Friday, July 23, 2021

Five for Silver: A John the Eunuch by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer

 


Reviewed by Ambrea

 

John the Lord Chamberlain has become embroiled in another mystery—a murder with no witnesses and no apparent motive.  Peter, John’s servant, has begged for help in uncovering the culprit behind his friend’s murder.  Soon, John finds his quest leading him throughout the plague-ridden city, speaking to lawyers, actresses, antiquities dealers, mausoleum builders, poets, churchmen, fools, servants and more.  But as the plague continues to circle Constantinople, John discovers many avenues of inquiry cut off as more people succumb to the horrific disease.

I’ve read historical fiction set in Victorian London, late nineteenth-century Malaysia, colonial America, ancient China, twelfth-century Europe, and beyond; however, I’ve never read a book set in fifth-century Constantinople.  It was an interesting experience to read a novel set during this time frame, particularly in a city I only knew vaguely from a college course on the Crusades—and a certain catchy song.

I was fascinated by a lot of the background imagery and snippets of history that lurked in Five for Silver by Mary Reed and Eric Mayer.  It was interesting to see the confluence of cultures within Constantinople that the authors brought to life; likewise, I was very intrigued by the portrayal of the Plague of Justinian within the city.  Occasionally, I would forget that the city was plagued by disease (yes, that was a terrible pun; no, I will not apologize), until the authors would remind me of it.

It usually came in the shape of smoke drifting over the city from plague ships burning in the harbor, but, sometimes, it was a random corpse in the gutter or mention of plague pits outside the city walls.  Either way, Reed and Mayer made me very glad to be living in a modern world with antibacterial soap and antibiotics.

Although Five for Silver is fashioned as a mystery, I found the novel leaned more toward historical fiction.  John follows the threads of his murder investigation, but I didn’t feel the same sense of urgency I usually do when I read a mystery novel.  I often found myself more absorbed in picking apart the interweaving stories of John and his household, rather than learning more about the murder suspects.

Additionally, I wasn’t quite satisfied with the resolution of the story.  Hercule Poirot has spoiled me a little, I think—I mean, he wraps up his investigations so neatly and discovers everyone’s secrets, I’ve forgotten that mysteries are sometimes much messier.

Throughout the book, John is frequently confounded and thwarted due to both a lack of information and the plague collecting his potential witnesses.  He completes his investigation, of course, but I found the answers weren’t what I expected.  While it does lend an authenticity and a tinge of reality to the story—because real life is rarely neat or orderly or tidy, particularly in the midst of a pandemic—I was just a little disappointed.

Overall, Five for Silver is an interesting novel with a very vivid setting and a moderately satisfying mystery.  I recommend it for readers who want a heavy dose of historical fiction mixed with their murder mystery; however, I will note this is actually the fifth book in the series.  It might help clear up some confusion about recurring characters or past events if you start at the beginning (unlike me).

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Nevermore: Paris Trout, Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People, Eat Well and Get Lots of Rest, The Good American, When Justice Sleeps

 


 

Reported by Garry

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter was our first book reviewed this week, and our reader loved it!  This historical novel takes place in 1940’s Cotton Point, Georgia where the titular Paris Trout is on trial for the murder of a local 14 year old Black girl.  Privileged, White, indifferent, and descending into madness, Paris is a deeply warped man who thinks he did nothing wrong in the shooting death of Rose, his victim.  Told from multiple view points, including that of Rose, this book has a little mystery, a whole lot of South, and is a darkly entertaining page turner. 

 

Perfect Phrases for Dealing with Difficult People:  Hundreds of Ready-to-Use Phrases for Handling Conflict, Confrontations and Challenging Personalities by Susan Benjamin has become a go-to book for one of our readers.  While this book is written for and targeted to businesses, our reader stated that the lessons and phrases in this book are absolutely useful in personal interactions with difficult relatives as well. 

