Day 1107: Conclave

Cover for ConclaveThe only book I’ve ever read featuring a papal conclave (except one of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series books, which has one as a subplot) was Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. That novel featured a series of bizarre murders. Robert Harris is skilled enough to generate the same level of suspense through secrets and activities that are much more likely.

As Dean of the College of Cardinals, it is Cardinal Lomeli’s job to conduct the conclave after the death of the Pope. Not only is Lomeli sincerely grieved at the Pope’s death, but he is also dedicated to doing his job well. He thinks the front-runners for the office will be Cardinal Tremblay, the Canadian Camerlengo; Cardinal Bellini, the Secretary of State; Adeyemi, the African Cardinal Major Penitentiary; and Cardinal Tedesco, the Patriarch of Venice.

Just before the cardinals are sequestered, a new cardinal appears, Vincent Benítez, newly appointed Archbishop of Baghdad. No one knows about the new appointment, but his credentials seem to be in order, and his appointment was kept secret because of the vulnerability of a Catholic cardinal in Iraq.

Another problem Archbishop Wozniak reports is that Cardinal Tremblay met with the late Pope just before the Pope died. Cardinal Wozniak tells Cardinal Lomeli the Pope confided to him that he had asked Cardinal Tremblay to resign from all his offices. Tremblay denies that this conversation took place and implies that the Pope was becoming unstable.

The suspense mounts as each vote fails to choose a candidate and secrets are revealed. Lomeli is dismayed to find himself becoming a viable candidate as others fall out of the running. He also finds indications that the late Pope was putting things in motion, months before his death, to affect the election.

Again, Harris has written a suspenseful and deeply interesting novel. The characters seem convincing—Cardinal Lomeli is extremely likable and all demonstrate human foibles without being caricatures. The ending is somewhat unbelievable, and although it is not really predictable, I was able to guess at something similar. That is a small caveat, though. All in all, Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite genre writers.

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Day 1096: Lockdown

Cover for LockdownAlthough King is best known for her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes mysteries, it is her stand-alone thrillers that have really appealed to me. I think her Folly is one of the best of its genre. However, if Lockdown hadn’t been written by Laurie R. King, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to read it. The subject, a violent incident at a middle school, wouldn’t normally appeal to me.

The staff and students of Guadalupe school are preparing for Career Day. They have had a tough year in which one student’s sister was murdered by a gang banger, another student is a witness against him, and another student, a young girl named Bee, disappeared without a trace.

Linda McDonald, the school principal, is most concerned about whether the day will come off. She is hoping to inspire some of her mostly impoverished students with career ambitions, and hope for the future.

Gordon Kendrick, Linda’s husband, has a past that may be coming back to haunt him after he is mentioned in the publicity for Career Day. Another adult who is hoping to stay under the radar is Tio, the school janitor.

link to NetgalleySeveral of the students are clearly troubled. But 8th grader Brendan Atchison, the son of a successful entrepreneur, is plotting something drastic that involves another person.

Although the novel employs a technique that I recently found irritating in Salt to the Sea, the rapid shifting of point of view between short sections, it works much better in Lockdown, building true suspense. At first, I was more interested in the story of what happened when Linda met Gordon in New Zealand than in the plot about the school, but I finally decided that this is another fine suspense novel by Laurie R. King.

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Day 1070: Burntown

Cover for BurntownThe previous two books I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon were a weird combination of unusual but realistic life and the supernatural. Burntown features the supernatural less, but in some ways is more bizarre and in others verges on the precious.

When Miles Sandeski is a little boy, he sees a man wearing a chicken mask murder his mother. Despite his assurances to the police that the man was not his father, the police think his father did it. Later, his father takes his own life.

Miles’s father handed down an invention taken from Edison’s lab that allows people to talk to the dead. Miles uses it to talk to his mother and find out who killed her. Then he goes off to do something about it.

Years later, something dreadful happens at Miles’s house. His daughter Eve, now calling herself Necco, ends up living on the streets in their industrial home town of Ashford, Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened, but her mother has told her that a flood washed away their home and killed her father. Her mother became a Fire Eater, ingesting a drug that brings visions of the future. But her mother has died, apparently jumping off a bridge.

Necco is camping out in a car with her boyfriend when her boyfriend is murdered. He has been looking into her past and promised to show her something the next day. The police think she murdered her boyfriend and are trying to find her. However, they don’t know who she is.

Theo is also running from someone. Her girlfriend Hannah talked her into selling drugs to the high school students. Theo did a big deal and then left her sachel at Necco’s place when some kids took her there to watch Necco breathe fire. The drug dealer is after her for his money, but in going back for her sachel, Theo may have seen the murderer.

link to NetgalleyAs Necco and Theo try to figure out what’s happening, they get help from unexpected places and make new friends. Although there is a certain amount of danger in this novel, it is far less eerie than the previous two novels. It depends more on strange characters and desolate urban settings than on its supernatural elements. I liked it well enough but felt it verged oddly toward being a feel-good novel full of eccentric characters at the conclusion.

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Day 1064: The Shadow Land

Cover for The Shadow LandBest Book of the Week!
Although I was a little disappointed by The Swan Thieves, I liked Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian so much that I was excited to get my hands on an early copy of The Shadow Land. It has a few minor problems, but overall, does not disappoint.

Alexandra has arrived in Sophia, Bulgaria, early for her teaching job so that she can have the summer to see the sights. However, a series of errors sets her on a different path. Instead of dropping her at her hostel, her taxi driver takes her to the Hotel Forest. There she helps an elderly couple and middle-aged man with their luggage as they get into a taxi. Only once she is in another taxi does she realize that one of their pieces of luggage got mixed up with hers. To her horror, she finds it contains an urn with someone’s ashes.

