Crimson Angel (Benjamin January, Book 13)
Author: Barbara Hambly
Published 2014 by Severn House

Crimson Angel book coverFriends of Benjamin January have ample reason to rejoice. Barbara Hambly has delivered us a new mystery adventure starring the free black surgeon/musician/sleuth of 1830s New Orleans, and it’s another awe-inspiring page-turner. Ben and his friends and family are here, with plenty of intrigue and danger to spare for all concerned, as they are induced to travel first to Cuba, and then to Haiti. This time, the stakes are even higher, since Ben and his wife Rose now have baby John relying upon their survival.

It all starts when Rose’s white half-brother, Jeoffrey Vitrac –- or, as he has Americanized it, Jefferson Vitrack -– shows up in New Orleans with a small gold and red enamel angel charm that Rose recognizes at once as a family talisman. Surrounding this artifact is a tangle of legend regarding a cache of hidden treasure, lost to the family when the slaves of the island of Saint-Domingue rebelled and established the nation of Haiti in 1791. Since no white man can safely set foot on that island now, Vitrack seeks his black brother-in-law’s help in tracking down and retrieving the riches, in exchange for a portion of the find. Despite the January family’s pressing need for a cash infusion in this desperately impoverished year of 1838, Benjamin declines. However, when Vitrack turns up dead a few days later, and a stranger makes an attempt on Rose’s life in a crowded street, it becomes clear that some investigation is called for.

Just as clearly, Rose and Ben must get out of town, while trying to ensure the safety of the surviving descendants of Absalon de Gericault, Rose’s white great-grandfather. Baby John is smuggled into the household of Ben’s sister Olympe, and Ben and Rose board a boat for Grand Isle, Louisiana, to warn the other Vitrac half-brother: Aramis, owner of Chouteau Plantation. By the time they arrive, however, Aramis has already been wounded in what he has taken to be a hunting accident, but which his sister and brother-in-law recognize as another murder attempt. Someone is highly motivated to wipe out what remains of the family line. It seems there’s no choice now but to voyage on to Cuba, where the first clues to the truth about the de Gericault treasure are said to lie. Benjamin’s dear friend, the white fiddler Hannibal Sefton, joins them for the journey.

What follows is a rip-roaring adventure through the streets of Havana, Santiago de Cuba and the Cuban countryside, followed by a headlong pursuit into the troubled heart of Haiti. Suffice to say that there is more to the hidden cache of the de Gericaults than anyone suspected. Many dark secrets will be revealed, help comes from unexpected quarters, and Ben faces some desperate choices in his determination to ensure that Baby John does not grow up as an orphan.

This 13th installment in the Benjamin January saga will be enormously satisfying for longtime devotees of the series, but new readers will also be captivated by the three-dimensional characters and the well-researched historical setting, as well as the lively wit and warm humanity that Hambly always delivers. Start here, and you will definitely want to go back and discover the rest of the story of Ben, Hannibal, Rose, and their antebellum New Orleans world.

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Disclaimer: I received an advance reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley for review. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

tidying-upI know I’m not alone in finding myself inexorably drawn to each new “organize your stuff and improve your life” book that crosses my path. Books about organizing and reducing clutter are perennially popular at the library where I work. Getting organized seems to be the Holy Grail of modern domestic life. Certainly clutter – both physical and mental – is one of the more visible hobgoblins of my own daily existence. So when I read a description of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press/Random House, 2014), and learned I could get my hands on a free review copy through Blogging for Books, I decided to go for it. One more approach to getting the mess sorted out couldn’t possibly hurt, and who knows? This just may be the one that finally works.

The book’s subtitle is “The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” and Kondo is not only a highly successful organizing consultant in her native Japan, but her book has already sold more than two million copies there and in Germany and the UK, prior to its publication in the United States. This little nonfiction guide has even been adapted into a Japanese television drama. Apparently, it’s not just we ugly Americans who suffer from a junked-up existence, and pursue an elusive dream of clearing out and starting fresh.

Kondo calls her approach the KonMari method, and touts it as an altogether different way of thinking about and tackling clutter. It’s true that there are a few key elements to the methodology that I don’t recall seeing elsewhere. One is Kondo’s insistence that the “tidying up” process must be tackled and accomplished all in one go, rather than piecemeal. Another is the directive to tidy by category as opposed to by location. She also recommends that the first step must be to discard, and that no amount of tidying or organizing can take place until the discarding has been 100 percent completed.

