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Reviews from MICHELE A. REED

JANUARY - FEBRUARY  REVIEWS


GIULIO LEONI*

THE MOSAIC CRIMES
A Dante Alighieri Mystery
GIULIO LEONI
Translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel
Harvest Books pb 2/08

It is the year 1300 and poet Dante Alighieri has just been named a prior of the city of Florence , one of an elite group charged with keeping peace in the city. He is hard at work at his writing one evening when the Bargello, captain of the guard, bursts in to request his presence at the scene of a death. Near an uncompleted mosaic in a church under restoration, a body hangs, its face obscured under a shroud of caustic quicklime. As Dante chips away at the covering, he finds it is the mosaicist, a Comacine master, one of an elite group of skilled builders. His beautiful mosaic of a colossus in a verdant landscape has been defaced as well – a pentagram has been scratched into the tesserae with a sharp object. Is witchcraft at work here? Dante wonders. It is, after all, a time when the Inquisition is at large in the land. Why would the killer obliterate the face of his victim? And why kill a skilled craftsman brought to the city for a special project? Dante’s investigation leads him to the Third Heaven, a new studium or group of scholars in various fields brought to the city to form its first university: a pharmacist, a navigator, another poet, an astronomer, an architect, a chemist. The refurbished church was to be their home, but for now they meet in Baldo’s Tavern, run by a one-armed former Crusader. Dante joins them for philosophical debate and a few glasses of wine. There he finds another enigma – the exquisite Antilia, a copper-skinned beauty who dances nightly in the tavern, adorned with golden disks. Who is the exotic woman and where does she come from? Dante traces her to Paradiso, a luxurious brothel in town. Dancer, whore, spy? Murderess? Whatever she is, she ignites a passion in Dante that troubles his dreams. When another member of the studium turns up dead, his face shrouded in a substance used in his trade and a pentagram carved on his chest, Dante must redouble his efforts to solve the mystery of who is killing the leading intellectuals of the city.

THE MOSAIC CRIMES is a fascinating look at life in medieval Florence and at one of the great literary figures of all time. One moment our hero is engaged in a philosophical discussion, the next he is demonstrating his command of the foulest language as he cajoles, threatens and physically abuses those who stand in his way. We are privy to discussions among the city’s intellectual elite and descend with Dante below the reconstructed church, into the underworld where beggars and lepers dwell. The reader is given a glimpse into the political intrigue of the day, which ultimately caused Dante to be exiled from his home city. The poet is outspoken in his contempt for the current pontiff, Pope Boniface, and the power he is trying to wield over Dante’s city. THE MOSAIC CRIMES was written in Italian and is masterfully translated by Anne Milano Appel, who includes an afterward explaining many of the references to Dante’s poetry sprinkled throughout the book. In fact, all of the appended material makes fascinating reading, from Leoni’s historical context to his glossary setting the terms found in the book in their historical perspective as well. Leoni is a professor of Italian literature and his novel is rich, not just in suspense but also in layers of imagery and literary nuance. It is a marvelous read.

 - Michele A. Reed
*UNACCREDITED WEB SITE PHOTO

THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION
LAWRENCE GOLDSTONE
Delacorte Press  February, 2008

It is 1889, and young Dr. Ephraim Carroll is a man on his way up. After a youth of hardship, he earned his medical degree and is now honored to be studying in Philadelphia under the legendary Dr. William Osler, who would come to be regarded as the father of modern medicine. One of Dr. Osler’s more controversial teaching methods is the use of autopsies.  With the Philadelphia League Against Human Vivisection protesting his practices, Dr. Osler surreptitiously obtains bodies from the Dead House, where the city’s poor await burial.

One day a drawer in the morgue is opened to reveal the body of a beautiful young woman. Osler, and young Dr. Turk as well, react with shock and the professor suspends autopsies for the day. Carroll is suspicious and accompanies Turk to a seedy waterfront bar, where he is sure he sees Turk arguing with Osler and another distinguished-looking gentleman. Things become even more complicated when Osler introduces Carroll to Philadelphia high society and the young doctor falls for the daughter of one of the city’s movers and shakers. As he learns the identity of the dead young woman, and begins to discover the nefarious goings on on the waterfront, Carroll is faced with the grim prospect that, if he continues to investigate this particular death, not only his career in medicine but indeed the entire future of his profession will be in jeopardy.

