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Reviews Written by
Billy J. Hobbs "Bill Hobbs" (Tyler, TX USA)

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Steps to the Gallows (The Bow Street Rivals)
Steps to the Gallows (The Bow Street Rivals)
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Marston continues with an excellent series!, April 28 2016
Edward Marston has a plethora of historical mysteries series going on, series which span a wide stretch of British history—and all worth reading. In one of his latest series (he has at least three going on at the same time), Marston continues with his Bow Street Runners episodes in "Steps to the Gallows." Set in the 19th century, the Runners eventually, history shows us, evolves into modern day Scotland Yard. But this evolution takes time and in the early stages of public detectives, things indeed get rough, crude, clumsy, and someone dead wrong. Forensic pathology had not yet been invented (by Patricia Cornwell, some say!).

But our twin brother detectives, Peter and Paul Skillen (saintly they’re not) are determined. A local newspaper (we’d call them “tabloids” today) with nary a thought about ethics, it seems, plays big here. The editor, who captains the paper with fierce details of political and sexual scandals (and damn the collateral damage) is killed and his newspaper’s printing press destroyed.

Though they are not Bow Street Runners but actually competitors as private detectives, Peter and Paul (our Invisible Detectives) are hired to find—and to bring to justice—the person or persons responsible. The owner wants the paper back in publication (scandals sell papers!).

And, indeed, our brothers tackle the job with their usual fervor, facing grave danger as they are hard pressed to find the killer and, lo and behold, they also find a world of scandal and corruption going on (we could have told them so, for things aren’t much different a century or so later!).

Still, though, Marston’s series is worth the effort—and this reader particularly found this installment interesting, especially owing to its journalistic angles

Jane Steele
Jane Steele
by Lyndsay Faye
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 30.18
33 used & new from CDN$ 17.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Jane steals the show!, April 28 2016
This review is from: Jane Steele (Hardcover)
It’s a dark and stormy setting, a story filled with the difficulties of being a female who holds no title or prospects in London in the 1800s. "Jane Steele" is a darkly intense historical novel by Lyndsay Faye that is openly fashioned after Charlotte Brontë’s classic, "Jane Eyre," written in a manner befitting the mid-1800s.

Whether or not you like "Jane Eyre" (and there are legions of fans who do), it's hard not to be pulled in by Jane Steele's narrative voice. Her mother dies, leaving her orphaned and at the mercy of her constantly-disapproving aunt, who later sends her to a strict, miserable boarding school. (Remember this is Victorian lit and how intense melodrama was most fashionable!).

But that's not before she commits her first murder.

The novel follows Jane Steele, an orphan whose life mirrors that of her favorite literary heroine, Jane Eyre. Their paths diverge at this one fine point, however: Jane Steele is a serial killer. She uses her wit, nerves, and slight sociopathy to kill abusive men, all the while wondering what would Jane Eyre think? Jane’s childhood struggles are interesting and they set into motion a series of events that would change her future, providing a solid background for the adult portion of her story. The book is broken into three parts with a complex storyline fully displaying all the characteristics of the Victorian novel.

A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim boarding school until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law (while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged!), Jane thrills discovers an advertisement: her aunt has died and Highgate House, her childhood home, has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess.

Jane takes the position incognito as she’s burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir. She soon learns that the house is full of strange new residents—the fascinating, irrascible army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars (Mr. Thornfield) and his Sikh butler (whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend--and, of course, we want to know!). As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: will she be able to possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past? Faye's dear readers certainly wonder!

Amazingly, Lyndsay Faye makes this a satirical romance about identity, guilt, goodness, and the nature of lies in a clever and absorbing book—but with a huge twist—it has a lot more blood, murder, and vengeance that the delicate Miss Brontë could ever imagine! (But Brontë purists, beware!) Kudos, though, to author Faye for giving us yet another glimpse of a real literary treasure.

And Happy 200th birthday to you, Miss Brontë !

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 24.75
24 used & new from CDN$ 24.75

4.0 out of 5 stars Sittenfeld's 'Eligible' brings back Jane Austen!, April 27 2016
Without a doubt, the “lord/lady of Jane Austen’s manor (of novels) is certainly Pride and Prejudice and Hollywood and TV have made suitable adaptations of Austen’s works, each giving us another interpretation. So many, in fact, that one wonders: why another one?