If any of these ideas sound fresh and inviting to you, then you may find The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to be a useful book. Kondo’s tone throughout is conversational and intimate, as she lays out the reasons why you may have failed to keep an organized home thus far, leads you through the process of discarding items, goes one-by-one through the categories of objects to organize, discusses her philosophy of storage and strategies to implement it, and reflects on the ways that getting your house in order can change your life and dramatic and unexpected ways.

On the other hand, if you have limited patience with assertions about the spiritual life of your possessions, and the benefits of engaging in conversation with inanimate objects, you might have problems engaging with this book. Additionally, certain key aspects of Kondo’s methodology may seem impractical to carry out in the real life of a typical American: notably, the notion that it is possible to complete the entire discard-and-organize operation for a whole household “in one fell swoop,” rather than in stages. The author admits to a lifelong obsession with tidying, and anecdotes of her childhood recreation hours spent discarding her siblings’ belongings and organizing their rooms offer a revealing (and somewhat disturbing) glimpse of how Kondo found her calling. Her assumption that others might choose – or be able – to spend so much of their time on this single-minded pursuit may not sit well with all readers.

In any case, it’s a slim enough volume, and a quick read. Readers on a quest to slay the clutter demon may benefit from picking up The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and adding some new ammunition to their organizing arsenal.

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Disclaimer: I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone (The Troubles Trilogy, Book 3)
Author: Adrian McKinty
Narrator: Gerard Doyle
Published 2014 by Blackstone Audio
9.8 hours – Unabridged

Audiobook cover image for In the Morning I'll Be GoneAs Book 3 of The Troubles Trilogy opens, it is autumn 1983, and Sean Duffy is coping with the consequences of the way things went down in Book Two, I Hear the Sirens in the Street. Stripped of his detective rank, he’s back in uniform and walking a patrol as a common copper (or “peeler,” in the local parlance). But even a common cop must be ready for uncommon violence when his beat is Northern Ireland in the 1980s. Terrorist bombs and sniper fire are part of the daily routine for Sean and his colleagues in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

But Sean Duffy’s problems are even more complicated. He’s a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant police force, and he has never been willing to play the political game. Pissing off the wrong people is what has brought him down in the world as the story starts, and he’s about to fall farther still. As 1984 comes in, Sean finds himself holding a letter of resignation from the police force and deciding whether to sign it.

Not long after that, two mysterious visitors appear on his doorstep with a proposition. They’re from MI5 (Britain’s equivalent to the FBI), and if Sean helps get them what they want, they might be able to get him what he wants: out of disgrace and back on the force at his old rank of detective inspector. What MI5 wants is to track down a high-ranking IRA fugitive: the notorious Dermot McCann, who just happens to have been a schoolmate of Sean Duffy’s in his youth back in Derry.

So Sean is enticed down a path that forks in several places, bringing him face to face with his own past where it intersected with Dermot’s, and forcing him once again to choose a side in a war that has no winning side. One of the winding side paths Sean pursues has him struggling to solve a classic locked-room mystery, the answer to which promises to hold the key to Dermot McCann’s whereabouts. It’s all an incredibly enjoyable thrill ride and a highly combustible conclusion to a terrific trio of crime stories.

In Sean Duffy, Adrian McKinty has created a deeply lovable hard-boiled cop living in a brutal era, as much bedeviled by his inner Troubles as by the outer ones. As in the first two volumes, Gerard Doyle is absolutely aces at voicing Sean’s point-of-view narration, vividly evoking a time and place and all the people in it. The Troubles Trilogy is as good as it gets for thrilling cop stories that engage the heart and the mind equally. When you get to the end, you’ll be wishing there were a Book Four in the offing.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

at bottom everythingAt the Bottom of Everything
Author: Ben Dolnick
Narrator: Chris Patton
Published 2013 by Blackstone Audio
6.7 hours – Unabridged

What would you risk to get to the bottom of things? What happens when you finally arrive there? And what if it turns out to be a place you can’t come back from?

When we meet our protagonist Adam Sanecki, he’s pursuing what looks like the fairly typical aimless life of the recent college grad. Sure, he’s 26 now and has been out of college for more than a couple years, but it’s not that unusual to see young men heading into their late 20s like this: idling in a dead-end job, preoccupied with thoughts of an ex-girlfriend, sleeping with a middle-aged client. A chance encounter with the mother of a childhood friend, however, leads Adam to unfold a heart-stopping backstory that goes a long way toward explaining how he has come to be stuck in neutral … and ultimately leads him (and the reader/listener) down a winding path to the destination described by the book’s title.

