Posted in Africa, British Mystery, Cozy Mystery, historical mystery, Series

Love and Death Among the Cheetahs by Rhys Bowen

Her Royal Spyness Series #13

Georgie and Darcy are on their honeymoon at last. After Darcy announces their upcoming trip to Kenya in front of the queen, Georgie is stunned by this surprise. She quickly gains her composure when the queen pulls her aside and tells her that David is also on his way to Kenya. She asks Georgie to keep an eye on her son, who might just take the opportunity to elope with that Simpson woman.

After an exhausting whirlwind of travel by a variety of conveyances, the newlyweds arrive in Happy Valley. Georgie and Darcy met a few people along the way, particularly Freddie, the local government man. Upon arrival, they meet their hostess and neighbors. Their hostess is a lovely, independent woman named Diddy Ruocco. The rest of the residents of Happy Valley are less lovely. Georgie finds herself among leches, hedonists, liars, and a potential diamond thief. She begins to suspect that Darcy has arranged this honeymoon to be a bit of a busman’s holiday. After a prominent landowner is murdered, it is obvious that there is more than one criminal harboring secrets.

At the time Love and Death Among the Cheetahs takes place, this area of Africa was under British rule and was called the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya. The native peoples mentioned in the novel, the Maasai and Kikuyu, were forced into servitude. In her introduction, Rhys Bowen comments a bit on the history of the area and the treatment of the indigenous people. She realizes that today’s readers may find parts of the novel offensive. But, she is trying to be realistic in her portrayal of that time and place. The author also did extensive research and includes a bibliography of sources at the end of the book.

I like the way the author handled a tricky, serious, historical topic in a cozy mystery. While the majority of the Happy Valley residents are absolutely horrid to the native people, Georgie’s inner thoughts are the voice of dissent for the reader. Georgie’s reactions are completely in character. Despite her royal heritage, Georgie is always good-hearted, down to earth and not the least stuck-up.

After thirteen novels, I have come to love the characters. This is my go-to series when I just want to snuggle up with a book that feels like going home.

Book cover

My Rating: 5 Stars, Grade A

Posted in ARC, Audio, Contemporary Fiction, Crime Fiction, Japan, Mystery

The Kimono Tattoo by Rebecca Copeland

Ruth Bennett is a translator working in Kyoto, Japan. Tall, redheaded Ruth is immediately recognizable as a foreigner, but she speaks impeccable Japanese and thoroughly embraces Japanese culture. She was born and raised in Japan while her parents worked as missionaries, although not the stereotypical sort. Her father was an obstetrician in a Christian hospital. Tragedy struck the family when her father was embroiled in a baseless malpractice case and her younger brother mysteriously vanished. Ruth’s parents returned to America, but Japan was home for Ruth.

Ruth’s current translation job is rather boring. She has no relatives nearby, few friends, and she’s not currently in a relationship. When a stranger knocks on her door offering her a chance to translate a novel by an author everyone assumed was dead, she gladly accepts the challenge. But as she reads the manuscript, she finds inconsistencies in writing style and the subject matter is about a dead woman’s body found naked on a nearby path. The body is covered in stunningly artistic tattoos that strongly resemble kimono fabric. After a very similar story appears on the television news, she knows the woman has been murdered.

Ruth slowly discovers she is the target of a very dangerous and powerful person. As she works to solve the puzzle of the manuscript and the tattooed woman, she discovers that she also has allies, friends and support from unexpected places.

In The Kimono Tattoo, kimonos are mentioned and observed in great detail so frequently, the reader can’t miss them. But as someone who knows very little about kimonos, I found this fascinating. The author also described the setting near Ruth’s home so well that I could picture myself walking those paths.

The mystery is just as complex as the dead woman’s tattoos. I listened to the audio version of this book and I was so engrossed in the story that I had to keep reminding myself to turn it off and go to sleep!

I looked up the author’s webpage and biography. Rebecca Copeland draws her main character’s history from her own life experiences. She is also an illustrious Japanese translator and literary critic. This is her first work of fiction.

Thank you NetGalley and Brother Mockingbird publishers for the opportunity to listen to the audio version of this book. The Kimono Tattoo is now available at your favorite print or audio book retailers.

My Rating: 5 Stars, Grade A

Posted in 20th Century, African American, General Fiction

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Ray Colson just wants to get through life in one piece.