Curtis Sittenfeld has picked up the gauntlet with "Eligible" and this reader finds it a most interesting “go” in providing a 21st century venue for early 19th century situations. In her "re-telling" of "Pride and Prejudice," Ms Sittenfeld doesn’t hesitate to let her readers know just what century this is. Humans have never been short on either pride or prejudice, so there is always plenty of both to go around, whatever century we may be in, at whatever location.

The Bennets now, as then, are an upper middle class family who find themselves under considerable economic strains. Mr. Bennet’s health issues have kicked up a notch so the daughters are all back together again to lend support, a few having actual lives elsewhere. The less than wonderful mother hen is eager to see that her five daughters marry well. (Nothing has changed in two centuries!)

The ages of the players have changed a bit. The lovely Jane, delight of all, is nearing 40. If she was zen in the 1800s, she is even more so now, as a yoga instructor. Liz, the heart of the tale, is not far behind, age-wise. She is now a magazine writer in New York. Thirty-year-old Mary stands off, as she did in her earlier incarnation. The younger sorts, Kitty and Lydia, are presented as giddy twenty-somethings now instead of giddy teens. And Lydia’s sexual “adventurousness” stands out now as it did in the original (but more straight forward). And our Wickham, Jasper Wick, can be relied on to be of less than sterling character (from burning the candle at both ends).

Instead of a lord of a manor, the contemporary tall, dark, and condescending Fitzwilliam Darcy is presented as a sort of ideal man, physically sculpted, disgustingly well-off, and professionally accomplished. But he’s a pretty decent guy--good to the help, an excellent listener, a brilliant doctor, and, for 21st century readers, quite educable, about affaires de cœur or as Miss Austen might have put it, “private practice after dark.”

And so it is no accident that Sittenfeld’s “version” of the original 19th century novel opens with society looking at marriage as a game. Finding a suitable life partner remains a kind of contest, with competitors, prizes, winners and losers, hopefully some fun, and plenty of intermittent challenges.

"Eligible" does an excellent job of weaving in various social issues (racism, homophobia, technology, the somehow still-present stigma of an unmarried woman in her 30s/40s...) with romantic comedy threads here and there to brighten up Austen a bit. Austen purists might look askance to this “interpretation,” however—or as Victorian fans might say, “Jane is spinning in her grave.”

That aside, "Eligible" is a most interesting “take,” thus said without pride nor prejudice!

The Summer Before the War: A Novel
The Summer Before the War: A Novel
Offered by Random House Canada, Incorp.
Price: CDN$ 15.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simonson moves 'Summer' into the fall..., April 27 2016
It is not the summer of ‘42 or even the “summer of the sonne of York,” but it is East Sussex, England, the end of summer in 1914. It is also "The Summer before the War" by Helen Simonson, a novel set in the small costal town of Rye, idyllic that it is. The spectre of World War I, of course, looms over the entire continent.

And what a summer—beautiful, easy-going—with fantastic weather, although many assume that the recent sabre rattling in the Balkans will never amount to anything.

Beatrice Nash arrives at the home of Agatha Kent as, shock of shocks, the new Latin teacher (it’s unheard of that a woman should teach Latin!). Clearly, she is a “woman like no other”—besides teaching Latin she rides a bicycle, and makes no bones about peddling it all over town! Plus, she arrives with several crates of books—she’s a free-thinker and 1914 England simply isn’t ready for such a revolutionary.

Then add a clutch of Agatha’s eccentric nephews, who are there for the summer, and this quickly develops into a romantic interest between Beatrice (who has decided not to marry) and Hugh Grange, one of the nephews, a 24-year-old surgeon, who had earlier planned to propose to another woman.

So, already, this summer, a few days before those famous “guns of August” start deafening our ears, is beginning to experience “liberal change,” more out of necessity than choice. Agatha’s husband John works in the Foreign Office and she is confident that all is well on God’s green earth. Despite Agatha's reassurances, as we know, the unimaginable is coming.

