Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

Protagonist: Adam Strickland
Setting: Tuscany, 1958
Rating: 4.7

Young art scholar Adam Strickland is sent to Italy by his thesis adviser to study a Renaissance garden built by a Florentine banker in memory of his wife, who died in 1548 under mysterious circumstances. The garden, filled with statues, a temple and grotto, is indeed interesting as art. But it becomes even more interesting when Adam hits upon the key to deciphering it: Dante’s The Divine Comedy – the nine-tiered garden is modeled on the nine circles of hell. Following the clues, he suspects that the banker, Federico Docci, may have killed his own wife, Flora, for having an affair. But this is not the only mystery.

At the Villa Docci estate, Adam begins to suspect that one of Signora Docci’s sons may have murdered his brother. Although the family has always said that Emilio Docci was killed by German occupiers at the end of World War II, the stories don’t add up. The third floor of the house, where Emilio was killed, has been locked since the murder. Eventually, Adam unravels this mystery, as well, although we get a little twist at the end.

Also recommended: Mill’s first book Amagansett, a mystery set on Long Island just after WWII.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Protagonists: Mariam and Laila
Setting: Kabul
Rating: 4.3

This, the second book by Hosseini, follows the fate of two Afghan women. First, we meet Mariam, who is married off after her mother dies. Her father, who has legitimate wives and children, refuses to take in Mariam, daughter of a house maid. Mariam has an unhappy, abusive marriage after she continually gets pregnant, only to miscarry and then suffer beatings by husband Rasheed. We meet Laila, a teenage girl, in Part 2. Her childhood friend and lover, Tariq, begs Laila to marry him and leave Kabul with him and his family as violence escalates. But Laila stays with her parents. Shortly after, a rocket hits their home, killing both parents. Laila is taken in by neighbors Mariam and Rasheed. Yet for Rasheed, it is not an act of kindness; he wants her for his second wife. When she’s told that Tariq and his parents have died in a bombing, Laila, pregnant with Tariq’s child, finds herself with no choice but to marry Rasheed. This book tells the bleak story of women in Afghanistan – from being forced to wear burqas to not being able to leave the house without a man. The book’s bleakness does not abate until the end.

Hosseini’s first book was the huge bestseller The Kite Runner, which focused on the relationship between sons and father, and on atonement. Both books have their camps – those who think one book is better than the other. Personally, I prefer The Kite Runner, although Splendid Suns is still a strong book with a powerful message.

Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon

Protagonist: Commissario Guido Brunetti
Setting: Venice
Rating: 4.2
This is only the second in the Brunetti series (now at 18 books), but Leon was already writing terrific police procedurals early on. In this one, Brunetti investigates the drowning of a young American soldier from the nearby base of Vicenza. Although his superior wants the case wrapped up soon – as a mugging gone wrong – Brunetti keeps at it, uncovering a conspiracy involving the dumping of toxic waste. He’s pulled from the case to investigate an art heist from a Grand Canal palazzo, but that turns out to have a connection to the murder, as well. With his superior caring more about politics, Brunetti’s hands are tied in dealing out justice – but there is a certain justice dealt out. Just as interesting are the characters and their interactions, especially those involving Brunetti’s family. His family life is described in loving, yet realistic, details, and we get to know a bit more about his father-in-law, a count with powerful ties.

Also looks interesting: I have not read this entirely, just perused: Brunetti's Venice by Toni Sepeda, with an introduction by Donna Leon. This newly released book is a tour guide of sorts. Sepeda gives authorized tours of sites mentioned in Leon's books, and this is an extension of those tours, complete with maps. I'll save this book for some future trip to Venice!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Tours for mystery readers

Two of my most memorable trips ever were to England and Scotland, through Smithsonian Journeys (an arm of the Smithsonian Institution). It's something I've written about in the Smithsonian Journeys blog this week.

Smithsonian Journeys has two tours: the Classic Mystery Lovers Tour, which takes you from London to Torquay (where Agatha Christie lived) to the Cotswolds and Oxford. We also spend an afternoon in Wales. The other tour, Mystery Lovers England and Scotland, takes a different route, from the Yorkshire Dales to Edinburgh. Both tours are led by three wonderful women: Rosalind Hutchison, tour guide; Carol Fleisher Kent, study leader; and Moira Black, tour manager. All three are incredibly knowledgeable and main reasons for my returning for a second trip.

