This is my second Tasha Alexander novel featuring Victorian Lady Emily Ashton and maybe because this one is set in Venice, a city I love, I enjoyed it even more than the the first one I read (A Fatal Waltz).  Alexander, like Donna Leon, another author who writes mysteries set in Venice (though featuring a male detective), does a brilliant job of breathing life into Venice.  And Lady Emily is a force to be reckoned with…a kin to Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey (set in Victorian England).  Unlike Raybourn’s heroine, who sometimes is too tough and “un-Victorian” for the times, I felt Alexander and her Lady Emily hit just the right tones of passion and passiveness.  Though the ending got a little convoluted (I began to get some of the characters confused because of their titles and their flowery names…not to mention all of the place names), I still highly recommend this series for anyone who likes historical mysteries, female-based mysteries or vivid depictions and/or senses of place.  

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A fire races though a London private school and a mother rushes to save her daughter’s life. How the fire started provides the backdrop for this suspenseful thriller with paranormal aspects and graced with lyrical writing.

This novel with its realistic portrayal of contemporary families is heartbreaking in its tragic elements but appealing in its devotion to the protective instincts that are the core of the love between mothers and children. The twists and turns in the thriller are so well done that the culprit is revealed deftly in the final pages.

Readers of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and Broken Harbor by Tana French will devour Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton.

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I recently went on a short trip and with my trusty iPad in tow, I had a decision to make about what to read while on vacation.  I started off reading a book that I’m doing for a book discussion…a literary, dense book that I soon realized would not fly for vacation reading.  Even if vacation is not taken on or at the beach, “beach read” type books are always a must for my travels.  To clarify, a “beach read” is a not a book set AT the beach…but rather a FUN book…a guilty pleasure…a book you would not like to be caught reading by scholarly family or friends.

Some people read romances as their “beach reads,” but I often read “chick lit” on vacation and in that genre, Madeleine Wickham always satisfies.  Her books are not completely mindless (like some chick lit) and she writes strong female characters with enough problems so the reading is fast, but not too many problems to bog down the story.  LIGHT is the key in a beach read and The Wedding Girl did not disappoint.  The characters were superficial (in a good way) and the story was breezy.  Wickham (who also writes under the pen name Sophie Kinsella) is one of my favorite vacation writers.

But, this time, I also read a thriller.  I’ve read Joy Fielding in the past and liked her…but The Wild Zone was completely different from her other books.  It is less thriller and more character study.  Not that this was too heavy for vacation…it was just unexpected.  I don’t expect all thrillers to get into the psychological aspects of their characters… especially with authors not known for those deeper character developments.  When I read the other Fielding books (Missing Pieces and Charley’s Web) they were solid thrillers, but not anything too intense or emotional.  The Wild Zone caught me off-guard with its slow-paced storyline, not to mention its surprise twist ending.  For Fielding die-hards, be prepared for an unusual novel.  For those unfamiliar with this author and with thrillers in general, this might be a good book to try and get your toes wet with another genre.

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This debut novel from Chicago Tribune journalist (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Julia Keller is gripping from page one…reeling the reader in with clear depictions of small town life, adolescence, and brutal, senseless violence.  Starting out shortly before a seemingly random shooting, the story introduces us to a mother and daughter who are both at odds with each other.  The mother, Bell, works too much, overly dedicated to her job as prosecuting attorney for a small, impoverished county in West Virginia. And her daughter Carla is knee-deep in full-blown teenage rebellion.  Actually, that rebellion sets the stage for the story…while waiting for her mother to pick her up from mandatory “anger management” class, Carla witness one of the most violent acts in Acker’s Gap, WV.  After this, Carla becomes even more of a problem…not only is she still a behavior problem but now she also has upsetting, conflicting issues with what she witnessed.  Bell, in addition to dealing with Carla and with the hunt for the murderer(s), also has other issues contending for space in her frantic world.  Keller, as in her Chicago Tribune articles, truly does have a way with words… bringing characters, places and scenarios to life with true, vivid imagery.  This was one of the best written mysteries I’ve read in ages!  Hopefully, Acker’s Gap, along with Bell, Carla and the other colorful characters of this small town, will be back soon. 