In addition to the inevitable, the book makes an effort to explore the social milieu of the time quite well. With gentle satire (and irony) Simonson captures society’s reaction to divorce, women’s rights, upward movility for all, homosexuality, and pregnancy outside of marriage (even in cases of rape) as we get to know the Kents, their nephews, and Beatrice quite well. We see how the politics and society are deeply entangled in the way the town functions and decisions are made, Simonson having the benefit of a hundred years, of course, to elaborate. In 2016, we look back upon those societal restrictions and are aghast.

Soon the limits of progress, and the old ways, will be tested as this small town and its inhabitants go to war. Future plans have to be discarded as, first, Belgium refugees begin arriving (and are compassionately taken in by residents of Rye). Second, the townspeople begin to see their young men going to war—and feel the pain of seeing the injured or honoring the dead as Simonson astutely makes the dramatic shift from pre-war to wartime, clearly and effectively. The thought of war, itself, is a major character, as the characters themselves realize that, more than ever, who and what are important to them.

“This is PG Wodehouse and Mapp And Lucia territory, sending up hypocrisy and snobbery with a cast of indulged nephews and even an eccentric Aunt Agatha, a stock character of early 20th-century comic novels.” wrote London’s Daily Express. Even with the light humor, the book’s tone of impending war dominates in a book well worth the read—and a tribute to that tragic time.

The Waters of Eternal Youth (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery)
The Waters of Eternal Youth (Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery)
Price: CDN$ 16.38

5.0 out of 5 stars Leon's latest is most excellent!, April 9 2016
As a devoted Donna Leon fan, I am always pleased to get the new Brunetti mystery, and in her latest, "The Waters of Eternal Youth," I am not disappointed! Nor will her legions of fans!

In Ms Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti series, the Venetian inspector has been called on to investigate many things, from shocking to petty crimes. But in this, the 25th novel in this celebrated series, Brunetti finds himself drawn into a case that may not be a case at all. Or so it seems.

Fifteen years ago, a teenage girl fell into a canal late at night. Unable to swim, she goes under and starts to drown, only surviving thanks to a nearby man, an alcoholic, who heard her splashes and pulled her out. Alas, though, not before she suffers irreparable brain damage that left her in a state of permanent childhood, unable to learn or mature. The drunk man claimed he saw her thrown into the canal by another man, but the following day he couldn't remember a thing.

Now, at a fundraising dinner for a local charity, a wealthy and aristocratic patroness (the girl's grandmother) asks Brunetti if he will investigate. Brunetti's not sure what to do. If a crime was committed, it would surely have passed the statute of limitations. But out of a mixture of curiosity, pity, and a willingness to fulfill the wishes of a guilt-wracked older woman, who happens to be his mother-in-law's best friend, he agrees.

In true Donna Leon style, Brunetti soon finds himself unable to let the case rest, if indeed there is a case. Awash in the rhythms and concerns of contemporary Venetian life, from historical preservation, to housing, to new waves of African migrants, and the haunting story of a woman trapped in a damaged perpetual childhood (and she’s good at opening up socially significant and valid, issues), The Waters of Eternal Youth is yet another exciting addition to this series. Leon’s style of writing moves quickly and adeptly toward its conclusion, and, as uusual, not what one might expect. She keeps the readers on their toes.

After 24 previous Brunetti episodes, this one does not seem to have lost any of the charm, the excitement, the intellectual process that Leon’s books have previously presented. The cleverness of the author’s multitude of literary and musical allusions is also one of her unique writing traits—just reading her is an adventure.

About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
About Face: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery
by Donna Leon
Edition: Hardcover
34 used & new from CDN$ 0.11

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Leon triumphs in her latest Brunetti thriller, April 14 2009
It's number 18 for Donna Leon's exciting Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery series and Ms Leon latest, "About Face," is just as entrancing, captivating, absorbing, and, yes, even mesmerizing as the previous 17.

Not one to be shy about addresses pertinent, socially significant issues, Leon, through Brunetti, has long cited the discrepancies in Italian society, especially in Venice, a city in which she lives and, in her words, loves. This affection is clearly shown in her works, of course, but she does fire both barrels at her targets.