When the novel begins, Ray owns a small used goods and furniture store in Harlem, dealing mostly in honest trade. He and his wife are expecting their first child. Her parents, who live on Strivers Row in Harlem (the street name speaks for itself), don’t think much of Ray. They are sure their daughter could have done better for herself.

Ray had a challenging childhood, with a delinquent father, in more ways than one, and a dead mother. When his father disappeared for a couple of months, he went to live with his Aunt Millie, and his cousin, Freddie, and there he stayed. His aunt is a blessing. Freddie is a double edged sword.

Ray has a college education, but what can a black man who just wants to keep his head down do with that in 1950’s Harlem? He uses both the schooling he got on the streets and in the classroom to work sales both above and below board. He has a nose for quality new and used goods to display in his store. Behind the counter, he never deals in anything too shady or traceable. Ray is a smart and cautious man.

His cousin, Freddie, however is not. Freddie is always getting into trouble. When Freddie comes looking to Ray for assistance in handling the various scrapes he gets into, Ray is there for him like a brother. Freddie’s antics escalate until Ray has to use all of his wits to keep himself, his business and his family safe.

Harlem Shuffle is the July 2022 selection for my book club. I might not have picked it up otherwise. While I didn’t like it as much as Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, I’m glad I read it. I learned a few things, which is always a plus!

Although I was born almost two decades later than the main character, there are locations in the novel that are relatable and nostalgic. I remember early used electronics shops like Aronowitz’s and furniture stores much like Ray’s. Descriptions of the era brought back feelings from childhood. But as a white woman who grew up in middle class suburbia, much of the novel was like reading about a foreign land. Despite working both sides of the fence, pun intended, Ray is at heart a deeply honorable man who loves his family and his neighborhood. While I can’t begin to put myself in Ray’s shoes, I gained a deep respect for him. That was a fine accomplishment by the author.

My Rating 4.75 Stars, Grade A-

Posted in Asian, Best Sellers, Contemporary Fiction, Cultural, Fiction

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Publication Info: Published September 12, 2017 by Penguin Press. I read the Book of the Month Club hardcover edition. Other editions available.

Summary: Elena Richardson’s guiding life principle is that everything will be just fine if you live by the rules. She grew up in Shaker Heights, a well-ordered town, went away to college briefly, and came right back with a new husband in tow. Of Elena’s four children, three of them more or less adhered to her guidelines for life, but the youngest, Izzy, rebelled from birth.

The Richardsons live in a large house in the most prosperous part of town, but they also own a rental duplex. Elena likes to make herself feel like she’s doing a good deed by renting it to people who seem like they need a boost in life. The bottom floor is occupied by a quiet school bus driver. The top floor is rented to an artist/photographer named Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Elena thought they seemed like nice quiet people, but Elena would come to regret her choice of upstairs occupants.

Mia and Pearl lived an itinerant lifestyle until moving to Shaker Heights. Mia wandered the country, looking for artistic inspiration (as well as running from a deep secret in her past), dragging her daughter along with her. In Shaker Hights, Mia feels that her secret is far enough in the past to allow Pearl to make friends and live a semi-normal life.

But when Elena, who is a reporter for the local paper, gets on her high horse about events that are none of her business, it sets off a chain of events that change several families’ lives forever.

Comments: I’m not sure why I didn’t pick this book up when it first came out, but I’m very glad I finally did. Two things prompted me to take a closer look at Little Fires Everywhere. The first is that it is now a TV show on Hulu and I wanted to read the book before seeing the show. The second is that I had a free credit to use on my Book of the Month club subscription and this title was one of the options.

I have to say that the book exceeded my expectations. I was impressed with the depth and insight into the realistic characters. The issues of cultural identity were dealt with deftly, teaching me something about my own thinking in the process.

Highly recommended for readers of General Fiction and Multi-Cultural fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Best Sellers, Cultural, Jamaica, Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

These Ghosts are Family by Maisy Card

Publication Info: Expected publication date March 3, 2020 by Simon & Schuster. I read the Kindle edition, courtesy of NetGalley. Other editions will be available at time of publication.

Summary: When the novel opens, we meet Stanford Solomon, a man living in Jamaica near the end of his life. Stanford’s guilt over something he did in his past is catching up with him. With his wife recently deceased, Stanford decides to confess a huge secret to his partially estranged family: he is not Stanford Solomon. Long ago, he seized an opportunity to change his life by abandoning his real identity, his much hated job, and his first family, when the real Stanford Solomon was killed.