Another reason: These trips don't just take you to sites where books are set, but we meet with current-day big-name authors, including Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter (creator of Inspector Morse), Ann Cleeves and Andrew Taylor, among others. Author Robert Barnard, shown above, gave us a personal tour of the Bronte Parsonage during one trip.

These trips are on the pricey side, but worth it. We stay at luxury hotels and the groups are never very large. There's a relaxed atmosphere to the tours -- not the usual mad dash, no-time-for-the-restroom tours that I've experienced before. In fact, the bus has even stopped at times so we can get out and snap photos of the countryside. These are trips I would recommend to anyone who loves mysteries. I'm awaiting the day when the Smithsonian adds a third mystery tour!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Interview with L.J. Sellers

L.J. Sellers has written an intriguing book in The Sex Club (review below) and I'm happy to report that this is the first in a series of Det. Wade Jackson books. Below, Sellers talks about her books:

Q: Your first mystery book, The Sex Club, is about middle-school teens involved in sexual situations. You weave in issues such as lack of sex education in the schools and parents who cloak themselves in religion rather than talk to their kids. Are these issues you’ve seen in real life, and why address them in a crime novel?

A: I was seeing the lack of sex education in schools begin to permeate our culture, most of it as a result of the policies of the last administration. My concern, when I was writing the story, was that teenagers would suffer through higher pregnancy rates and more exposure to STDs. And of course that is what’s happened now. I also have seen firsthand how religious suppression of sex and sexuality is unhealthy and often backfires, pushing individuals into risky behavior. I consider all of this to be a crime against humanity. So why not write it as a crime novel? Especially since that’s what I love to do.

Q: How has the reception been to this book?

A: Readers and reviewers have raved about it. I get e-mails all the time from people who have just finished it and feel compelled to tell me how much they liked it and to ask when my next book is coming out. I’ve only seen two brief reviews from individuals who didn’t care for it. Honestly, I expected more. When you write about sex and religion, you’re guaranteed to get some people worked up. That was one of the points I was trying to make.

Q: So, have you gotten any funny looks when mentioning the title of this book?

A: Surprisingly few. Most people respond favorably, saying something like, “That will get people’s attention.” Although some readers in the mystery community have commented that they didn’t care for the title. And one book group, who liked the story so much they asked me to join them for a discussion, said they were embarrassed to ask for it at the bookstore or library. On the other hand, one NY reader who posted on Goodreads said she loved carrying THE SEX CLUB around the subways. So the title has had mixed results.

Q: You’ve created a very likable character in Det. Wade Jackson, a separated father trying to balance raising a teenage daughter with his profession. I’m glad to see he’ll be back in a second book, Secrets to Die For. What can you tell us about the second book?

A: I’m so glad you like Jackson. I wanted him to be likable and respectable. I didn’t want to write a hard-drinking, bitter, morally questionable cop character. He’s not perfect, but his issues are the same as everyone’s: family, money, and health.

Here’s the pitch for STDF: A social worker visits the home of a young boy she has been assigned to and is brutally murdered shortly after. To Detective Jackson, it looks like an open-and-shut case against the ex-con father of the young boy. Then complications develop when new evidence points to a serial rapist whose violence is escalating. Meanwhile, the murder victim’s lover knows something about the rape victims but has secrets of her own that she’s afraid to reveal. Soon she is kidnapped and held captive, and Jackson must uncover the truth in time to save her.
SECRETS TO DIE FOR will be out in September from Echelon Press. Any everyone will be hearing more from me about it as the release date gets closer.

Q: Is Wade Jackson going to become a series?

A: It is a series. I’m working on the final draft of the third book now. And I have standalone thriller, THE BABY THIEF, in which Jackson appears as a minor character. I hope to have this book on the market soon too. I’m also outlining the fourth Jackson story. So by the end of 2010, I should have five Jackson novels available.

As background information: When I wrote THE SEX CLUB, it was story I felt very passionate about and had to tell. It also happened to have a detective in it, so I wrote the Jackson character as someone I liked well enough that I could bring him back in future stories if I wanted to. I didn’t set out to write a series. But readers loved the characters so much, I decided to write a few more Jackson stories and see how it went.

Q: You started out as a journalist, working many years in editor positions in pharmaceutical magazines. How did you make the jump to writing books, and was this something you had wanted to do for a long time? And did your experience as a journalist help in writing these books?