In "About Face," Brunetti meets the quintessential Italian beauty at a dinner party at his father-in-law's, who, because of her knowledge of Cicero and Ovid, intrigues Brunetti. A striking beauty, Franca Marinello, is married to a much older wealthy Italian businessman and is the epitome of wifely success. Ah, as Shakespeare says, "that's the rub." Later, she visits Brunetti at his office, seeking help, quite concerned about her husband and a possible kidnapping. As it turns out, there's more than meets the eye. That's one of the thread lines Leon presents. In another, Brunetti meets an officer of the Carabinieri who comes to him concerning the murder of a man who has been helping the police in their pursuit of illegal transport and organized crime (explicitly linked). Brunetti picks up on this as fighting corruption is always on his priority list. Alas, of course, Leon's murder mysteries can't be accomplished without more murders and so the story goes.

Local color aside, of course, it is always a pleasure to read the interactions and interplay among Brunetti's police staff, his family, and local gentry. What would he do without his loyal Inspector Vianello, the brilliant and beautiful Signorina Elettra, and, of course, the essence of his life, his wife Paola and his children Raffi and Chiari, and his parents-in-law. In "About Face," the reader is not disappointed.
Revenge is also an ingredient here.

And in the case of Franca, Leon writes:
"She shot him. She shot him in the stomach once and then again, and when he was lying on the floor at her feet, she took a step towards him and shot him in the face. Her dress was pale grey and long; the first two shots stained the silk...and the third one sprinkled red droplets just above the hem."

Leon's terse fast-paced style of writing carries all her Brunetti books, but perhaps her greatest draw is her ability to present her characters, especially Brunetti and his wife, is such a mesmerizing, most sensitive manner. Brunetti the incorruptible and Paola ever the champion of injustice, especially toward the downtrodden, and inveterate fan of Henry James, make Leon's books--all of them--so well worth the time; reading each one, when one begins to explore the depths of these characters and to recognize the relevant, socially significant issues. Despite the accompanying violence in her police procedurals, Leon makes reading the real pleasure it should be.

As an aside, one of the mysteries of Donna Leon's mysteries is how she is able to be so critical of the Italian social, economic, and political systems that they haven't run her out on a rail, so to speak. (She did say in London last year that her books aren't translated into Italian!) Regardless of her criticisms, she clearly shows she loves Venice and while zeroing in on police activities, her picture of The Eternal City is one of love. Tough love, but love, nevertheless.

Edition: Hardcover
7 used & new from CDN$ 0.09

5.0 out of 5 stars Brother Athelstan's back in the pulpit!, July 16 2004
This review is from: THE HOUSE OF SHADOWS (Hardcover)
It's quite good news to find yet another episode of the "sorrowful mysteries of Brother Athelstan"--he's been gone far too long for my taste! Now, Paul Doherty, prolific as he is, has returned to this series, my favorite of all of them.
In "The House of Shadows," we find the good brother all involved with his parish and their annual mystery play for Christmas.
In past episodes we've shared not only his sorrows but his triumphs and joys, and most importantly his sleuthing skills. He loves a murder--to solve. And, once again,
he has not only one murder, but a series of them. What's a simple friar to do? Well, for starters, to solve them. And with his usual finesse and brilliance, he does.
Refreshing, too, is Doherty's depiction of Athelstan's Southwark, where, in addition to being the parish priest, he is secretarius, friend, and super sleuth to the Crown's
coroner Sir John Cranston. We are treated, too, to his beloved St. Erconwald's parish, with his cat Bonaventure, his horse Philomel, and the wide assortment of parishioners, all more than human! But this is also what endears his legions of fans
to him. England simply wouldn't be the same without the Good Brother!
Doherty has provided us another good read; let's hope he now has picked up this series for more episodes! (

Carnival of Saints
Carnival of Saints
by George A. Herman
Edition: Hardcover
29 used & new from CDN$ 2.15

