with some chores after her husband's death.

In the present day, China Bayles and business associate Ruby find a chest filled with old photos and handmade lace while cleaning out a storeroom in their Crockett Street shop Thyme and Seasons. After Ruby leaves, China is left alone but hears a woman humming.  When Ruby returns she offers an explanation that the air conditioning turned on and sounded like humming. They consult a friend who is an expert on old laces to determine if there is a story behind what they found in the chest. While running the shop China mysteriously finds that her signs are being changed by someone but no one admits to changing them.

The chapters alternate between the 1800s plot and the present day plot where China's adopted daughter has entered two chickens in the county fair. While the story is basically about the 1800s the only real crime in the book occurs at the end of the story at the fair.  This is most unusual for a cozy mystery series based on solving crimes.  However, the 1800s story is so compelling who cares whether there is a crime, unless you want to consider the moral crimes committed here?

I LOVED this book.  The new characters comprising the 1800s plot were interesting, complex and romantic. If you love digging into your genealogical history, you will enjoy China and her friends trying to figure out who the people are in the photographs as well as what the background is on the laces that they found.  As a bobbin lace maker, I appreciated the information on the different types of laces that China's expert gave.  How they fit into the story is for you to find out when you read Queen Anne's Lace. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The White Mirror

The White Mirror is Elsa Hart's second historical mystery featuring Li Du as an amateur sleuth. Li is a former librarian for the Chinese emporer and he is in exile.  The series takes place in 18th century China.

In this installment of the series Li Du has joined a caravan heading north and finds the dead body of an elderly monk on a path leading to a manor where his group is headed for the night. The owner of the manor, Dosa, seems to think that the monk, Dhamo, committed suicide over an obsession with the demonic world as an odd symbol was painted on his chest and an image of a mirror was painted on his face.  Li Du believes that the monk was murdered and that someone painted the symbol and mirror on the monk's wounds after he died from a stab wound in the lower abdomen.

Being stuck at the manor house due to a snow storm, Li Du uses his scholarly skills to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dhamo's death.  Some of the suspicious characters Li is stranded with include a female from Lhasa, a Roman Catholic priest and his Chinese translator, the 4th Chhoshe Lasa, Li's old colleague Hamza and a merchant familiar with the mountainous area surrounding them all.

The pace of the first half of this novel was slow.  Since there was more historical detail than investigation of a crime, I was thinking about calling this book historical fiction, not a historical mystery which it is advertised as being.  However, the pace picked up at the halfway mark when the investigation became primary to the plot.  It did take a long time to get going since the murder happened in the first chapter.

The author's knowledge of the geographic area is apparent as well as her knowledge of the era.  She provides the reader with meticulous details on everything from how to cross the Tibetan mountains both in winter and spring to the regional politics of Tibet and from the spiritual beliefs of the mountain people to Hamza's crazy tales on deducing facts.

The White Mirror was a fun read and I rate it 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Radio Girls

Radio Girls is Sarah-Jane Stratford's first historical novel. It covers the period of time between 1926 and 1932 when the BBC radio station was just beginning.

American Maisie Musgrave lands herself a job in London as a secretary at the BBC.  She is intimidated by her bosses and smart co-workers.  She has difficulty adjusting to the hectic pace of the job but is captivated by this new technology called radio and is thrilled to have this job.  Her insecurities are apparent to her primary supervisor Hilda Matheson who manages the groundbreaking Talks broadcasts where famous people are interviewed for 15 minutes. Everyone expects that Maisie will end up working solely for Hilda as she is doing well assisting with the Talks.

Hilda Matheson was a real person who worked for MI5 during WW1 and received the OBE later in life.  This book seems to be about her contributions to the broadcasting industry and the book has merit for presenting this history.

However, I can't say whether Maisie did or did not end up working for Hilda Matheson because I stopped reading. I have a rule that if a book does not capture my attention within the first 50 pages, I put it down. I gave Radio Girls a 70 page chance but could not get interested in the book.

The writing style was directed toward a British audience.  The dialogue between the characters reflected the slang terminology of the era and some of the words I did not understand. In addition, I did not understand what was meant by a number of sentences.  The way I defined words in some of the sentences could not be what the author intended as the result was nonsensical.

I was disappointed with Radio Girls.  I had high expectations for it based on the back cover blurb as well as other reviews that I read about the book. 

City of Masks

City of Masks is S. D. Sykes' 3rd Somershill Manor Mystery novel.  This novel does not take place in England as the first two books in the series did but rather takes place in Venice in 1358.

The story opens with a Prologue where the main character, Oswald de Lacy, finds the dead body of the grandson of his Venetian host, John Bearpark, an English ex-pat in Venice.  In the next 40 pages not much happens as de Lacy and his mother socialize with their host John Bearpark and his other guests.  Here de Lacy is coerced into nights of drinking and gambling with grandson Enrico and his friends, spending time with boring religious pilgrims Bernard and Margery Jagger, secretly staring at Bearpark's non-speaking young wife Filomena and dealing with the staff at Casa Bearpark. It is after these 40 pages that the body of grandson, Enrico, is found and the story continues with de Lacy being asked to investigate Enrico's death.

The excitement in the book begins with de Lacy's investigation but the author interspersed a few chapters about de Lacy's past from the earlier books in the series. These chapters have no bearing on the plot and I don't know why they were added.  De Lacy gets his first clue from his host who tells him that Enrico sexually preferred men over women. This confused de Lacy as Enrico had tried to get him to go to brothels with him. However, he trusts his gut and begins the investigation with the home's security guard who was not on duty the night of the murder and has since disappeared.

The author displayed her knowledge of medieval Venice in this novel. She portrayed the history of Venice at a time when it was at war with Hungary and how it affected commerce as well as everyday life for Venetians. The political powerhouses of the day were also depicted in realistic terms with their ability to put to death homosexuals upon only hearing an accusation, deciding which families could use the best ships for transport of goods as well as people, and deciding what crimes were worthy of investigation.

I feel that the setting should have stayed in England. This installment of the series was not as exciting as the earlier two, Plague Land and The Butcher Bird.  De Lacy's sleuthing skills were hampered by being in a foreign country.  He not only was unfamiliar with the physical layout of Venice but he did not understand the culture of the city and its people.  Part of what made his sleuthing skills superior in his homeland was his understanding of how his own people's minds worked.  Also, it is difficult to view this as a Somershill Manor mystery when the events taking place are not at Somershill Manor.

I would rate this book 3 stars of of 5.