In a masterful work of fiction that has been compared to Caleb Carr’s THE ALIENIST and Matthew Pearl’s THE DANTE CLUB, Goldstone gives us a glimpse at medicine on the brink of some of its most important discoveries. He introduces us to prominent figures like Osler, master surgeon William Stewart Halstead and the famous painter Thomas Eakins. And he takes us down the alleyways and into the seedy dives of a city teetering on the brink of the 20th century.

Goldstone’s prose is totally appropriate to the era, his research deep and thorough, and his characters believable and compelling. THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION is a beautifully atmospheric, shockingly realistic and perfectly told tale of murder, deceit and class differences. One can only hope we hear much more from Lawrence Goldstone.

 - Michele A. Reed

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT
A Leonardo da Vinci Mystery
DIANE A. S. STUCKART
Berkley Prime Crime  January, 2008

Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, is having a little bet with the ambassador from France. Both Ludovico — known as Il Moro (The Moor) for his swarthy complexion — and the Frenchman want a painting of a beautiful woman by court painter Leonardo da Vinci. So Il Moro orders da Vinci, who is also his chief engineer, to construct a living chess match for the duke and ambassador to play, with the winner taking the painting. In the middle of the match, Leonardo’s apprentice, Dino, makes a ghastly discovery. Dino finds one of the white bishops murdered, stabbed in a secluded garden on the castle grounds. Leonardo has Dino dress as the white bishop to finish the game. After the match, Il Moro charges Leonardo with solving the mystery of who killed the man, who was Ludovico’s cousin, recently named as ambassador of Milan to France. With Dino at his side, Leonardo explores every suspect, with the castle gates locked to keep anyone from exiting. The dead man’s widow, his great-aunt, the ambassador and even the archbishop all come under their scrutiny. As an apprentice, Dino has access to kitchens, servants’ quarters and many other behind-the-scenes places Leonardo cannot go. Through Dino’s eyes, the reader gets a glimpse of life in the Sforza court as well as a major figure in Western art, with his genius and his foibles. Not only do we get an up-close view of the master at work, we also learn Dino has a carefully guarded secret. Stuckart makes nice use of Leonardo’s notebooks, inventions and even his backwards writing as plot devices. Stuckart’s prose is tight and precise, her plotting marvelous and the characters warm and believable. The reader comes to care about Dino and the eccentric da Vinci, all the while learning about life in Renaissance Milan. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT is a masterful historical mystery and one can only hope we see more of Leonardo and the intrepid Dino in future books.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

 - Michele A. Reed

THE SERPENT'S DAUGHTER
SUZANNE ARRUDA
Obsidian   January, 2008

Adventuress and pioneering photojournalist Jade del Cameron meets her mother in Tangiers, hoping the encounter will bring the two closer together. But North Africa in the 1920s is full of pitfalls for American women, as Jade and Doña Inez soon find out. Inez is kidnapped and the authorities are eager to find her – not to rescue her, but because she is their main suspect in the murder of a man found dead in a tunnel system believed haunted by the malevolent spirits, the jinn. Jade is determined to find her mother and tracks her to Marrakech, where she uncovers additional intrigue and finds herself facing grave danger. Jade’s search for Doña Inez allies her with a Berber man, Bachir, and she is drawn into his village’s search for an ancient amulet. Along the way Jade is reunited with two characters from her past — one beloved and one set on her destruction at all costs.  The final pages of this rollicking adventure find Jade in mortal combat for her own life and her mother’s in the basements, twisty passages and dungeons below Marrakech.

In Jade del Cameron, Arruda has created a memorable and lovable character. Her spunk will remind the reader of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs but, although they both served and were wounded in the Great War, the two are very different heroines. While Maisie solves mysteries using her empathy and understanding of the human psyche, Jade is a bold adventuress, with a knife sheath secreted in her boot and a most unladylike proficiency with both firearms and hand-to-hand combat. THE SERPENT’S DAUGHTER is a great period read, with a strong, competent, capable heroine the reader will come to love.  RECOMMENDED.

 - Michele A. Reed

Look for these reviews from Michele on the PAPERBACK PAGE:
CAT PAY THE DEVIL by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
PUSS 'N CAHOOTS by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown

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NOVEMBER - DECEMBER  REVIEWS