Adam met Thomas Pell in seventh grade, where at first they seemed unlikely to get along at all, but instead they became the closest of best friends. Thomas was an unusual boy, standing out from the crowd in the way that almost always spells trouble at school. Adam surprised himself by becoming an ally to this weird pariah whose intellect, interests, and social awkwardness made him persona non grata among the rest of his peers. Soon Adam was spending more time at Thomas’s house than at home, sharing in family meals and bonding with Thomas’s parents, and having the kinds of conversations and adventures you can only have with your best friend, and only at a certain time in your life.

The transition from middle to high school was not kind to Adam and Thomas’s friendship, however, as Adam found himself increasingly distracted by the allure of more conventional alliances and acceptance into mainstream teenage society. As his attitude toward Thomas shifted, Adam felt the need to inject an element of excitement into the time they spent together, with a series of seemingly mild risk-taking activities. One evening, the adolescent thrill-seeking went terribly, tragically wrong, and nothing was ever the same again for Adam or for Thomas.

Back in the present day, Adam — abruptly unemployed and even more adrift than usual — agrees to help Thomas’s parents track down their son, who has fallen off the radar. Suddenly, Adam is on a plane to India. Before the trip and the story are over, both Adam and Thomas will journey much farther and far deeper than either of them could have predicted.

Reader Chris Patton delivers a star performance on this audiobook. He is utterly convincing in both the so-called voice of sanity (Adam’s narrative point of view, which comes across as level-headed, but may prove to be less than 100 percent reliable) and the hauntingly familiar voice of advancing madness (Thomas, then and now, who faces the truth and reaps the consequences). Patton’s matter-of-fact style is an excellent fit for this kind of tale, which starts out seeming like one kind of novel, but subtly turns into another kind along the way, almost without the listener’s realizing it. You might want to shake both Adam and Thomas more than once as the story progresses, but you ultimately sympathize with both young men, and what they both go through will definitely make you think. Dolnick and Patton conspire to bring this about.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton BarnhardtLookaway, Lookaway
Author: Wilton Barnhardt
Narrator: Scott Shepherd
Published 2013 by Macmillan
16 hours – Unabridged

An intimate chronicle of the trials and traumas of a fictional “fine old Southern family” in the early years of the 21st century, Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt is sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued, unflinching in its dissection of the genteel facade to expose the seething rot beneath … and yet not unsympathetic to the plight of the very human individuals caught up in the continuing farce. One by one, we meet the members of the Johnston and Jarvis clans of Charlotte, North Carolina, united when Jerene Jarvis married Joseph Beauregard “Duke” Johnston and bore him two sons and two daughters. Each family member gets a turn at telling a segment of the story from his or her point of view. First we get to know them, and then gradually the fatal flaw or unforgivable sin at the core of each one comes to light. Nobody is let off the hook for these misdeeds and shortcomings, yet nobody is wholly demonized for them either. We recognize these people. We’ve known these people. In some cases, we may BE these people. Jerene, for example, at first appears to have been cast in the time-honored steel-magnolia matriarch mold, yet there’s more to her than meets the eye, and however much you might despise her and everything she stands for, by the end of her narrative section I think that, like me, you’ll nevertheless wish her well.

What Jonathan Tropper and Tom Perrotta have done for the dysfunctional families of the well-heeled Northeast, Barnhardt has now accomplished for their counterparts in the (formerly) moneyed South. When the narrative is funny, it is savagely so, and when it seeks instead to touch the reader’s tender feelings, it cuts to the bone with a blade so sharp that at first you might not realize you’ve taken a hit. You don’t even have time to bind up the wound before the novel’s taken another reckless turn with a new narrator, and fresh hell for the Jarvis-Johnstons and those around them. Wilton Barnhardt’s genius draws us on, limping and bleeding, but never losing our thirst to find out what happens next to these Old South types trying to stay afloat in the so-called New South.