 

Eat Well and Get Lots of Rest:  Wolfie’s Guide to the Good Life by Wolfie Maine Coon and Michael McGaulley is a cute, fluffy (no pun intended) book written from a pampered cat’s perspective.  Our reader said that this humorous look at the good life from the viewpoint of a housecat who has it all is truly aspirational.  Who wouldn’t want a house full of servants to feed you, pet you and cater to your every whim?!

 


 

The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian by Robert Kaplan was what our reader called “a fascinating look at a man who tirelessly worked behind the scenes for the betterment of the world” on behalf of the U.S. government for four decades.  Quiet and unassuming, Gersony was a high-school dropout who was awarded the Bronze star for his service in Vietnam.  He went on to work with the State Department and did on-the-ground research in war-torn areas all over the world, gathering information and getting into places that diplomats could not, or would not.  Risking his own life multiple times, Gersony worked to bring aid and understanding to refugees and victims of wars wherever he went. 

 


While Justice Sleeps is a new novel by nationally renowned politician and political activist Stacey Abrams. This taut thriller follows Avery Keene, a young law clerk for the legendary Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn.  When Wynn falls into a coma, Keene has to untangle the secret web of lies, deceit, corruption and power that Wynn has been researching – all without getting herself killed.  Our reader says that this is a very well written book that is hard to put down.

 

Also Mentioned:

Jimson Weed – Poetry and prose written by students at UVA Wise.

200 Years of American Short Stories edited by Martha Foley

Second Glance by Jodi Picoult

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

No One Is Too Small To Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

Return of the Witch by Paula Braxton

Midnight Witch by Paula Braxton

Saint Patrick’s Battalion by James Alexander Thom

Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

Intentional Fallacies by Edison Jennings

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

Auntie Poldi series by Mario Giordano

Geniuses at War: Bletchley Park, Colossus, and the Dawn of the Digital Age by David Price

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

The I Hate to Cook Book by Peg Bracken

Monday, July 19, 2021

When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole


 

 Reviewed by Christy

            When No One is Watching is Alyssa Cole’s “genre debut.”  Typically a romance writer, Cole branches out with this 2020 gentrification thriller, and is, in my opinion, pretty successful. Although I do enjoy romance novels, this is the first book I’ve read by Cole. She lets a little of her background seep into the story with a cute romance between the leads.

            Sydney Green loves her Brooklyn neighborhood where she was born and raised. But slowly, she has noticed the changes. Her longtime, beloved neighbors are leaving without so much as a goodbye. The new faces in the neighborhood have a few things in common: they’re white and rich and condescending. They also don’t seem to have any interest in getting to know the people who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. However, one new neighbor, Theo, does take an interest. He even shows up to a block party planning committee, much to everyone’s suspicion and surprise. He and Sydney are thrown together in creating a historical walking tour for the neighborhood. But digging deep into the history leaves Sydney feeling paranoid about strange current events. Fortunately, Theo doesn’t write off her fears but believes her, and vows to help her uncover what is really going on.

            Though the subject matter is definitely heavy at times, I quite enjoyed this thriller. I don’t know that the romance is totally necessary but it does help alleviate some of the weight, and I can see why Cole’s romance books are so popular. I wasn’t complaining! There are also some funny bits thrown in as well. Sydney and Theo want to interview long-time residents for their walking tour. Sydney suggests they come up with a code word for when he’s being “too white” during said interviews. She settles on “Howdy Doody.”

            The real meat of the story, though, is how damaging gentrification can be to black and brown neighborhoods. The villains aren’t subtle at all but that didn’t bother me too much. I listened to this on audio book, which had dual narrators. I liked it but I did struggle with the female narrator who sometimes did not differentiate enough between female characters, which made it difficult to follow. Overall, it’s a different kind of thriller that I think is definitely worth a read.