ALL SHOTS
A Dog Lovers' Mystery
SUSAN CONANT
Berkley Prime Crime  November, 2007

Dog writer and Alaskan malamute owner Holly Winter returns home one day to find a stranger — who looks distinctly like the biblical Moses — in her kitchen, his magnificent Harley parked outside. He’s demanding something he thinks she has and Holly has no idea what he’s talking about. Shortly after he leaves, she gets a call about a missing Siberian husky, who turns out to be a blue malamute (the two breeds are often mixed up by people outside the dog fancy). She sets out to find the dog, but instead finds a dead woman — one who has apparently stolen Holly’s identity. Now there are three Holly Winters in Cambridge, Massachusetts:  our protagonist, the dead woman and a severe academic who appears to be stalking dog-writing Holly. Did the Harley-riding stranger kill the identity-stealing Holly? Does her killing have anything to do with the identity theft, or the missing blue malamute? Why are DEA agents swarming Holly’s father’s farm in Maine? And what of simple-minded Mellie, who was dog-sitting the “husky” when the dog went missing. Holly tries to keep sane showing and training her dogs, but the fear that someone is out there ready to kill her is preying on her mind. Soon she and her dogs will be hot on the trail of a killer, who will not hesitate to murder again to get what he’s looking for. This is Conant’s 18th Dog Lover’s Mystery and the series continues to delight fans. You don’t have to be a dog devotee to enjoy the series, but it helps. Conant crafts a fast-moving plot, with themes straight out of today’s headlines. She sprinkles in plenty of dog show lore and a genuine love for her furry friends. And those friends are wonderful characters in their own right, as we delight in the antics of Rowdy, Kimi and puppy Sammy while they help Holly work out the mystery. “Write what you know,” goes the old saw, and Conant is living proof of the wisdom of that adage: She is an award-winning dog writer, an owner of malamutes and lives in Cambridge. So when she expounds on the uses of liver in training dogs or how to tell if your canine has tapeworm, you know you’re getting the real poop (sorry, couldn’t resist it). But even if you don’t love dogs, you’ll enjoy curling up on the sofa with this latest entry from Conant.   RECOMMENDED.

 - Michele A. Reed

THIRD STRIKE
PHILIP R. CRAIG and WILLIAM G. TAPPLY
Scribner  December, 2007

A strike against the Steamship Authority has thrown life on Martha’s Vineyard into disarray. It’s the end of August: The summer people can’t get home and the islanders are paying premium prices for the necessities of life. When Boston lawyer Brady Coyne gets an urgent call from his client, eccentric ex-baseball player Larry Bucyck, he hurries to the island. Larry appears to be in fear of his life, but he’ll only tell Brady in person. Coyne calls on his good friend J. W. Jackson. An ex-Army guy and cop, J. W. lives on the island and is only too happy to ferry his good buddy to “paradise” on his catboat. While Brady tackles the problem of what’s up with Larry, J. W. has a mystery of his own to solve. Someone has blown up the ship Trident, and striker Eduardo Alvarez perished in the explosion. Eduardo’s widow believes he is innocent, and prevails upon J. W. to clear her husband’s name. It appears everyone agrees with her: Eduardo might as well be a saint; he can do no wrong. In the meantime, Brady visits Larry, who takes him out to the edge of Menemsha Pond, where they see men with Uzis loading wooden crates onto a dock belonging to a local physician. When Larry ends up dead the next day, Coyne and J. W. take on the mystery of his death as well. The resulting investigation pits the two friends against some very desperate characters, set on perpetrating a heinous act. Craig and Tapply have crafted a thriller that has all the atmosphere of a summer sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard combined with the immediacy of today’s headlines. Usually a co-written book is as hard to read as I imagine it would be to write. But in this third Brady Coyne/J. W. Jackson mystery, good friends Craig and Tapply have created an exciting, readable tale. Each chapter is from one of the protagonists’ point of view, alternating between Brady and J. W. Thus, although there really are two distinct voices, it works perfectly. Tapply is the author of forty-two books, including nearly a dozen on fishing. Craig, who passed away in May after a brief battle with cancer, penned nineteen Martha’s Vineyard novels and lived on the island year-round with his wife and hosted frequent visits from Tapply.  Thus the book has the ring of authenticity, whether our heroes are exploring the back roads from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs, or sailing between the island and America. This novel would best be savored during a summer’s eve on a deck overlooking a body of water with a pitcher of martinis and a plate of bluefish pate (one of J. W.’s favorite pastimes with his wife, Zee), but at any time of the year, it’s a great escape to a favorite vacation spot. RECOMMENDED.

 - Michele A. Reed

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Louie

Michele Bazan Reed’s story “Cash Rewards” appears in the new volume 
CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE FATHER AND DAUGHTER’S SOUL

It was originally published in CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE WRITER’S SOUL, in 2000.
 
Through an editorial glitch, you’ll need to look for Michelle, not Michele, and Bazan,
her maiden name, in honor of her father. 
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