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Jill Meyer (United States)
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Murder in Piccadilly: A British Library Crime Classic (British Library Crime Classics Book 2)
Murder in Piccadilly: A British Library Crime Classic (British Library Crime Classics Book 2)
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A mystery reprint..., May 6 2015
"Murder in Piccadilly: A British Library Crime Classic", by Charles Kingston, is a reprint of a mystery, originally published in 1936, by Poisoned Pen Press. The book is set in London, 1936, and the reader has to realise that styles of mystery writing have changed in the intervening 70 years. Not necessarily improved...but changed. This is not "your" mystery, but more likely your grandmother's. Poisoned Pen Press is republishing a series of these mysteries; "Piccadilly" is the second, so far.

"Murder in Piccadilly" is a fun read that is as much a study of mid-1930's society as it is a "who done it". Only one murder occurs, and, though done by a stiletto, is surprisingly bloodless. Much bloodier, in a way, are the conversations among the characters. "Bobbie" Cheldon is a 24 year old man who is waiting for his wealthy uncle to die and leave him his fortune and his estate. Unfortunately, Uncle Massy isn't THAT old, and besides being snobbish, crotchety, and cheap, is likely to live for a while yet. Bobbie is getting tired of waiting for his fortune to be made for him and is unwilling to work for a living. Like many young men without a life's path, he is weak and easily led. And led he is by Nancy Curzon, a 19 year old dancer from Whitechapel. Nancy has appeared in Bobbie's life and is only willing to remain with him if he's rich. Bobbie, who must be the stupidest person in Christendom, is unable or unwilling to see Nancy's true nature. Everyone around him, though, can see it just fine.

Okay, so Uncle Massy must die - and he does - for the book to continue. The Scotland Yard detective, Chief Inspector Wake, begins his investigation by asking that old Latin question - "cui bono" - and his investigation brings him directly to Bobbie, the heir. Wake's sized up Bobbie pretty well and knows that he is to weak minded to actually do the deed, so Wake concentrates on Nancy and other characters in her world. Because, even if Bobbie is the direct heir - 10,000BP a year! - others also stand to benefit. Wake and his men investigate and even find the killer, but then a twist at the ending leaves everything - and everyone - at a bit of a loss. It's a clever book, well told.

The best thing about this book - and I presume the others in the series - is that it is written contemporaneously. Everything we're reading about actually existed at the time. This is what a a slice of London society looked like. As I like reading historical novels - mysteries, included - it was great fun to read "Murder in Piccadilly" and I'm giving it a 5 star review, within its own genre. IF you're not interested in historical fiction, then you might not like "Murder in Piccadilly" as much as I did. (I was given this book by Poisoned Pen Press, in exchange for an HONEST review, which I have given. I am honest about liking the genre, but telling others who may not, not to buy the book. How much more "honest" can I get?)

The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner
The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner
by Giles Waterfield
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 25.13
31 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A fun, gentle satire..., May 3 2015
I recently read a new novel, "The Iron Necklace", by British author Giles Waterfield that I liked so much I went into his back list and found "The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner", originally published in 2004. Set in a high-end museum in London, the "BRIT" is scrambling for a higher rung on the museum-ladder of prestige. The novel, a farce, focuses on one day in the museum, as the staff and trustees are getting ready to open an important new exhibit and host a dinner for 400. The exhibit - "Elegance" - is being staged around a Gainsborough painting, recently purchased by the museum's board chairman. But the painting has a very dodgy provenance, which comes to light the afternoon of the gala.

Giles Waterfield does an excellent job of laying out his plot and introducing his characters. And there are a lot of characters; the book includes a listing of who's who at the beginning of the book and the reader can flip back to refer to the list if confused. Most of the characters are the museum's staff - from Director to gallery minders. Also included are the caterers of the gala-for-400 that, predictably, does not go well at all, and other professionals who are coming together to produce both the party and the gala. But aside from "Elegance" as the new exhibit at the "BRIT", the museum's board is planning for the future. In their quest for more relevance in the London art world, the board is being challenged with a radical idea of "The Nowness of Now", which will turn a seemingly stodgy museum...Avant garde and au courent.

