Book review: Death in Focus by Anne Perry

Death in Focus by Anne Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve been a fan of Anne Perry’s for a long time, and I was delighted to see that she had a new series. This is the debut novel of the Elena Standish mystery series. And while the book is a debut novel of a new series, it doesn’t read like a typical debut novel, probably because the author is well-practiced in writing historical mysteries. The writing is sure and the world-building is seamless. This particular book takes place in between World War I and World War II in England as competing factions of government either conclude war is inevitable because of Hitler’s rise to power (see Team Winston Churchill) or those who never want to put the country through the suffering from World War I again (see Team Neville Chamberlain).
If I had a complaint, it is that the plot is a bit scattershot, but that’s a minor quibble. The book is an enjoyable read and the historical setting is an interesting one.
Fans of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series will also enjoy this one.
I look forward to reading the next book in the series!




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Book review: Chalice by Robin McKinley

Chalice by Robin McKinley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have loved almost everything I’ve read by Robin McKinley, and “Chalice” is no exception. On the surface, this is a conventional fantasy with magic and villains and heroes. The author lifts the book out of its conventional genre with lyrical–almost poetical–writing (as is typical of her work). She also defies the stereotypes of heroes and heroines by making both the hero and heroine of this novel people who are uncertain about their places in the world. There is no strong sense of destiny in the main characters, no inner conviction about the righteousness of their actions. Instead, they are two people who are lifted from their previous lives and thrust into a greater role. And neither one of them is certain that they are suited for those roles. It’s actually a refreshing change to watch main characters flounder and feel inadequate about their lives.
The author is skilled at world building without utilizing overly descriptive phrases. In a few austere strokes, she creates emotional resonance about the world she is building, and the reader follows. There are flamboyant extroverted fantasy novels, and then there is this one–a seemingly unobtrusive nugget that slowly reveals its hidden jeweled splendor as the novel progresses.
I highly recommend this book!



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Book review: The Innocents by C.A. Asbrey

The Innocents by C.A. Asbrey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This isn’t the normal setting for my preferred historical mystery books as the book takes place in the U.S. in the late 1860s, but I couldn’t resist the premise of a female Pinkerton detective. Abigail McKay is one of the few female detectives working for the Pinkerton Agency as a result of a tragic backstory (the details of which are unclear). She is tasked with tracking down a notorious gang called the Innocents. Along the way, she encounters discrimination, murderers, prostitutes, and a whole host of interesting characters, not least of which are the gang members that constitute the Innocents. A romance is hinted at but is presumably left to subsequent books in the series.
I really liked Abi–the author depicts her as human and has her struggling with anger at not being taken seriously and struggling with grief and tragedy. The rest of the cast of characters are colorful and the historical detail rendered effortlessly.
I am definitely looking forward to reading the next one in the series, but I need to stop discovering new mystery series that are well-written and fun! 🙂



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Book review: The Black Company by Glen Cook

The Black Company by Glen Cook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is a departure from what I often read. It’s fantasy, yes, but it’s a gritty, mercenary fantasy–all sharp edges and plot-driven. I liked it a lot–it’s a little magical, a lot gory, generally unsentimental, and a tad dystopian. For some reason, it worked for me. The book is told from a first-person perspective by the historian and physician in the troop. It is well-paced, well-plotted, and a fun read.
Characters range from the stereotypical to the dysfunctional to the fantastical. Plot twists are littered throughout the book, and characters go from evil to ally to enemy (and vice versa).
It’s the first in a series, a fact that I’m delighted by because it means I have many more books before I reach the end of the series.



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Book review: Boards That Make a Difference by John Carver

Boards That Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations by John Carver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I am in the process of learning more about board governance and how to be a better board member and chair. (This is in hopes of turning these experiences into a book someday.) This book is an excellent, comprehensive, and detailed book about how boards should be run. The author has clearly done much thinking of how boards should be run, how they should govern, and what they should be doing. There are many examples given, which makes the sometimes erudite and cerebral explanations more accessible.
In addition to the somewhat academic explanations that can be difficult to follow, I also think the author operates in a utopian vacuum. If you were starting a board from scratch, this book gives you excellent advice on how to operate. But changing the culture of an already existing board to the ideal presented in this book is often difficult, time-consuming, and impractical. I also think the author oversimplifies and glosses over the differences between being a board member of a non-profit and being a board member of a for-profit. Goals, metrics, and resulting issues can be very different. And, of course, the author has full faith that his approach is the right one for all organizations.
Despite these shortcomings, the author has clearly done much deep thinking and worthwhile analysis on the subject. I think this is an excellent reference book for people interested in how boards of organizations should work.



