Friday, June 22, 2012

Ministers of Fire

Ministers of Fire Mark Harril Saunders

Afghanistan went sour in 1979. Burling saw the ambassador get assassinated and then hatched his plan to bring in the Chinese to arm the Mujahedin. But he had to take April, his operative's wife, and on that meeting on the runway near the Russian border, she was taken. The aftermath saw his career ended and his family life shattered.

Summer, 2002. A Chinese dissident has escaped house arrest and is being smuggled to the US by a group of underground Christians and intellectuals. April's husband, Lindstrom, is brought out of a sober retirement to get him out. The head of State Security, General Zu, was on the runway when April was taken. He's on the dissident's trail. Burling, who is now the consul in Shanghai is only vaguely aware of what's going on, even though Lindstrom thinks he orchestrated the entire thing. Lindstrom's contact is Charlotte, a cultural attache and Burling's current girlfriend, who reminds everyone of April. Everyone's connected and the past is coming to haunt them, but no one knows who is pulling what strings or why.

There are plenty of car chases and gun battles on the streets of Shanghai, but this is actually a character piece of slow tension. We see into the minds of many characters on all sides and various free agents. All of them are flawed and striving towards their future, or running from their past, or both. There are true believers-- in communism, in God, in doing what is right, and jaded cynics. There are secrets and lies and people who can't make sense of the post-9/11 landscape. They doubt each other, they doubt themselves, as they try to understand the situation and who's in charge.

I loved the character development and exploration. I especially enjoyed the look at the toll the life these characters lead take on their families. Burling's kids don't talk to him, resentful of the constant moving around the world, of the way their parents' marriage dissolved. I'm guessing that many of these issues are taken from Saunders's own life, as he grew up the son of a diplomat.

I loved the look into the lives and minds of the Chinese Security police, how they still grappled with the legacy of Tiananmen.

It's more of a LeCarre slow burn than a Fleming action romp, and it keeps you madly guessing and turning pages until the end.

AND! IF YOU LIVE IN DC! Saunders is doing a free event at the Spy Museum on Friday, June 29 at noon.

Book Provided by... the Spy Museum for review consideration and event promotion.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Maisie Dobbs

Maisie Dobbs Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs is a private detective who uses her knowledge of human emotion and body language to help her solve her cases. She used to be the assistant and protege of the greatest in the field. He's retired and Maisie's trying to take up the mantle, which is hard when you're a woman in inter-war London.

Maisie's first case is simple enough--a man knows his wife is gone for long stretches during the day when he's at work. He worries that she's cheating on him and wants Maisie to find out what's going on. Maisie solves the case easily enough but it leads her to something deeper. The Retreat seems harmless enough--originally it was a place where men with horrible facial wounds from the war could live together and away from the stares and comments of the general public. Eventually it opened up to any WWI vet who had visible or invisible wounds from the war that made them want to get away. But something about the Retreat seems a bit off to Maisie, and so she finds a way to discover more about it.

Throughout the mystery we get Maisie's back story-- her years in service, her time at University, her apprenticeship with Maurice, her own services in the war as a nurse and the wounds she carries from that.

Oh my, how I loved it!

Regulars know I'm a sucker for anything WWI related. I also love that it really looked into the after effects of the war, especially dealing with the horrible facial wounds and scarring.

I loved how it wove Maisie's back story in with the mystery.

I loved the side characters, especially Priscilla. How can you not love a character that gives us the following line? Dear God, give me a drink that bites back and good tale of love and lust any day of the week.

Most of all, I loved Maisie herself, and how she went from a working class girl to where she is now, how she struggled with her new place in society and the effects it had on her and those around her. I also loved her struggle with her own memories and experiences of the war and how much baggage she is still carrying around.

Her way of solving the case reminded me a bit of Poirot. (Thinking things through a lot.) It reads like a cozy, but the issues it brings up are much deeper and more serious than the cozies I'm used to reading.

Luckily for me, it's a series, and I'm looking forward to reading the rest.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Last Princess

The Last Princess Galaxy Craze

First there were the Seventeen Days-- 17 days of hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. So much ash was spewed into the air they rarely see the sun anymore.