5.0 out of 5 stars An A plus for George Herman!, July 5 2004
This review is from: Carnival of Saints (Hardcover)
George Herman certainly deserves credit for not only writing a spirited, often hilarious, tale set in early 16th century Italy, but for taking, literally, the Literary Bull by the Horns and presenting a delightful, mesmerizing story with equally mesmerizing characters.
"Carnival of Saints" shows Herman's influence of some real masters, notably Boccaccio and Chaucer. This is no "tale told by an idiot," to borrow Shakespeare, but it's a story of some original misfits, nine altogether, who are on a Grand Journey, metaphorically speaking, to right a few wrongs, as it were. While Herman's story does not take the form of "The Decameron" or "The Canterbury Tales," it certainly includes the bawdiness, the ribaldry, even the "lessons" these earlier masterpieces so clearly demonstrated.
These "misfits" early on recognize the fact that united they stand, devided they don't, and so with good fortunate, skill, and the Good Lord's blessings, their odyssey takes in the entire scope of Renaissance Italy, pulling no punches as some of the social, religious, and economic disorders of the time. Herman's wit clearly abounds and while readers wil find themselves caught up in the plot development the author's humor keeps everything in perspective. Well, almost.
These nine travelers, who represent a cross section of Italian society of the time, much as Chaucer did with his characters,
are ofttimes quite bumbling and seem their own worst enemies, yet the "goodness" of their souls always wins out. This is a delightful read, and readers who aren't overly familiar (or fond of) Boccaccio or Chaucer will still find the historical setting
and atmosphere worth the time. Herman has a number of well-received like books that also deserve a read! (

The Ten Thousand: A Novel of Ancient Greece
The Ten Thousand: A Novel of Ancient Greece
by Michael Curtis Ford
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
28 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A lesson of Greece!, June 9 2004
Michael Curtis Ford's credentials seem quite sound, and certainly he has provided us with an epic-length and epic-like novel of sixth century Greece.
Told by Theo, Xenophon's squire cum friend, this story certainly comes packed for wear. Xeonphon has enlisted with the armies of Cyrus in Persia, having been among those Athenians disenfranchised by city leaders following her losses to Sparta. Cyrus is embattled in a civil war trying to capture the Persian crown which he feels belongs to him.
The book is not about Cyrus, though, and early on Cyrus is killed in one of the many battles of this campaign and eventually young Xenophon is left to lead the Greek mercenaries. His job, following Cyrus' botched attempt, is to get his troops back to Greece. This is really the story.
But getting his troops home is not an easy task. The story becomes one obstacle after another, usually in the form of enemy troops and Mother Nature (crossing the mountains in winter, for example). And, of course, scattered throughout are the examples of treachery, deceit, and a lot of mayhem.
While Xenophon is only gone for one year, Ford makes this novel seem longer than Moses in the desert (in which he foundered for 40 years!). Thankfully, Xenophon's tale is much shorter, although the book at times seems even longer.
Students of Greek history should find this an intriguing story, much of it based upon research done by Ford. Certainly, the author has made these historical characters come to life. He has also made the times and events quite realistic. It is worth the time to read! (...)

Painting in the Dark
Painting in the Dark
by Russell James
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 43.17
14 used & new from CDN$ 3.42

4.0 out of 5 stars James paints an interesting read!, June 9 2004
This review is from: Painting in the Dark (Hardcover)
"Painting in the Dark," a very dark (a Roman noir) murder mystery about two aristocratic sisters who had been Nazi sympathizers and friends of the "high Nazi echelons," including you know who, during his rise to power. At least, this is the core of the plot.
Russell James has written a very intriguing mystery in which evil truly does become personified. This riviting story line usitlizes more threads that Clothos could contrive, but while it may bounce back and forth from one character to another, from one time period to another, it still contains a cohesion that is not difficult to admire.
For readers who have trouble reading stories of people who are truly evil, perhaps this one should not be undertaken. James' evil and demented characters puts him on a par with Patricia Highsmith. The P.D. James, Martha Grimes, Donna Leon, Ruth Rendell police prodecurals feature super detective superintendents and each exhhibits murderers par excellence, still they don't seem to espouse this evilness in the characters that Russell James does here. This is not to say that his characters and plot are not of excellent worth: they are. James has presented us with some very, very bad characters; in fact, not any of the characters in the whole book have more "good" characteristics than they have "bad" ones. An interesting turn for a novelist to post. And, certainly, his characters are none whom I would want to meet even in a brightly lit alley! In addition, through the two sisters, James presents "the other side" of the Nazis without the book being a political statement.
It is very well written and has a few really clever and witty passages and references-affording some necessary comic relief in such a depressing tale. The cleverness of the pun in the title serves as an example of this. (...)

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