Saturday, June 18, 2016

Review of Ferdinand von Schirach's The Girl Who Wasn't There

The Girl Who Wasn't There, by Ferdinand von Schirach (Abacus, June 7, 2016)

The thing about Ferdinand von Schirach is that nobody writes the way he does. His style is cool, distant and spare, but it creeps up on you, and suddenly it's immediate and searing.

I really didn't know where I was with this book when I started it. For nearly half the pages, it's the story of Sebastian von Eschbach, from boyhood to about age 50. He grows up on an estate, with his distant parents. He is deeply affected by a hunting experience with his father. He seems to have senses not shared by other people, including a perception of color so overwhelming he finds it almost unbearable. He becomes a celebrated photographic artist, exclusively sepia and black-and-white, then branching out into inventive multi-dimensional and video art exhibitions.

Though I didn't know where that first half of the book was going, I was still engrossed. Sebastian is an emotionally distant enigma, but one I wanted to solve.

German television dramatization of a story from
von Schirach's Crime
Then the book suddenly changes pace and direction when Sebastian is accused of murdering a young woman. Now the novel becomes the story of his defense attorney, Biegler, and Sebastian's trial. As with von Schirach's last novel, The Collini Case (see review here), the defense attorney must do his own investigation, because his client is largely uncooperative and seems indifferent to his fate.

Biegler's investigation and the trial make for a gripping exploration of the difference between perception and reality, the fallacies of what we believe and why. It makes some hard-hitting points about this in the context of modern-day geopolitics as well. It won't be a book for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, be prepared for the compulsion to read it all in one sitting.

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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Patricia Wentworth: More Than Miss Silver

I don't read all that many cozy mysteries, but I have a soft spot for Patricia Wentworth's Miss Silver series. Miss Silver is a retired teacher who may be sitting in a corner, knitting, when visitors come to call on a country house.

The visitors are told Miss Silver is an old family friend or relative, and they assume that the family is providing a little bit of comfort and company for an old lady living in genteel poverty. Little do they suspect that Miss Silver is unobtrusively gathering information that will reveal a blackmailer or even a killer.

I read the whole Miss Silver series (32 books!) back in the 1970s, when they
were already decades old and Patricia Wentworth had been dead for well over a decade. In the last couple of years, I've enjoyed revisiting some of them in audiobook versions, perfectly performed by Diana Bishop.

What I didn't realize is that Patricia Wentworth wrote many other mystery books outside the Miss Silver series; a couple of dozen standalones and three short series. Luckily for us, in addition to the Miss Silvers, Open Road Integrated Media is reissuing the other books in ePub and Kindle ebook formats. Here are the series titles:

The Ernest Lamb series

The Blind Side

When the handsome but evil Ross Craddock is found killed with his own gun, there is a wealth of suspects who had the motive to kill.  The London Metropolitan Police department's Inspector Ernest Lamb, and young Detective Frank Abbott have their work cut out for them.

Who Pays the Piper

Lucas Dale is determined to break up the engagement of Susan Lenox and Bill Carrick, so that he can have Susan for himself. A spot of blackmail seems to have done the trick, until Dale is found murdered. Lamb and Abbott suspect Carrick, but soon find that there are quite a few others who wished Dale dead.

Pursuit of a Parcel

Lamb and Abbott become enmeshed in a deadly game of World War II espionage, with agents and double agents, mysterious parcels and a beautiful young woman in danger.

The Benbow Smith series

Fool Errant

A mysterious woman warns Hugo Ross not to take a job with an eccentric inventor, but Hugo needs the money. Soon he finds himself embroiled in a world of espionage and danger, and calls on Benbow Smith of the Foreign Office for help.

Danger Calling

Benbow Smith recruits Lindsay Trevor, a former British intelligence agent, to rejoin the clandestine services to help catch a master criminal.

Walk With Care

Benbow Smith becomes involved in an investigation to uncover the forces working to eliminate voices in favor of disarmament.

Down Under

When bride-to-be Anne Carew disappears, her desperate fiancé, Captain Oliver Loddon, contacts Benbow Smith. Smith believes this is just the latest of a series of abductions over the past few years by one man, but the police disagree. Loddon will risk his own life to save Anne.

Frank Garrett series

Dead or Alive

On the very day Meg O'Hara asks her Irish spy husband, Robin, for a divorce, he disappears. Time passes and he's presumed dead, but then Meg receives a message suggesting otherwise. Frank Garrett of the British Foreign Office investigates, along with Bill Coverdale, who has been in love with Meg for years.