Eliza's mother, the queen, was poisoned while Eliza watched. Her unborn little brother was quickly born, but is forever ill because of the poison. Food and water and fuel are scarce.

As the book opens, Eliza, her older sister Mary, and brother are returning to London after spending a carefree summer at Balmoral. Before she leaves, Eliza's best friend warns her about what the adults have been keeping from them all summer-- there's a brutal rebel group that's gaining ground and territory and its leader is the same man who assassinated the queen. Once they return, the palace is overrun by rebels, the king is shot (again in front of Eliza) Mary and Jamie are captured and the palace is burned to the ground.

Eliza swears revenge for her family and knows the only way to get to the leader is by joining the rebel forces. She walks straight into the enemy camp but hiding her true identity is harder than she thought...

Fun action adventure, light romance, and a destroyed London. I want to know more of the politics of the rebel group and also why the King had that much power-- much more than any modern king has held. The twist about the romantic interest was easy to spot, but I didn't mind. I liked how that story played out. The end was a bit tidy, but ah well. I don't have a lot to say about it. Eliza was pretty awesome. A few of her moves were a bit beyond belief, but they were so awesome I DON'T CARE. It was a very fun read and am very much looking forward to the sequel.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Close to Famous

Close to Famous Joan Bauer

Foster and her Mama left Memphis in the middle of the night, on the run from a boyfriend gone bad. They end up in Culpepper, WV, where they find a town dominated by the new prison--a prison that was supposed to give the town jobs and revililization, but didn't.

All Foster wants to do is bake, and have her own cooking show. When life gets rough, she just pretends she's on camera and narrates her cooking, practicing for her big break.

Meanwhile, there's a recluse movie star who sees Foster's hidden shame (she can't read), a budding documentary filmaker (who doesn't have a camera), a church that needs saving, and a robotic tarantula.

We have a small town full of quirky characters and a plucky girl who's new to town and saves the day and really, just a lot of tropes and themes that usually make me roll by eyes, BUT NOT THIS TIME. Foster's voice and determination to bake got me right from the start. I LOVE when she pretends she's on camera-- she's got it down perfectly and obviously uses it to work out her thoughts in a very fun way. They way Bauer draws side characters gives them a little more depth (and humor) than average. I especially loved the dynamic between the prison and the town--it's a fascinating issue and one that Bauer handles well and except for one scene, the prison isn't a scary presence. I liked how she explored how the town deals with the promised prosperity that failed to materialize.

I had to read this one for a training and wasn't expecting to love it as much as I do.

One note-- this was Schneider Family Book Award winner. The Schneider Family award "honor an author or illustrator for a book that embodies an artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences." I assume it won because Foster can't read. The only problem is, that assumes Foster can't read because of a learning disability. WHY Foster can't read is never really discussed and a disability is only 1 possible explanation. (I mean, Doug Swieteck can't read either, but that's just because he never had good instruction, not because of a learning disability.) That's not to detract from the book at ALL, mostly a committee process thing that I'm curious about.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Underworld Meg Cabot

Picking up *right* where Abandon left off.

Pierce realizes that she does actually love John. She gets to know a bit more about the world that is the underworld. But, she has visions of horrible things happening on Earth, especially to her cousin Alex. Of course, when she and John barge in to save Alex, they have to deal with the aftermath of their exit at the end of the first book.

We learn lots more about the Underworld and how it works, also about John's back story. (Mutiny!) And about what Uncle Chris went to jail for and the back story there. (Turns out the Rectors have been a bit smarmy for generations!)

I love Pierce, although I wish she would let people finish a sentence once in a while (John, too). It might get them in a bit less trouble. But, once again, cliffhanger ending.

It's a page turner with some truly excellent new characters (Team Mr. Liu!)