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials by Ovidia Yu


Reviewed by Jeanne

Rosie Lee, better known as Aunty Lee, runs her own restaurant in Singapore where she specializes in traditional Peranakan dishes. Certain food purists who want to argue that some of her dishes aren’t “authentic” are met with Aunty Lee’s unassailable logic that since she is Peranakan anything she cooks is a Peranakan dish. This gives you a good overview of Aunty Lee. She always knows the correct way to cook everything and the correct way to behave and she believes in offering her advice freely, asked for or not.

She also does catering. As the book opens she is catering a brunch for fifty people at the Sungs’ house in honor of Sharon Sung being made a partner in her mother’s law firm.  The estate is lavish, the food is prepared to perfection, and Aunty Lee is consumed by curiosity—as usual.  Unfortunately, all the meticulous preparation is spoiled when two people die, and it appears that one of Aunty Lee’s special dishes might be to blame.

This is the second book in this series that I have read and I’ve enjoyed both.  I always like when I learn something from a novel, and I am intrigued by the depiction of Singaporean society.  It’s less of a melting pot and more of a stew pot (to use foodie terms!) in that there are many different cultures represented but each tends to retain its own customs and food preferences. 

Yu’s mysteries, which generally are classified as cozies, tend to have some to them.  This book opens with the disappearance of a young man who had been enticed to come to Singapore to be an organ donor—high prices are paid for kidneys, for example.  Of course this is illegal, but that’s why some are willing to offer extravagant sums to desperate people.

There’s a bit of humor to the books, Aunty Lee being the iron-willed and outspoken person she is. She’s also strong, resilient, and clever.  These traits plus her intense interest in everyone’s business are definite assets if you are going to solve crimes as an amateur sleuth. She’s aided by a diverse cast of friends and relatives, some of whom have their own agendas.  I like that the author is a Singapore native who describes situations briefly but never allows explanations to bog the story down and she never talks down to the reader.

There are also intriguing descriptions of food. A couple of recipes are included at the end which sound very interesting.  I am a non-cook, so there are brief helpful tips about where to eat and what to order the next time I am in Singapore.

The books in the series are:

Aunty Lee’s Delights

Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials

Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge

Meddling and Murder

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas


 

Reviewed by Ambrea

 Alas, Ambrea has not rejoined the BPL staff but we are delighted to share one of her reviews.  Fingers crossed that she will continue to share her insights with us.

 

Yadriel has a special gift:  he can see and speak with the dead.  In his family, every son or daughter has the opportunity to join the brujx and help wayward souls cross to the other side; however, they’re also strict on tradition…and Yadriel doesn’t fit.  To prove he’s worthy of becoming a brujo, he’ll complete his quinces ceremony and help a spirt cross over.

But when his cousin Miguel is murdered and Julian, a classmate, appears as a spirit, Yadriel finds himself caught in between doing what’s right—and doing what his family says.

Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas is a very interesting—and, ultimately, enjoyable—book.  It’s bright and colorful and vibrant story, despite dealing with the very heavy topic of death, and it’s fascinating because it creates such a unique concept.  It draws on Latinx traditions and various Hispanic cultures, showcasing a rich and amazing family history behind Yadriel, while simultaneously crafting a detailed story that’s compelling and heart-wreching.

I really think of it as being in the same vein as Holly Black and Anna-Marie McLemore.  It creates a unique world with wonderfully flawed characters, beautifully crafted lore, and incredibly vivid settings and stories.  I truly enjoyed every minute of Yadriel’s and Julian’s intertwining stories, and I loved the seeing the connections and relationships forming between characters. 

I also appreciated that Thomas didn’t confine their novel to one single genre.  I expected some level of gothic-horror (because ghosts) and mystery (because murder), but I don’t think I fully anticipated how diverse it would be—that is, it’s a love story and a coming-of-age story and a finding-your-family story.  It’s many different stories in one, which I truly enjoyed.

I suppose the only downside to Cemetery Boys was the fact it was predictable.  What’s the saying?  Ah, yes, according to Anton Chekov, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”  Cemetery Boys had several moments like that—moments where the pistol was obvious. 

But there’s a silver lining to predictability!  Not so many cliffhangers.