"Hound" is a fun read. It is not really a savage look at the London art world - for that you'll have to read Ruth Dudley Edwards' "Killing the Emperors". Waterfield's book pokes gentle fun at the institutions and the individuals who run them.

Winter: The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899-1945
Winter: The Tragic Story of a Berlin Family 1899-1945
by Len Deighton
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.92
11 used & new from CDN$ 3.05

4.0 out of 5 stars An oldie but a goodie..., April 24 2015
I don't normally review back list books, but British author Len Deighton's novel "Winter" didn't catch my eye or interest til recently. The book was originally published in 1987, though it is set to be re-released in June, 2015. "Winter" is the epic novel of a Berlin family, beginning in 1899 and ending in 1945. The two main characters - around which the plot circles - are Peter and Paul Winter, brothers who seemingly take very different paths in life. But the brothers end the book together and their journeys are actually very similar.

Len Deighton's book can be compared to Herman Wouk's two epic novels - "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance" - in that all three books try to cover a certain period of history and use many characters to do so. Wouk's novels are set in WW2, while Deighton's cover both world wars. Deighton views the period primarily from the German angle, though he does have a few British and American characters.

Peter and Paul Winter are the sons of a German industrialist father and an American mother. Harry Winter, the father, is a rather self-righteous rascal, who plays the stern father in Berlin while maintaining a mistress in Vienna. The girlfriend is sort of common-knowledge in the family though Harry's wife chooses to look the other way. Harry Winter raises his sons to love their country and to fight for it in the Great War. The boys' lives separate after their war years with Paul joining the burgeoning Nazi Party and Peter staying out of national politics. But politics are what the next 20 years is all about and as the Nazis gain power, Paul, trained as a lawyer, becomes one of those silent, faceless men whose knowledge of the law help make the illegal actions of the party and Third Reich...legal.

The Winter brothers are the main characters, but there are many others whose lives and actions touch the Winters'. Most of the characters are well-drawn and there are few caricatures in the bunch. If you're looking for a long, well-written novel about the first half of the 20th century, pick up "Winter". It's very good.

The Invention of Fire: A Novel
The Invention of Fire: A Novel
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers CA
Price: CDN$ 17.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb second novel..., April 23 2015
A good historical novel can teach the reader, as well as entertain. Bruce Holsinger, in "The Invention of Fire" (a sequel to his first novel, "A Burnable Book")takes his readers back to 14th century London during the rule of Richard II. London was a rough and tumble place and the city plays almost as much a part in the book, as do the characters. And what characters Holsinger gives us. Real people - like Geoffrey Chaucer and London Mayor Nicholas Brembre - mix with fictional ones, to fill five or so different plot points. These plots all come together by the end of the book, with some help from poet Chaucer.

John Gower - introduced in "Burnable Book" - is a sort of fix-it man at the edge of the court. He "knows" things and trades information for information. The politics of the court is in a bit of an upheaval; factions going against each other during Richard's weak reign. England's hold of several areas of France causes on-going skirmishes between England and France. And a new weapon - the "handgonne" - is known about, but how exactly to use it? What's it for, in the age of the bow? Eighteen or so bodies are found in the London sewage system and Gower is asked to look into the identity of the victims and how they got there. The bodies have strange wounds on them. What instrument of death has caused these wounds? Who is making these weapons and what do a couple on-the-lam from the authorities have to do with anything?

The book switches from the third person voice to the first person voice of John Gower fairly often. There are many characters but, somehow, the story and the characters make sense in this complicated book. "The Invention of Fire" is not an easy book to read. I do think it's best read by someone with a fairly good knowledge of the period, but for the right reader, it is a true gem of a book.

A Gushing Fountain: A Novel
A Gushing Fountain: A Novel
by Martin Walser
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 21.94
18 used & new from CDN$ 18.59

4.0 out of 5 stars A German coming-of-age story..., April 17 2015
Martin Walser's newly translated-from-the-German novel/memoir, "The Gushing Fountain", is the story of a young boy's early life to late teens. The years basically correspond to the 12 year Third Reich.