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This year, eyes and TV sets around the world will be focused on London, the capital of what is really a small island between the North Atlantic and the North Sea, also known as the United Kingdom.  London is in England, one of four countries that make up the UK…the others being Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.     What is it about London that makes it such a fascinating city?

Well, for one, unlike many European cities, London is seriously multicultural.  VERY multicultural.  And I’m not talking tourists.  I’m talking residents.  All races, religions, socioeconomic levels are on view throughout most parts of London.  Yes, in some of the swankier sections (Knightsbridge, Mayfair to name two), most of the people have more than their fair share of  Pound Sterling in their pockets.  But, London is a mammoth, vast city with section upon section of diverse areas.  Take Kensington…which borders ritzy area Knightsbridge and is not far from the also ritzy Chelsea.  Kensington has more Indian restaurants than British restaurants it seems.  The Indian dish Chicken tikka masala, not fish and chips, is even London’s honorary national meal. When we think British, we think Protestant and white.  In the countryside, maybe…but not in London.

Let’s move on to London’s fascinating history.  Unlike our cities in this country, London has recorded history dating back thousands of years.  Yes…thousands.  From the Romans who founded the city as Londinium to the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors, every corner of London bears some history worth repeating.  The formally-walled “City of London” is the present-day financial center of the capital and is one of the 32 boroughs of London.  There are still places within The City, or Square Mile, as it is sometimes called, where you can see some of the London Wall, first built around The City by the Romans.  Just to the east of The City lies Whitechapel, the former stomping grounds of that vicious deviant Jack the Ripper, who killed at least five prostitutes in the late 1880s.  And on the other side of the River Thames (which throughout much of history, was wider than the present-day river running through London today), there is the George Inn in Southwark…a pub that can date it’s history back to the 17th Century.  Yes, that’s right…the 1600s.  No, the George we see today is not the exact same one from the 1600s, but there has been a pub on that site for almost 400 years!  That’s a lot of pints!

Lastly, let’s look at London’s cultural side.  Most major cities can boast opera houses and a smattering of theaters and maybe one or two concert venues.  But, London is the HOME of the stage production…with its West End surpassing our Broadway in both longevity, history and profitability.  Many famed Broadway productions began as West End productions…and many acclaimed actors and actresses got their start on the London stage.

As the Summer Olympics approach (the opening ceremonies are on July 27), we thought everyone might want to get into a LONDON frame of mind to prepare.  Here are some books and authors that might fit the bill:

Books set in London
40 Love by Madeleine Wickham
Abbot Agency series by Veronica Heley
Abdication by Juliet Nicolson
About A Boy by Nick Hornby
After You by Julie Buxbaum
Airs and Graces by Roz Southey
Alan Grant series by Josephine Tey
Amsterdam by Ian Mcewan
The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris
Anatomy of Murder by Imogen Robertson
Anna Travis series & Jane Tennison/Prime Suspect series by Lynda La Plante
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Carola Dunn
Arthur and George by Julian Barnes
The Best of Friends by Joanna Trollope
The Best of Times by Penny Vincenzi
Bill Slider series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
Charlotte & Thomas Pitt series & William Monk series by Anne Perry
Detective Stella Mooney series by David Lawrence
Blue Monday by Nicci French
Brock & Kolla series by Barry Maitland
The Brothers of Baker Street by Michael Robertson
Bryant & May Peculiar Crimes Unit series by Christopher Fowler
Chelsea Mansions by Barry Matland
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey
Dead Beat by Patricia Hall
Dead Scared by S. J. Bolton
The Dog Who Came In From the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith
Eleven by Mark Watson
The English Monster, Or, the Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass by Lloyd Shepherd
The Finishing Touches by Hester Browne
Forget Me Not by Sue Margolis
Fraud by Anita Brookner
Free To Trade by Michael Ridpath
Get Maitland by James Patrick Hunt
Gold by Chris Cleave
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Get Me Out Of Here by Henry Sutton
The Good the Bad and the Uncanny By Simon Green
Hannah Wolfe series by Sarah Dunant
Hawkwood by James Mcgee
Helen West series by Frances Fyfield
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffengger
The High Flyer by Susan Howatch
The Honey Trap by Clive Edgerton
The House of Eliott by Jean Marsh
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson
In Office Hours by Lucy Kellaway
In The Kitchen by Monica Ali
India Black by Carol K. Carr
Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
The Invasion Year by Dewey Lambdin
Invisible River by Helena Mcewen
Jack Caffery series by Mo Hayder
John Coffin series by Gwendoline Butler
John McLeish & Francesca Wilson series by Janet Neel
Johnny “One Eye” Hawke series by David Stuart Davies
London Calling by James Craig
London Fields by Martin Amis
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
The List by Martin Fletcher
London Holiday by Richard Peck
Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear
Man of the Month Club by Jackie Clune
Mark Tartaglia series by Elena Forbes
A Married Man by Catherine Alcott
The Minority Council by Kate Griffin
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia Macneal
The Mysterium by P. C. Doherty
Nigel Barnes series by Dan Waddell
No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie
Notting Hell by Rachel Johnson
The Other Side of The Story by Marian Keyes
Park Lane by Frances Osborne
A Parliament of Spies by Cassandra Clark
Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
Peter Fletcher series by Simon Shaw
The Piccadilly Plot by Susanna Gregory
The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly
Rag and Bone by James R. Benn
The Reckoning by Jane Casey
Remember Me by Sophie Kinsella
Rescuing Rose by Isabel Wolff
Roommate Wanted by Lisa Jewell
Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen
Rumpole series by John Mortimer
Sacrilege by S.J. Parris
Sam Jones series by Lauren Henderson
Second Chance by Jane Green
The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble
Shopaholic Series by Sophie Kinsella
The Silent Oligarch by Chris Morgan Jones
A Small Fortune by Rosie Dastgir
The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd
A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy
The Spoiler by Annalena Mcafee
Strangers by Anita Brookner
Suzie Mountford series by John Gardner
A Tale of Two Cities by Ralph Mowat
The Third Angel by Alice Hoffman
Thomas Chaloner series by Susanna Gregory
Tides of War by Stella Tillyard
Tom Thorne series by Mark Billingham
The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart
Trish Maguire series by Natasha Cooper
The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss
Waiting For Sunrise by William Boyd
When Maidens Mourn by C.S. Harris
Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses
The Yard by Alex Grecian
Yoga Teacher by Alexandra Gray
Zero History by William Gibson
British Mystery Authors
Agatha Christie
Ann Granger: Mitchell and Markby series
Anthea Fraser
Antonia Fraser
Arthur Conan Doyle 
Audrey Peterson
Barbara Vine
Bruce Alexander
C.S. Harris
Candace Robb
Carola Dunn: Cornish Mystery series
Cassandra Chan
Cassandra Clark
Charles Finch
Charles Todd
Chris Morgan Jones
Colin Dexter: Inspector Morse series
David Liss
Deanna Raybourn
Deborah Crombie
Deborah Grabien
Denise Mina
Diana Killian
Dick Francis
Dorothy Cannell: Ellie Haskell series