It's going to be a trilogy. The first one follows so close to the second that I felt a bit out of place as I tried to remember minor details. I have a feeling that all three books will read more like one long book than three separate books that build a unifying arc. Frankly, my advice is wait until next spring when the third one comes out and then read them all at once. It'll make the intervening months that much easier to handle.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Midnight in Peking

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China Paul French

It's taken me a few days for me to say anything about this book besides "I just... wow. I mean, it's just, Beijing and... wow. I mean... wow." And that goes for the rather explosive content and also the way French can spin out a story. (I mean, wow.)

In early January, 1937, the night of Russian Christmas, Pamela Werner was murdered. Horrifically. Her body was found the next morning outside the supposedly haunted Fox Tower in Beijing.* She lived with her father in the Tartar city, just outside the Foreign Legation, so the investigation is under the control of the Chinese police. But she's a British subject, the daughter of a former British Consul, and this isn't an average robbery gone wrong. To get around the British legation promoting an envoy to the case that they would control, the Chinese police appoint a detective from Tianjin, where Pamela went to boarding school. DCI Dennis was former Scotland Yard and wasn't under the legation's control. His hands were tied by the British as to what he could and couldn't do, but he wouldn't get in the way of the investigation.

But the British want to save face and hinder things at every turn. The Consul in Beijing has a personal dislike of Werner's father. National and personal politics play large. The White Russians who run the Badlands, the strip of seedy dive bars, opium dens, and brothels between the Legation Quarter and the Tartar city, aren't talking. In Tianjin, Pamela was a quiet school girl. In Beijing, she had several boyfriends and liked to party. Meanwhile, the Japanese are surrounding the city and getting ever closer. Everyone's fleeing-- either the investigation or the threat of war.

The murder remains unsolved, and the case technically open, but no one working on it. Pamela's father starts his own investigation and gathers his own evidence and reaches his own conclusions about who murdered his daughter. The Japanese get involved. Then they're not. Different personal and national politics at play, but they still have a major role in the investigation. Pamela's father has a compelling case to make against his main suspect (one that French agrees with) but the Consul and London are ignoring his pleas and evidence. Personal politics make it easy to write him off. The war makes it easy for his files and notes to get shoved in a drawer and lost (until French found them in an uncataloged file at The British National Archive in Kew.)

Was it the KMT? The Japanese? A jealous boyfriend? Was it a message to someone else? Or something far more sinister? (Answer: far far far more sinister.)

Secret nudist colonies, stateless prostitutes, political assassinations, and cocktail hours spent at smoky back tables gathering gossip, rumor, clues and evidence, Shura**... and a world on the brink of war. Basically, but John LeCarre and Eileen Chang in a blender and make the result a true story, and you get Midnight in Peking.

French has a gift for spinning out the suspense and tension. He deftly explains the back-history and the politics, making it understandable so the reader can get a sense of the all the factions at play, but without letting it get in the way of the story he's trying to tell. It's a powerful, gripping read.

I will warn you it's not for the faint of heart. Pamela's murder is truly horrific. Both the state of her body and the conclusions Werner reaches are beyond any Law & Order episode.

The end papers of a beautifully illustrated map of Old Peking, BUT they don't function as the most useful map. This book really needs a good map to help the reader get his or her head around the geography of everything.

It's a fascinating and distressing look at the last days of colonial Beijing. It's a page-turning murder mystery. And I mean... wow. Just... wow.

*Beijing = Peking. They are pronounced exactly the same. Throughout the book, French uses the old Wade-Giles system of Transliteration. Tianjin reverts back to Tientsin. I assume it's because it's more historically accurate. The Pinyin Romanization standard was invented by the communists over a decade after the events in this book. It also adds to that colonial old-world feel that pervades the drawing rooms and hotel bars where the action takes place. However, as someone whose mind works in Pinyin, this took a bit getting used to. Although, if you want to be super-technical about it, at the time this book takes place the city's name had been changed to Beiping/ Pei-p'ing because jing means capital and in 1928, Chaing Kai-Shek had moved the capital back in Nanjing (Nan means south, Bei means north) so Beijing was no longer the capital and so its name changed (back) to Beiping (ping means plain. The city had been named Beiping at the beginning of the Ming dynasty, when the Ming capital was at Nanjing. Before then, it had a few different names.) Until 1949 when Mao moved the capital back to Beijing and changed the name back. Interestingly, Nanjing never changes its name when it's not the capital. Thus endeth my supreme nerdiness.