Reader Scott Shepherd does a crackerjack job of telling this Southern story, providing authentic, age- and class-appropriate Southern accents for all the characters. It’s a pet peeve of mine, audiobook readers who try to get by with Southern accents that are either hokey and overdone, or one-size-fits-all. (It’s not all Scarlett O’Hara or trailer trash, y’all!) I just have to stop listening. If you have this problem too, rest easy: we’re in good hands with Shepherd. But it’s not just getting the accents exactly right that makes him a perfect fit for this family saga of rise and fall, hilarity and heartbreak. A certain wild, loose energy pervades Shepherd’s delivery of both narrative passages and dialogue, resulting in an across-the-dinner-table storytelling style that feels very real and immediate. Sit back and let Uncle Scott tell you this tale ole cousin Wilton told him, about what happened to the Jarvises and the Johnstons, back around the turn of the century in North Carolina. You’ll be glad you took the time.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

Fin & LaFin & Ladydy
Author: Cathleen Schine
Narrator: Anne Twomey
Published 2013 by Macmillan
9 hours – Unabridged

Fin was only five years old the first time he met his half-sister Lady, and six years passed before he saw her again. This time, it was 1964, and 24-year-old Lady drove up in a sports car to whisk her recently orphaned brother away from his Connecticut farm to Greenwich Village, where she would be his guardian. So, as the story really gets under way, it’s the early 1960s, Lady is an independently wealthy, free-spirited, single young female saddled with the responsibility for raising an eleven-year-old, and they’re living at the epicenter of New York cool. Responsibility is not something Lady does very well. Not that this bothers Fin very much. He loves Lady wholeheartedly, and soon understands that she needs him just as much as he needs her. For Lady is beset by three ardent young men (Fin calls them “the suitors”), each of whom offers her something very different. In her way, she responds to each of them, but none of them captures her heart, or even very much of her attention.

We follow Fin and Lady through the 1960s, and the zeitgeist batters like a moth at the window of their house on Charles Street. It’s all pretty much peripheral, though Lady’s interest in activism against the war does lead to some trouble, and Fin’s enrollment in a Village “free school” provides some comedy. Lady is an interesting character: too bourgeois-traditional to be a hippie and too much of a romantic to throw her heart into feminism, she’s caught between generations, unable to find a completely comfortable place for herself with the old guard or the new. You picture her walking down the street with “The Girl from Ipanema” as the soundtrack … but what happens when that sound falls out of fashion? Lady’s always a little out of step.

Reader Anne Twomey does an excellent job with the narration and the character voices, plausibly playing young Fin from pre-adolescence to the brink of manhood, and giving the devil-may-care Lady a true, consistent voice. She seems comfortable with all sorts of character voices, and provides a good, strong through-line of storytelling throughout.

The narrative of Fin & Lady is essentially from Fin’s point of view, looking back from the present day – but it’s not Fin telling the story. To find out who it is, and enjoy a little atmospheric slice of Village life in the 60s, give Fin & Lady a listen.

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Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.

The Cold Cold GroundThe Cold Cold Ground
Book 1 of The Troubles Trilogy
Author: Adrian McKinty
Narrator: Gerard Doyle
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
10 hours — Unabridged

For a cop (or “peeler”) in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the early 1980s, the regular challenges of policing are just the beginning. It’s the height of The Troubles, and Detective Sean Duffy is living and working in what verges on a war zone. Bobby Sands and the other IRA hunger strikers are having their day, paramilitary groups on both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide are on a hair trigger for violence in the streets, and Duffy tries to remember to check his car for bombs every time he gets in it. Enriching the potential for mayhem is the fact that Duffy is a Catholic on a Protestant-majority police force, in a place and time where your religious upbringing ensures your being singled out — by somebody, sometime — as a target.

So death is just a part of the everyday routine in Belfast, and what might stand out as a headline-grabbing murder in another city is simply further fruit of the violence all around. But when a pair of bodies turn up bearing what looks like the signature of a serial killer, that gets Duffy’s and his mates on the squad’s attention. Following this lead takes Duffy down a path he never dreamed of, uncovering darkness to surprise even a hardened Ulsterman.

Whether you remember The Troubles well, or it’s a part of history that you don’t know much about, Adrian McKinty draws you into Sean Duffy’s world and delivers a top-notch crime drama in a setting well removed from the run-of-the-mill cop story. Gerard Doyle does a capital job telling the story in the lilting Irish cadence that is his birthright, with a clarity and sense of pacing that pulls the reader around every turn. So give it a listen already! You may find yourself, like this reviewer, panting for Books 2 and 3 of The Troubles Trilogy.

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