Most books set in this era are about warriors and victims, Nazis and those who fought against them, and soldiers and civilians. "Gushing", set in a small town on the southern German border along Lake Constance, is told in a long-running ("gushing"?) voice of the young boy - "Johann", the son of parents who make a living running a restaurant and a coal-serving business. The father, who dies early in the story, is an intellectual, who wants his three sons to succeed in school, and in life. He's a bit of a dreamer; Johann's mother is the practical one in the family. Johann, a typical 11 year old in most of the story, has the same thoughts, dreams, desires, and complications most 11 year olds have, the world over. "A Gushing Fountain", though, is as much about the town of Wasserburg and its citizens, as it is about Johann.

Martin Walser is from the village of Wasserburg. He was born in 1927, and his life seems to parallel that of the Johann in the novel. Like his fellow German author, the late Gunter Grass, Walser fought in the last days of the war. His Wehrmacht rank and his duties are a bit under dispute, but as a late-teenager, he supposedly joined the Nazi Party. He returned to school after the war ended and became an important author.

Now, I suppose my question after reading "A Gushing Fountain" is why Martin Walser made this a novel, rather than a memoir? Certainly he uses the real name of his town, as well as the towns in the area. I'm always curious about why an author chooses to write a "memoir" vs "memoir-as-a-novel". I'm not sure it matters in this case. Walser gives a beautifully rendered look at a town and a family navigating the treacherous years of Nazi Germany.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 13.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It could be a two-way street..., April 1 2015
Meghan Daum has collected the essays of 16 fellow writers for her book, "Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed:Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids". Of the 16 authors, 13 are women and three are men. Most of the writers are straight and several are gay. Some are married, some are single. Many are in late middle-age; the rest younger. But they are all together on their decisions - and these are conscious decisions - not to have children.

Just as there are 16 authors, each has a different reason to be child-free. Most seem to point out that they had bad or indifferent parenting and were afraid they themselves would be bad parents. Others had no maternal feelings; their "biological clocks" had either stopped ticking or had just never started. And some were just plain "selfish"; they enjoyed the benefits of living without the obligation to provide for others and to put the lives of their children first. Oh, yes, they're are selfish.

Okay, but what's the problem with being "selfish"? Or "shallow", or "self-absorbed"? Isn't it "selfish" to think the world can't get along with our genetic lines continuing for at least another generation? And to have children because we'll have "someone to take care of us when we're old" seems more than a mite bit "shallow". The same words that have been tossed at many of these authors can also be turned back onto we who have chosen to have children.

The 16 essays are really short-stories. Each "story" captures a life different enough from the one preceding it and the one following. All, though, seem to begin with their own childhoods and with the relief that for whatever reason, they chose not to have a child.

At first I felt that it was a shame that this book even had to be written. And then I realised that the authors were helping others who had made the same decision or were in the process of deciding that it was "okay" to be "child-free" in today's world. The sixteen all seem very at peace with their lives, which is all you can hope for at the end of your day.

Inspector of the Dead
Inspector of the Dead
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb second novel in the "Opium Eater" series, March 25 2015
A good historical novel can both entertain and teach a reader. Author David Morrell's novel, "Inspector of the Dead" is the second in his "Thomas de Quincey/The Opium Eater" series. The first novel, "Murder as a Fine Art", was published in 2013. Readers of both books will learn a lot about the England in the 1850's. It's advisable to have Wikipedia near-by when reading Morrell's books; they can be learning experiences.

"Inspector of the Dead" follows "Murder as a Fine Art" by about two months. The same main characters from the first book are in the second, supplemented by both fictional and real characters. Thomas de Quincey - that real-life laudanum-saturated writer - along with his daughter, Emily, are still in London, after having solved previous crimes. They're grudgingly "put up" by Lord Palmerston at his house, along with the two Scotland Yard detectives, Ryan and Becker, who had been injured previously. One Sunday in 1855, the four attended services at St James's - the local Mayfair church - and were placed in Lord Palmerston's private pew. They witnessed a terribly bloody murder in the adjacent pew where a woman is found dead, with her throat cut. But Lady Cosgrove's murder is not the only one that day; several people at her home - including her husband - were found grievously murdered.