**Shura was a half-Chinese, half-Russian of indeterminate sex who passed as man or woman, European or Chinese, depending on Shura's mood. Shura was a wine dealer, cabaret star, and a jewel thief. After the Bolsheviks murdered Shura's Tsarist official parents, Shura walked across Siberia and Mongolia to get to China. You know, AS YOU DO. Shura is a minor character, who greatly helps Werner's investigation, but I'm currently mildly obsessed.

Book Provided by... my local library

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Friday, June 01, 2012

In defense of Chick Lit/ Highland Fling

Several female authors that I greatly respect (Maureen Johnson and Jennifer Weiner to name a few names) are very much against the "chick lit" label. When men write about love and romance and marriage and the drudgery of an entry-level position, it's LITERATURE. But when women do it, it gets a pink cover and is easily dismissed as "chick lit."

And they have a point. Especially because it seems that a lot of women's fiction (by which I mean written by women and having a woman as a main character) gets labeled "chick lit" and dismissed.

But "chick lit" used to mean something, and something that I think is useful. The same way that we use steampunk, high fantasy, cozy mystery, or bodice-ripper historical romance, chick lit used to mean something very specific. It was a term coined to mean a rather formulaic romance that featured the following

1. A modern setting, usually in a large city (usually New York or London)
2. A female protagonist who is late 20s/early 30s and single. She has a job, usually entry-level or administrative support, often in media/publishing
3. A current boyfriend or crush who is all wrong for her
4. Another guy that she doesn't like, but will end up being her one true love
5. Sexy times, but mostly off-page
6. A little bit of adult language
7. A lot of heart and humor
8. Overall a light, "fluffy" mood and tone.

Many people look at Bridget Jones's Diary as starting this genre. (Although this one is a bit smarter than many of the others I've read (and enjoyed) as Fielding seems to have some of Austen's gift of observation of society's foibles.)

Which is my way of saying, when I say "chick lit" (and we probably need a better term than that) I'm talking about something very specific. It's a genre that I do enjoy. Which brings us to today's review...

Highland Fling Katie Fforde

Jenny Porter is self-employed as a virtual assistant, determined to never have a boss again, after the dot-com she worked for went bust, with managers making out like bandits but the workers didn't get severance, or even their last pay check for hours they had already worked. One of her clients wants her to check out a failing woolens mill in the Scottish highlands.

Jenny can immediately see the mill is in dire straits, but after meeting the workers and the family that owns it, she's determined to find a way to save it, not wanting the workers there to go what she went through. Of course, this is all complicated by Ross Grant, a tourist who keeps showing up at the worst times and makes her go weak at the knees-- when she's not throwing cups of coffee at his knees. And then her boyfriend Henry shows up, determined to undo everything she's been trying to do.

I didn't like this one nearly as much as I wanted to. I liked Ross, the "tourist" who is OF COURSE Jenny's mystery client. But the problem was with Jenny and Henry. I could never figure out why Jenny was with Henry. Their relationship is on the rocks at the beginning of the book, but there's no sense of why she ever started dating him. Supposedly he's hot, but there's never chemistry or anything. Which brings us to Jenny. Jenny's really really really nice. And that's all I can really say about her. She's just really really really nice. There's not a lot else going on besides being really really really nice.

The supporting characters are all crazy characters (because all small towns are filled with crazy characters) but they were very enjoyable and are what made me finish reading the book.

Overall though, instead of rooting for the romantic ending I knew was coming, my reaction was "oh, finally" and not in that happy FINALLY! way I felt at the end of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (you know what I'm talking about.)

Ah well.

Book Provided by... my local library

Links to Amazon are an affiliate link. You can help support Biblio File by purchasing any item (not just the one linked to!) through these links. Read my full disclosure statement.