Dorothy L. Sayers
Elisabeth Bastion
Elizabeth George
Elizabeth Peters
Ellis Peters
Fiona Mountain
Gayle Lynds
Gillian Linscott
Graham Moore
H.R.F. Keating
Iain Pears
Ian Rankin (Scottish)
J.M. Gregson: Lambert and Hook series
James Craig
Jane Casey
Jeffrey Archer
Jeri Westerson
Jill McGown
Jill Paton Walsh
Joanna Challis
John Harvey
John Lawton
John Sherwood
John William Wainwright:
Judith Cook: John Latymer series
Kate Atkinson
Kate Charles
Kate Ross
Kenneth Cameron
Laura Joh Rowland
Laurie R. King
Madeleine Robins
Margaret Fraser
Margaret Yorke
Marian Babson
Marianne Macdonald
Marjorie Allingham
Marjorie Eccles
Martha Grimes
Martin Edwards: Hannah Scarlet & Daniel Kind Lake District Mysteries
Martina Cole
Mary Stewart
MC Beaton: Agatha Raisin series
Michael Robertson
Michael Robotham
Minette Walters
Nancy Atherton
Ngaio Marsh
Nicci French
Nicola Upson
P.C. Doherty
P.D. James
Patricia Hall: Michael Thackeray & Laura Ackroyd series
Peter James
Peter Lovesey
Peter Robinson: Alan Banks series
Peter Turnbull: Hennessey and Yellich series
Rebecca Kent
Reggie Nadelson
Reginald Hill
Reginald Hill: Dalziel and Pascoe series
Robert Barnard: Charlie Peace series
Robert Goddard
Robert Harris
Robert Lee Hall
Roberta Gellis
Rosamund Lupton
Rosemary Stevens
Ruth Rendell: Inspector Wexford series
S.J. Bolton
S.J. Parris
Sally Spencer: Monika Paniatowski series
Santa Montefiore
Sheri Cobb South
Simon Brett: Fethering series
Sophie Hannah
Stella Whitelaw: Jordan Lacey series
Stuart Pawson
Thomas Harris
Val McDermid
Veronica Black: Sister Joan series
Will Thomas
General Fiction Authors
Anita Brookner
Barbara Pym
Carla Neggers
Eloise James
Ian McEwan
Isabel Wolff
Jane Green
Jasper Fforde
Jeffrey Archer
Joanna Trollope
Julia Quinn
Julian Barnes
Madeleine Wickham
Marcia Willet
Margaret Drabble
Marian Keyes
Mark Haddon
Martin Amis
Mary Balogh
Mary Sheepshanks
Nicci French
Nick Hornby
Penelope Lively
Peter Carey
Salmon Rushdie
Sophie Kinsella
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A moving drama about a tutor and her student who survive a plane crash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, only to wash up on a deserted island.  TJ missed a year of school while he was battling cancer.  Now that he’s in remission, his folks enlisted teacher Anna to tutor him while the family vacations in the Maldives.  All of that, of course, goes very wrong when their pilot has a heart attack en route to meet up with TJ’s parents already in the Maldives. 
At first, I found the story pretty Cast Away-esque.  Starting the first fire, cracking coconuts and catching fish for the first time were all VERY akin to the 2000 Tom Hanks movie, where Hanks’ character is stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere after a plane crash.  Sound familiar?  But, where this tale deviates is the growing, evolving, changing relationship between Anna and TJ.  Right after the crash occurs, they are very much teacher and student.  But, they soon learn to become partners in their desperate attempt to survive.  They care for each other.  They worry about each other.  And most of all, they learn to help each other survive under the direst of circumstances.  Yes, there are fights and frustrations.  But, for the most part, their mutual survival is aided by their strong and constant rapport.  Both characters grow quite a bit as people, both emotionally as well as physically.  One would think the TJ would do most of the growing here, since he is only 16 when they get stranded, but Anna starts off this story uncertain of her future and her life; she basically is not that grounded of a person.  They both are forced to toughen themselves up in all ways and to grow up fast.   There is no learning curve on the island — TJ doesn’t have high school and college to prepare him for “the real world” and Anna no longer can blame everything on the bad relationship she was in. 
And the relationship between the two of them is the best part of this novel.  I’m not talking about the romance.  I’m talking about the companionship and the friendship and support these two have together.  Each needs the other one to survive and when one’s survival is in jeopardy, the other is not sure they will be able to go on without the other.  And all of this is conveyed with sincerity and honesty in the book.  Garvis-Graves is an author to watch. 
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Recently, I ventured to Scotland for “holiday” (as the Brits call their vacations), armed with my iPad, loaded with an Ian Rankin mystery.  Rankin, a Scot, is best known for his Inspector Rebus series, set in the gritty underbelly of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh. I’ve read quite a few Rankin books, both from his lengthy John Rebus series and his standalone thrillers, and have always been mystified at what drives an author to set story after story in the same town (there are 19 Rebus books in the series, which the author ended in 2007).