A: I started writing novels rather early in my journalism career. My first novel was a challenge to myself, after reading a particularly bad novel and thinking ‘I could do better than that.’ So I brainstormed a storyline, outlined it, then wrote the novel. It was so much fun, I wrote another one. Then I started thinking about getting published. BTW: It took a long time. My journalism experience is what led me to outline my first novel before I started writing — and every novel since. I believe this is tremendously helpful. Journalism also gives me the discipline and confidence to sit down and write every day whether I feel inspired or not.

Q: Is being a published mystery author what you thought it would be? Can you relate some of the more unexpected, or even stranger, things that have happened to you since you published The Sex Club?

A: Online social networking has drastically changed how writers interact with readers and with other writers. It’s not a scenario I imagined when I first fantasized about the life of a novelist. Ultimately, I have more friends and fun than I thought I would, but considerably less money.

One of the strangest things that happened was discovering that the name of the antagonist in THE SEX CLUB is the name of real person who’s involved in a mystery community we both belong to. I was horrified and hoped she wouldn’t find out. But she did and she contacted me, and fortunately I managed to smooth things out with her. But it made me realize that my fiction can have repercussions in the real world. Another interesting by-product is that now I get requests to read, review, blurb, and edit sexually explicit books. I don’t write sex scenes or read them as a general rule, so it’s funny to have people think that’s who I am because my novel has the word sex in the title.

Q: Which are the authors you read?
A: This is hard because some of my favorite authors from the past, I no longer read. And some new authors I like, I’ve read only one of his/her novels so far. So this list will be a mix. Favorite authors from the past: Lawrence Sanders, Steven King, Leslie Glass, Margaret Atwood, Sue Grafton, John MacDonald, Rex Stout. Favorite current authors: John Sanford, John Grisham, John Hart, Laura Lippman. Potential new favorites: Harlan Coben, Victor Gischler, Duane Swierczynski, Gillian Flynn, Karen Olson.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Sex Club by L.J. Sellers

Protagonist: Det. Wade Jackson
Setting: Eugene, Oregon
Rating: 4.0

From the title, you might expect some tawdry book, but this is a crime novel with some important points to make. The "sex club" refers to a group of middle-school kids, 13 to 15 years old, who get caught up in sex games that turn deadly when the body of one girl is found naked in a dumpster. Det. Jackson knew the girl -- she was a friend of his daughter (Sellers paints a nice portrait of him as a separated dad trying to raise a teenage daughter). He's helped by Kera Kollmorgan, a nurse at a Planned Parenthood clinic, who has begun to notice trends among the teen patients and formed her theories -- but patient confidentiality prevents her from telling Jackson everything.

To add to the tension, the clinic is bombed by a religious fundamentalist, also the mother of one of the sex club members. Soon, the mother is targeting Kera herself -- for death. There's a somewhat predictable ending, but before she gets there Sellers weaves in some issues to think about, such as the importance of sex education in schools. And that high school may already be too late to start discussing these issues with kids. This is Sellers' debut book, and I very much look forward to reading her next one.

Bitter Recoil by Steven Havill

Protagonists: Bill Gastner and Estelle Reyes-Guzman
Setting: Northern New Mexico
Rating: 3.7

In this second book of the series, Gastner, just out of bypass surgery, drives across the state to visit former deputy Guzman, now newly married. But he soon finds himself helping her on a nonstop 24-hour case: first, a young pregnant woman is killed, seemingly thrown from a moving car. Then, young men are being killed, possibly the ones who were in the pickup truck with the girl. The bad guy becomes obvious pretty quickly, but Havill still maintains our interest with some interesting twists and the growing characters of Gastner and Guzman, and the book moves quickly to its resolution.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

Protagonist: Julia Davidsson
Setting: Oland, Sweden
Rating: 5.0
Twenty years ago, Julia's 5-year-old son slipped out of his grandparents' garden and vanished into the fog of this Swedish island, his body never found. But now, his grandfather Gerlof, who lives at a home for the elderly, has received one of the boy's sandals in the mail. He calls his daughter, and together they begin to try to solve the mystery. Their main suspect is the notorious murderer Nils Kant, a man who killed three people (or four, if you count his own brother's accidental drowning) before leaving Sweden. But Gerlof believes Kant returned and still lives on Oland. These two very unlikely heroes -- Gerlof, wracked by a disease that sometimes leaves him unable to walk, and Julia, alcoholic and still embittered after 20 years -- become stronger the more they delve into the case, with the help of Oland's lone policeman, Lennart Henriksson. This story moves slowly, and cuts between present-day and Nil's own story. But by the end, you've come to really care for these characters. The ending, therefore, is even more heart-wrenching. This is a story that will stay with me for a while.