Rolling Stone

While Frank Garrett investigates a series of thefts of valuable artworks, his nephew goes undercover to penetrate an international gang of dangerous thieves.

There are too many other Wentworth mysteries to list here, even when you exclude the Miss Silvers. But if you want to see which ones are now available from Open Road, just head here.

If you enjoy romance novels, Wentworth started out as a romance writer and Open Road has a couple of those as well: A Marriage Under the Terror, set during the French Revolution, and A Fire Within, which hints at the Miss Silver to come.

Note: Open Road Integrated Media provided me with review e-copies of Fool Errant, Dead or Alive and The Blind Side.

Images source:

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Review of Judith Flanders's A Bed of Scorpions

A Bed of Scorpions, by Judith Flanders (Minotaur Books, March 1, 2016)

Samantha “Sam” Clair is an editor at a small London book publisher. The constants in Sam’s life are her colleagues, her powerful solicitor mother, Helen, her fatherly upstairs neighbor, Mr. Rudiger, and now her boyfriend, Jake, a homicide detective with London’s Metropolitan Police. If you want to know how Sam came to be in a romance with a police detective, read the first book in the series, A Murder of Magpies.

All seems well in Sam’s life this London summer. The weather is fine, her relationship with Jake has reached the almost-living-together stage, and the only fly in the ointment is the concern at the office that their company might be sold. That is, until Sam has lunch with an old friend, Aidan. Aidan, an art gallery owner, is distraught over his business partner’s having just been found shot.

Is it suicide, murder? No surprise, Jake is assigned to investigate and, of course, questions arise about whether this could have something to do with the gallery and Aidan. Since Aidan isn’t just an old friend of Sam's, he’s a former boyfriend, things quickly become awkward with Jake. Is it her desire to help Aidan that makes Sam start asking questions, or is it her crime fiction addiction that compels her? For whatever reason, she’s soon knee-deep in her own investigation.

Sam is an entertaining character. She’s the opposite of her super-confident, supremely groomed, socially connected powerhouse of a mother. Sam is a klutz, her wardrobe is marginal, she likes to lounge around at home, reading and going to bed early. She’s an amusingly snarky observer of her own foibles and everyone else’s.

Read the book
Though this is a cozy mystery, that doesn’t mean it’s just a bit of fluff. The plot is engrossing, with clever twists and turns, and details about the inside workings of art dealerships and publishers that are informative and add unique features to the story. And I can’t tell you anything about the climax except that it’s both inventive and hair-raising.

It’s not absolutely necessary to read the first book in the series before this one, but it’s a good idea if you can.

Image sources:,, Wikipedia.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence

I should start by saying that Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, March 29, 2016) is the 11th book in the standout Bernie Gunther series and, if you’re not familiar with the series, you should start with March Violets, the book that introduces us to Bernie as a private investigator in 1936 Berlin. Philip Kerr hasn’t written the series in chronological order––in fact, some of the later books in the series are set several years before that first one––but your reading experience will be so much richer if you start with the first books. For the rest of this review, I’ll assume the reader is familiar with the series.

This is another one of Kerr’s dual-narrative novels, which he’s done a few times with Bernie. It starts in 1956, with Bernie working as a hotel concierge on the French Riviera. Because of his World War II misadventures as a reluctant aide to some big-time Nazi war criminals, he’s living under the false name Walter Wolf. The other narrative, which takes up only a couple of chapters, flashes back to 1945 Königsberg, East Prussia, when Bernie was in the German army, falling in love with a young radio operator while the Russian army encircled the city.

In 1956, Bernie’s life is uneventful, taken up with his job, playing bridge, and drinking away the time. That is, until he is invited to play bridge with the famous author Somerset Maugham, who lives in an opulent villa on the coast. Maugham, who had been a longtime agent for the British secret service (I didn’t know that, did you?), asks Bernie to help him deal with a blackmailer named Heinz Hebel. Bernie recognizes Hebel as Henning, a particularly despicable character whom Bernie had the displeasure of dealing with more than once, including in 1945 Königsberg.

Maugham called the French Riviera
"A sunny place for shady people"
Once this blackmail plot gets going, and you don’t have long to wait, it becomes a dizzyingly complex but thrilling game of Cold War espionage, betrayal, vengeance and revenge. And, as Bernie explains, there is a critical difference between vengeance and revenge.