With her driver Bobby’s help, Alexandra begins trying to find the family. They had not been staying at the hotel they came out of. Alexandra feels she has no option but to go to the police. Once she has visited with them, though, and has been given an address based on the name on the urn, Stoyan Lazarov, she and Bobby begin to receive threats. Eventually on their search they find a potentially explosive manuscript about Lazarov’s experiences during the Communist regime.

Although the main intent of the novel is to tell about this dark time in Bulgaria’s history, this novel makes a great suspense story in the manner of Mary Stewart, with just a dash of romance. Like Stewart’s novels, it is evocative of its setting, as Alexandra and her friends travel from place to place in Bulgaria.

link to NetgalleyAlexandra’s adventures in Bulgaria are interrupted, first by the story of her brother Jack’s disappearance when she was younger and later by chapters from Stoyan Lazarov’s manuscript. These interruptions pose one of the slight problems with the novel. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for the first story—as a backstory for Alexandra it is important but could have been handled more economically. The second narrative serves both to finally provide the key to the plot and to prolong the suspense. But I found it to be a bit too prolonged, with too much detail about how Stoyan Lazarov keeps up his inner strength during his trials. The effect of both interruptions was to slow down the main narrative.

Those are minor criticisms, though. A little larger one is that the identity of the villain and his reason for pursuing our heroes are both fairly easy to guess. Still, I found this novel suspenseful and fun to read, with a chunk of Bulgaria’s dark history as a bonus.

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Day 1054: Room

Cover for RoomReviews and even the book blurb have made no secret of a major plot point of Room, that it is about five-year-old Jack and his Ma, who has been kept captive in a small room for 10 years. Perhaps Donaghue meant this to be a surprise, simply presenting us at first with a strange situation that is difficult to understand, but there has been too much publicity about this novel to keep this plot point hidden.

Donaghue is clever to make the novel be from Jack’s point of view, because this is the only world he has known. His Ma has told him that the world presented in grainy black and white on their TV is all made up.

But an incident with Old Nick, their captor, makes Ma realize that they could be left locked in their shed to die. So, she begins making plans for their escape, plans that require Jack to leave Room by himself.

This novel is certainly compelling. I read it in one day last October despite spending a great deal of time preparing for our move. At times, though, I didn’t believe Jack’s voice. Yes, he is often childlishly naive, but sometimes Donaghue gives him insights that a five-year-old wouldn’t have. I’m not talking about his almost telepathic sense of what his Ma is feeling, but of other times when he has some rather sophisticated thoughts.

So, I think this novel has been a little over-rated, but it is still certainly worth reading.

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Day 1032: Strangers in Company

Cover for Strangers in CompanyWhen I was in my teens, I loved reading Jane Aiken Hodge’s historical romantic suspense novels, so when a novel I hadn’t read became available on Netgalley, I thought I’d see if I still enjoyed her. Strangers in Company, unlike the Hodge novels I read when I was young, is set in the time it was written, the early 1970’s.

Marian Frenche married a famous rock star when she was very young, but he deserted her when he learned she was pregnant with twins. Now that the twins are 18, they have in turn deserted her to go live with their father. Mark Frenche has abruptly stopped paying support, so when a tour company contacts her with a job offer, she takes it. All she has to do is accompany Stella Marten on a tour of Greece. Her doctor thinks this is a good idea, because she has been feeling nervous lately, as if someone is watching her. She is warned that Stella may be difficult.

Stella certainly seems to have an uneven temper, but Marian finds they get along most of the time. But almost immediately, things begin to go wrong with the tour. The originally scheduled courier is injured, so they get a history teacher with no experience. On the first expedition, a Mrs. Hilton complains that someone was following her and a boulder nearly hits Marian.

Later, another member of the tour is almost run over by the tour bus, and Mrs. Hilton is killed in a fall. Two schoolteachers fall ill, and one is injured in a fall.

Stella is behaving oddly, too. When Marian finally gets her to confide in her, she is shocked at what she hears.

link to NetgalleyThe novel is set against the backdrop of a recent Greek revolution, during which the country apparently underwent a military coup. I was not really familiar with these events, but not very much was explained.

This novel is clearly an homage to some of the work of Mary Stewart. It has resemblances in its plot line to My Brother Michael, which Marian just happens to be reading. I still much prefer Stewart, but Strangers in Company made an enjoyable light read.

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Day 1022: The Girl Who Played with Fire

Cover for The Girl Who Played with FireHaving started this series with the last book, I am finally finishing it with the second. As with the original Larsson trilogy, this graphic novel begins to get into the conspiracy by SAPO to criminalize Lisbeth Salander.

Lisbeth is on vacation on a tropical island after the events of the first novel. Mikael Blomkvist and his magazine are working on an issue about human trafficking with Dag Svensson. Meanwhile, Mr. Bjurman, Lisbeth’s guardian, is trying to figure out a way to control her.

Lisbeth has returned home when Dag Svensson and his girlfriend are found murdered. Also dead is Bjurman, and evidence links Lisbeth to the murders. Lisbeth realizes that all this is pointing back to her past, and she must follow clues while a huge manhunt is going on for her.

Despite being the transitional second novel, this one is engaging, with a lot going on. The art is just excellent. Even though the graphic novels are taken from a hefty series, these writers and artists have managed to condense the Millenium trilogy into an effective series.

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