Once in the historic city, I began to see what inspired Rankin to write Rebus in Edinburgh for 20 years (his first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, was published in 1987).   Edinburgh, like any major city, is chaotic and cluttered and dirty and crowded and on and on.  But, UNLIKE most major cities (especially the ones on THIS side of the pond), Edinburgh is filled with a captivating and fascinating history around every corner.  And, because of its hilly, winding streets and dark gray buildings (the porous stone has absorbed years of soot and dirt), not to mention the pretty regular mist and/or fog that hangs over the atmosphere, Edinburgh lends itself perfectly to the criminal element.  This is not to say I encountered any nefarious sorts in Edinburgh (hardly! — unless you count men in kilts nefarious) but I can understand why Rankin’s Rebus feels so at home here…fighting crime in a city from another time…feeling almost like another world.  So, if you want to visit Edinburgh, you can either hop a plane at O’Hare or you can pick up a John Rebus mystery by Ian Rankin.  Both give off the same eerie effect, but one will be MUCH easier on your wallet (whether in British Pounds or dollars!).

Oh, and Rebus is also available as a TV series on DVD: the first set with John Hannah as Rebus and the three more sets with Ken Stott as the Edinburgh inspector.

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Wickham scores again…this time with a fun, highly biting commentary on the social strata in England.  Not unlike my favorite author Edith Wharton (who wrote about society in early 1900s New York), Wickham here uses her fine writing skills to make sweeping and also pointed gestures about the differences and familiarities between the middle and upper classes.  Not that I would compare Wickham’s writing or plots to Wharton, but Wickham’s finger is definitely on the pulse of what makes society both tick and falter here.  The story takes us to a fine manor house in English Countryside (but not far enough out maybe).  Caroline and Patrick, the manor house, nouveau riche owners, invite several couples over for a weekend-long tennis party, including a stuffy man and his new rich wife and then former neighbors from their old “poorer” neighborhood out on the outskirts of London.  What transpires is funny, sad but most of all a I’m sure pseudo-realistic view of what goes on behind closed doors of those large stately homes.  LOTS of fun to read and educational as well for those interesting in climbing to social ladder!

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One of the better novels I have read in a while…this one makes you laugh, cry and long for your friends.  Rayner, a Brit, weaves a compelling tale filled with sudden loss, friendship, gradual loss, sexual identity and all sorts of relationships.  The main characters are the storytellers here…Karen who experiences sudden loss right at the beginning of the book, Anna, who is Karen’s friend and is in the midst of a doomed relationship with a man with dependency problems, and Lou who enters Karen and Anna’s lives through sad happenstance and who is dealing with her own private identity battles.  All of these characters on their own would make compelling fiction, but all three of them create a vivid and dynamic tale that not only holds the reader’s interest, but inspires them as well.  An excellent novel!

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From Chicago author Libby Fischer Hellmann, here’s a top-notch mystery with a strong female main character, Georgia Davis.  She’s feisty, proud, confident and able.  She’s a good PI who isn’t a “superhero” type…meaning she get afraid and is not ashamed to show it.  In Doubleback, Davis gets involved with a kidnapping/murder/financial malfeasance plot that takes her from Chicago to the Arizona-Mexico border.  Hellmann’s writing style is good, though I think sometimes she can be a bit choppy.  But, the great character construction and well-laid-out plot make up for this. Though the plot can be a bit far-fetched (as most thrillers and mysteries can be), Davis also seems believable in her role…meaning she doesn’t just happen to “fall” into situations, rather the escapades she finds herself in are essential to the plot.   I would read more tales about Georgia Davis and her sometimes partner-in-crime Ellie Foreman (Hellmann does a series with Foreman as more of a primary character too).

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