The last Bernie book, The Lady From Zagreb, also has a plot that has one storyline about Bernie’s war experiences and another that is more espionage oriented. I liked that book, but I thought the espionage element was the much stronger storyline in that book. In this new book, the espionage plot is a far bigger part of the story. The flashback story is excellent, but it informs the bigger plot and blends well, which was not so much the case with The Lady From Zagreb. For me, this was a more successfully coordinated story, and it’s a particularly entertaining one if you know your Cold War espionage history.

Hey, Mr. Kerr, quit gazing soulfully
at the camera andvwrite faster!
My one criticism of this book concerns the romance element. As usual, Bernie has a romantic entanglement. This time around, it didn’t feel emotionally convincing. In fact, at the start, Kerr doesn't make it seem like Bernie even finds this woman attractive. But that’s a relatively minor problem, not enough to be of real concern. And that minor failing is more than made up for by the intricate plot and its clever denouement. I’m already impatient for Kerr’s promised 12th Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, coming in 2017.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of the book from the publisher, via Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review of Lyndsay Faye's Jane Steele

Years ago, I went through a period when I read tons of Victorian novels. There were times they drove me crazy, when the young female lead endured endless abuse from all quarters and then was finally saved by some guy, often one who hadn’t previously been particularly nice to her himself.

I know it was the Victorian era, when women had very little power, but I couldn’t help wanting to shake these women and tell them to stand up for themselves. Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele (G. P. Putnam's Sons, March 22, 2016) is like wish fulfillment for me. Jane Steele is a version of Jane Eyre, but with 21st-century updates, like overt female sexuality, anger and vengeance.

When I first heard about this book, what I heard was that it was a satire of Victorian novels in which Jane Eyre is a serial killer. Really? I wondered if it would just be a spoof or some kind of mashup. Or maybe a dark twist on the original. It turns out to be more and better than any of those things. It’s fun and sometimes very funny to see the new spirit Faye breathes into her Jane Eyre-ish character. But it’s also elegantly written, in a style true to the era, just infused with a bit more modern sensibility and wry wit.

Jane Steele’s story doesn’t track Jane Eyre’s either. Sure, there are lots of parallels, but this novel has its own plot. And what a plot! It ranges from the danger and squalor of London’s streets, to a country house filled with secrets, to the exoticism and intrigue of the Punjab. There are deadly feuds, false identities, hidden treasures and even romance. It’s packed with action, atmosphere and emotion and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are even possibilities left for a sequel. In the meantime, I'm thinking I need to go back and read some of Lyndsay Faye's earlier titles, like her Timothy Wilde series, set in 19th-century New York, which has three titles: The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret and The Fatal Flame.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of Jane Steele from the publisher, through Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites, under my usernames there.

Image sources:, quotesgramcom.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review of Natasha Solomons's The Song of Hartgrove Hall

I have a confession to make. Natasha Solomons's The Song of Hartgrove Hall (Plume, 2015) isn't a mystery. So why am I reviewing it here? One reason is that it was one of my favorite reads of 2015 and I don't think it's received the attention it deserves. Also, because I think it might appeal to fans of Downton Abbey. I know that many of you are big fans of Downton Abbey and may be ready to go into withdrawal as it comes to a close. The Song of Hartgrove Hall, the story of the residents of a big English country house, could help you through your initial withdrawal pains. So, you're welcome!

Harry Fox-Talbot is the youngest of three young brothers from Hartgrove Hall, a grand but crumbling country house in the beautiful Dorset countryside once painted by Constable. His story is told in alternating time periods. The early part begins in 1946, as the brothers return from World War II and come home for the first time in seven years. The late part runs from 2000 to 2003.

The full life of a musician and his love for his wife, Edie, are told in the 50+ years of the story. When we begin, it’s 2000 and Edie has died, leaving Harry bereft. (Quirkily, Harry is called “Fox” by even his brothers, who are also Fox-Talbots, of course.) Solomons describes Fox’s feelings so well: “. . . the bric-a-brac moments that make up a shared life. The grand events . . . shine a little brighter, but they are only a tiny proportion of one’s life together; a handful of stars in the night’s sky. It was the mundane, frankly dull things I missed the most. I missed not talking to her over breakfast. We’d ignored one another over toast and morning coffee with great pleasure for nearly fifty years.”