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Book review: The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas

The Art of Theft by Sherry Thomas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This is the 4th in the Lady Sherlock series, a clever re-imagining of the Sherlock Holmes character as a woman, with all of the societal constraints implied therein. Each book in the series has been excellent, and this one is no exception. An old friend of Watson’s appeals to Sherlock Holmes for help in rescuing some incriminating letters from a blackmailer, which requires journeying to Paris and visiting a mysterious chateau. Not surprisingly, complications arise in retrieving those letters.
The plot is intricate, as are the many subplots. The writing is engaging and eloquent. And the characters are fascinating and improve with each book.
My only regret at the end of this book is that the next book in the series isn’t being released until October. (Fortunately, my TBR pile is an extensive one.) 🙂
If historical mysteries are of interest or if you are curious about a unique take on the Sherlock Holmes legend, this book (and series) is for you. (And even if you aren’t but just like a well-told mystery, this series is also for you.)
The series is definitely best read in order, and I highly recommend them all!



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Book review: The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie King

The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


This book is the 14th in the series of Mary Russell (wife of Sherlock Holmes). This installment is particularly enchanting as it deals with Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock Holmes’s famous landlady. It turns out that Mrs. Hudson has a backstory and a fascinating one at that.
The book switches between present day events (Mary is missing–has she been murdered?) and Mrs. Hudson’s past, which is somehow intertwined with the question of where Mary is.
In addition to the mystery (or, more accurately, a series of past mysteries wrapped up in the larger current mystery), the book deals with themes of love, revenge, and rehabilitation and what shapes those can take. The mystery(ies) are cleverly plotted, and the writing is sure-handed and deft. And it is both fun and clever to theme this book around Mrs. Hudson.
Four stars and I highly recommend it! (The series is best read in order–if you haven’t read any of the other books, you should anyway!)




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Book review: Ty Cobb by Charles Leerhsen

Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty by Charles Leerhsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Ty Cobb has a horrible reputation as a racist, mean, and disreputable human being. The author’s premise in this biography is that much of the mythology surrounding Ty Cobb is erroneous, based on a biography by an author who took a dislike to Cobb and created events out of whole cloth. The result is an interesting, contrarian take on a baseball player of mythological proportions.
While the Ty Cobb in this book isn’t the Southern white racist that he is often portrayed as being, he isn’t a nice person either (or, rather, he was accommodating to those who didn’t exacerbate his insecurities but otherwise unpleasant). But he was a tremendously gifted baseball player and transformed the business of baseball as well. In fact, the book does well in describing the state of baseball in the early 20th century and, in some ways, those are the most interesting sections of the book. The author tends to be a bit defensive in tone and clearly not objective in the sections about Ty Cobb specifically.
For baseball fans, this is an interesting history of the sport. For those who are interested in just how maligned Ty Cobb was and how mythology takes over facts, the book is also worth reading. The author isn’t a particularly strong writer as writers go (but I read this book after reading Rick Atkinson’s Revolutionary War book, so perhaps that was an unfair bar to live up to), but it’s an interesting narrative and history.



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Book review: Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The author is the son of an African-American father and a Caucasian mother who married a (Caucasian) Frenchwoman and has two children. This book consists of his musings on race and identity and family.
It’s a well-written book that flows easily and, yet, at the same time, it’s not an easy book to read. If race is a social construct as many assert, then how does it play (or not play) into identity, society, and belonging?
The author discusses everything from whether it’s unethical for black people to procreate outside of race as opposed to strategically bonding together to Glenn Loury’s concept of racially transcendent humanism.
I suspect many people at the extreme left of the political spectrum would be unhappy with the author’s perspective on many issues relating to race and society. I will only say that this book adds a perspective and a voice that should be listened to with an open mind.



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Book review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Ask a normal person what their first impressions are when you say “Genghis Khan,” and chances are you’ll hear words like “savage,” “barbaric,” and “ruthless.” If the person is a bit of a know-it-all and smart aleck, you’ll also hear “And he has a huge number of descendants thanks to his ‘conquests.'”
This book attempts to provide another lens through which to view Genghis Khan–as someone who was charismatic (climbing his way from the bottom strata of Mongolian society to the leader of all Mongol tribes), innovative (he pioneered and adapted many tactics and weapons that are still used today), and tolerant (his views on religion were modern, a true feat in medieval times).
The book is more a narrative of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire than it is a true biography of the person (whose written record is somewhat sparse). But it turns on its head many preconceptions about the Mongol Empire. If, at times, the author seems to tread lightly about some of Genghis Khan’s more brutal acts of conquest, the book provides a refreshing and different viewpoint through which to view the acts and impact of one of the most impressive conquerors of all time.



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