More murders occur and messages left on the bodies allude to "Young England", a group thought behind some assassination attempts of Queen Victoria in the early 1840's. Is someone trying to assassinate the Queen fifteen years later and what do the cries and pleadings of a young Irish boy trying to find help for his imprisoned mother and his sick father and sister in 1840 have to do with the current murder spree? And this is all against the backdrop of the badly-handled Crimean War and the falling apart of the Liberal government of Lord Aberdeen. In the crisis, Victoria is forced to ask Palmerston - whom she detests - to form a new government, and be on guard for her life.

David Morrell does not write "cozy" mysteries. Death is frequent and is never gentle. Those readers looking for a "pleasant diversion" will be sorely disappointed by "Inspector of the Dead". But readers looking for historical relevancy - in the criminal, political, and personal - and not afraid of a rising body count - will enjoy this book. I don't think its essential to have read "Murder as a Fine Art" first, but I'd suggest you do so. The characters of Thomas de Quincey and Emily are so interesting that having read the first book might be an advantage in reading the second one.

Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist
Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist
Price: CDN$ 9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A 25 year mystery..., March 20 2015
Boston author Stephen Kurkjian's, "Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World's Greatest Art Heist", is a work of non-fiction without an ending. The "ending" would be a joyous reunion of the paintings stolen in 1990 with the museum from which they were stolen. That doesn't seem likely to happen; it's been 25 years since two thieves dressed as police officers, brazenly walked into the Gardner Museum and walked out with a haul of 13 works of art, including a Vermeer and a couple of Rembrandts. Neither the passage of time, a reward of $5 million with few questions asked, or just the good taste to return the paintings and vase to the museum have resulted in their return. When you visit the museum today, the frames on the walls of the stolen paintings stand as mute testimony of their absence.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has operated under rather odd rules since its establishment in 1903 as the place to display Gardner's rather diverse collection of art. Evidently nothing can be changed within the gallery rooms from the original placement of the art by Mrs Gardner. It's a bit of a mish-mash today with different periods of art displayed rather randomly. The couple of times I've visited, I've had to resist the rather strong urge to move paintings around in an attempt to "classify" the periods. Basically, the museum operates under somewhat strange rules. For many years, security of the millions of dollars of fine art was also rather laxly handled. It costs a lot of money to provide modern security and the Gardner was always short of funds. The result of these security lapses was the robbery on March 18, 1990.

According to Stephen Kurkjian, it seems the answer to the robbery and disappearance of the paintings and vase lies with the Boston crime families. Several criminals - most with the names of "Bobby" or "Robert" - have been touted over the years as either the masterminds or the robbers themselves of the heist. Reasons range from lessening the prison sentences of others by "trading" information to actually making money by selling the art. However, any semi-sophisticated art thief knows how difficult it would be to fence the goods. And, in any case, "the goods" have completely disappeared with nary a trace in the last 25 years.

Twenty five years is a long time in the criminal world. Prison terms and death - either natural or not - have taken a toll on the cast of potential players in the crime. Everyone seems to have an idea but nothing has come to light. At this point, the Gardner would love to have the pictures back, with no messy questions asked. Will that happen? Will Stephen Kurkjian have an ending to his book? And will the FBI begin to work with local law enforcement? Keep your ears open...

17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History
17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-Up in History
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 14.99

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Empty lives...and empty promises., March 19 2015
I enjoy Andrew Morton's books - always taking the information he doles out with a grain of salt - and this one, "17 Carnations: The Royals, the Nazis and the Biggest Cover-up in History", was no less gossipy than his others. The problem I have with this book is the title.

The lives of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, were, in the end, sad and empty ones. Most biographies of the couple - whether they are written in a positive or negative light - cannot come to any other conclusion. David and Wallis were interesting often in the terms of how they and their actions affected those around them. Whether in their birth families, Wallis's marriages and David's long-time affairs with married women, or their own courtship and marriage, what those two did sent out ripples into the lives of others. That they were basically thoughtless, self-absorbed individuals who made a thoughtless and self-absorbed couple, never seemed to affect their own actions. And that was the crux of the problems.