Constable's Dedham Lock and Mill
Then Solomons steps back to 1946 and weaves her tale of Harry meeting and falling in love with Edie, a songstress and his dashing brother Jack’s girl. The years go by, filled with their history and that of Fox’s hunting down folk music and turning the songs into symphonic themes. And always, Hartgrove Hall is there, a perfectly beautiful exterior that is, underneath, full of age, damage––and poor heating.

The three-year story after Edie’s death tells of how Fox makes a surprising connection with his four-year-old grandson, when they discover together that the boy has a gift for the piano. This nudges Fox back into life and contacts with his family and his old colleagues, with all the bittersweetness of memory and regret.

Natasha Solomons
Natasha Solomons has produced another novel that manages to be intelligent and heartfelt, without any sloppy sentimentality. She writes so beautifully that she can make the description of a frigid and windy Russia appealing, even as I sit here on a cold day. The atmosphere and feelings evoked by the story will stay with me, and I know I will read this again.

The publicity for the novel notes that it’s from the author of the bestseller The House at Tyneford. I can see why the publisher would do that, since that’s Solomons’s most successful book, but I really don’t think this is much like the Tyneford novel. To me, it’s much closer to my favorite Solomons novel, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, another love letter to England and Englishness, with all the flaws and oddities.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of The Song of Hartgrove Hall from the publisher, through Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites, under my usernames there.

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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Review of John Lawton's The Unfortunate Englishman

The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton (Atlantic Monthly Press, March 1, 2016)

At the center of Lawton’s stylish new espionage thriller is that classic set-piece of the Cold War espionage novel, the exchange of imprisoned spies on a bridge between East and West Berlin. But it’s the story of how the characters got there, physically and emotionally, that propels the story.

Protagonist Joe Wilderness (born John Wilfrid Holderness) is an agent for MI-6, given the task in 1965 of arranging to swap KGB deep-cover agent Bernard Alleyn for a hapless English businessman caught adding a little spying to his business trips to the USSR. We learn how Alleyn lived a thoroughly conventional English life for 20 years before being nabbed by British intelligence. On the other side, Geoffrey Masefield, a metallurgist, is betrayed by his own romantic notions of spydom and the incompetent ambitions of his British handler.

But the story that matters most is Wilderness’s. This novel begins in 1963, just where its predecessor, Then We Take Berlin (reviewed here) left off, with Joe being in a heck of a predicament as a result of an East/West smuggling operation gone spectacularly awry during JFK’s famous visit to Berlin that summer. We jump around between there and 1961, as well as 1965 and even all the way back to 1946, when Joe was an army sergeant, black marketeer and British intelligence agent in the chaos, romance and ethical soup that was Berlin after the World War II shooting war stopped and the Cold War was in its infancy. Coming back to Berlin in the 1960s isn’t easy for Joe; it brings back bittersweet memories and forces him to deal with some of his old black market contacts.

Joe Wilderness is one of my favorite espionage thriller characters. Born into East End poverty, trained in thievery by his burglar grandfather, talent-spotted after being drafted into the army at the end of World War II and educated in the languages, history and politics you’d want any Cold Warrior to know, Joe is as smart, conflicted and cynical as any Raymond Chandler character. In his world, moral ambiguity is the norm and he doesn’t waste his time putting his faith in any person or ideal. Still, he has a heart, even if he opens it up only occasionally and reluctantly.

Another strong point of the novel is John Lawton’s evocation of time, place and atmosphere. It’s hard to find a more fascinating time and place than Cold War Berlin, but Lawton still uses his narrative skills to transform history into gripping fiction. His description of barbed wire going up right through the middle of Berlin in 1961 had me gripping the book so hard my hand cramped, even though I know the history well. Lawton is a master at weaving the historical facts into the threads of his fictional story and bringing both to vivid life.

I’ve been debating whether I’d say that it’s necessary to read the first Joe Wilderness novel, Then We Take Berlin, before reading The Unfortunate Englishman. It’s definitely not absolutely necessary, and I’d hate for anybody to miss out on this book, but I have to recommend reading Then We Take Berlin first. That’s where you get Joe’s full and extremely colorful background, which adds extra richness to the plot of The Unfortunate Englishman.

If you like the Joe Wilderness books, Lawton also has a terrific series featuring Metropolitan Police detective Frederick Troy. The series begins with Black Out: An Inspector Troy Thriller and its titles are set during World War II and various times thereafter, through the 1960s.

Note: The publisher provided a free advance reviewing copy of The Unfortunate Englishman. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

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