Okay, what does Andrew Morton claim was the "Biggest Cover-Up in History"? It was the hiding - by the British government and it's allies - of the Windsor's "dalliance" with the Nazis in the 1930's and 1940's. There were reports by government agents on the couple's associations with both the German Nazis and the home-grown ones in Britain during the 1930's and - more seriously - with Axis powers in Spain and Portugal in the early years of WW2. The Duke and Duchess had visited Germany several times, met Hitler, and were close with Joachim von Ribbentrop, German's ambassador to Britain. In fact, the "17 Carnations" in the book's title, allude to von Ribbentrop's - supposed - gifts to Wallis from the days they were - again supposedly - having an affair. There is no proof that Wallis and von Ribbentrop ever had a physical affair so the title of the book loses a bit of its effectiveness.

Andrew Morton also looks at the big, big claim that the Duke of Windsor was "flirting" with Hitler, in the early war years, pretending to go along with the German idea of putting David back on the throne - the one he had abdicated in 1936 - as a "puppet ruler" if the Germans successfully invaded England. That the Duke and Duchess would allow themselves to stay in Spain, rather than go to Lisbon and safety after leaving their French homes, was - supposedly - considered a possibility by both the British government and the Windsors, themselves. This would have been an act of treason, one of more than a few Churchill and his government considered the Windsors of committing, or thinking of committing. I'm not sure anyone quite understood the Duke of Windsor, who remained embittered his whole life after he abdicated for the "woman he loved". He hated his family for not treating Wallis and him in the respectful manner he wished to be treated. Again, neither of them seemed to have any idea of other people's needs. That his abdication had thrust his shy brother into the kingship he clearly didn't want, was obviously not important to David.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor continued their heedless journey into irrelevance, leaving others to pick up the pieces. Some of those pieces were contained in the secret files sought after the war. Were the files found in homes and castles in Germany? Did they exist in the first place. I truthfully couldn't quite tell from Andrew Morton's book what was the truth. We may never know, I suppose. But the one thing Morton does do in his book is tell the sad, empty life of David and Wallis Windsor.

Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Jewish Lives)
Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel (Jewish Lives)
Price: CDN$ 16.95

5.0 out of 5 stars Mark Rothko..., March 9 2015
Author Annie Cohen-Solal, in her new biography, "Mark Rothko: Toward the Light in the Chapel", asks the provocative question, "Why, when during the previous centuries Jews had generally been absent from the visual arts, did the dawn of abstraction coincide with their entrance into the world of art, with Jewish collectors, critics, artists, dealers detecting, supporting, and following the lessons of the first Modernists?" And she answers it in her book by looking at the life, career, and world of Mark Rothko.

Rothko was at the turning point when American artists began to be valued as much as their European counterparts. He was part of a group of painters - Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, among other contemporaries - whose art transcended the past and moved these artists into the mainstream of accepted art. Their art was finally purchased and exhibited at the MoMA - which had the mindset of "European-art-is-best" - in the 1940's and 1950's.

Cohen-Solal examines Mark Rothko - born Marcus Rothkowitz in 1904 in current-day Latvia - in as much of a religious context as that of an artistic. For Rothko was a Jewish artist, and his religious beliefs and practices were important to his art. Mark Rothko emigrated from the Pale of Settlement in 1907 as conditions for the Jewish population became increasingly tenuous. His family settled in Portland, Oregon where his father died a few years later. Rothko was raised as an observant Jew - though curiously his elder brothers and sister were raised somewhat more haphazardly - and he was active as a teenager in the Russian Jewish neighborhood of Portland. He received a scholarship to Yale - that bastion of WASPness - but left after two years. After finding himself in the 1930's as a budding artist, he moved to New York City, and made his way steadily up the art world ladder into acceptance, and eventually some wealth.

But Mark Rothko was a contrarian, too. He accepted a commission to provide art for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, but pulled out and returned his advance when he visited the restaurant. He disliked the clientele, the menu, the ambiance, and, hell, the WEALTH of the place. Several panels of the art he had made were placed in Houston in the Rothko Chapel, built by the Menil family. His post-war years were his most fruitful but his persona began to change. He separated from his wife and two children in the late 1960's and committed suicide in 1970. His fame and his work have long outlived him.

Annie Cohen-Solal returns, in the end, to the city in Latvia he and his family had left more than 100 years before. His children opened a museum dedicated to Marcus Rothkowitz. He - and his art - had come full circle.

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