As the stories of Solomon and his family unfold, we learn that he’s not the only one with secrets. This is a family of flawed people, who are just trying to survive. One daughter is a heroin addict and the other works in New York as home health care worker, struggling to raise two kids alone. His first wife had an affair and an abortion.

Meanwhile, another woman is about to get a shock. After signing up for a DNA website, Debbie’s father gives her his her great-great-great-great grandfather’s journal. Harold Fowler owned a plantation in Jamaica in the 1800’s. Her ancestors once owned the ancestors of of people she’s never met — Stanford Solomon (aka Able Paisley) and his family. She also realizes that they are distant cousins. She finds the emotionally detached and violent information in Harold’s journal to be very disturbing. She can’t get the images out of her head.

In a non-linear style, the author continues to reveal more about the history of both families, drawing the reader deeper into the Jamaican culture and the ongoing effects of slavery.

Comments: This was not an fast and easy book to read. Aside from the dialect (which I would have loved to hear in an audio format), the book jumps between various voices and timelines. I had to slow down my usual reading speed, or risk missing things.

These Ghosts are Family shook me out of my white, urban comfort zone and gave me a emotionally complex glimpse into Jamaican history and culture.

Recommended for book clubs and discussion groups, readers of Literary Fiction and those interested in Jamaican history, culture and slavery.

My Rating: 4 STARS

Posted in Cultural, French, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, World War I

The Vineyards of Champagne by Juliet Blackwell

Publication Info: Published January 21, 2020 by Berkley. Kindle Pre-Pub edition courtesy of Berkley and NetGalley. Other editions now available.

Summary: Rosalyn Acosta works as a wine sales rep for her friend Hugh in California. He offered her the job and some essential financial support after her husband died of cancer, leaving her grieving and bankrupt. She dislikes sales and is an artist at heart, but it’s hard to support herself and make enough money to pay back creditors by painting.

Hugh sends Rosalyn to a sales conference in the Champagne region of France. She doesn’t want to go since she dislikes champagne and has too many painful memories of her honeymoon in Paris.

On the plane, Rosalyn is befriended by a boisterous, wealthy Australian woman, Emma, who offers her assistance. Rosalyn just wants to be left alone, but becomes intrigued by some old letters that Emma is trying to organize and translate. The letters were a legacy from Emma’s great Aunt, written to a young soldier in France during WWI, as part of the marraines de guerre project. Emma was captivated by the soldier’s love of a young woman named Lucie Marechal, who lived in the wine caves under Reims during the war. Emma is traveling to France for both business and research.

While helping Emma translate the letters, lonely, grieving Rosalyn is pulled into the simpler pace of the French vineyards and people. With the help of new friends, she discovers her true calling and begins to heal.

Comments: There are so many things that pulled me deeply into The Vineyards of Champagne. In this warm and lovely novel, I deeply related to Rosalyn’s numbed feelings of grief and betrayal. Emma is such a bright light despite her own issues. The determination of Lucie and the other townspeople to make champagne and and thrive amidst daily bombings and shootings tugged at something deep within me. I couldn’t help but wonder if I would survive or give up in despair in similar circumstances. I was reminded of my paternal grandfather, himself a soldier during the Great War.

And bright and shining, flowing through the grief and loss, is a sparkling reminder of the many joys and celebrations in life: the champagne.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction, General Fiction and novels about World War I, as well as those with an interest in France, champagne and wine history.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Japan, Murder Mystery, Mystery

Zen Attitude by Sujata Massey (Rei Shimura #2)

Publication Info: Original publication date, 1998. Harper paperback edition published 2005. Other editions available.

Summary: American-born Rei Shimura is living in Japan, struggling to get her antiques business off the ground. She works as a broker, hunting down requested pieces for Japanese clients. She just received a request from the prominent Nana Mihori to find a particular tansu, a chest of drawers with very specific styling. Nana has a lot of influence in town and if Rei can pull this job off, she will have many referrals for future jobs.

She works out of her home, which she shares with her Scottish, international lawyer, boyfriend, Hugh. Her already cluttered home is invaded by Hugh’s carefree, careless and messy brother, Angus. This throws her life with Hugh into turmoil and begins to wear on their relationship.

Nana Mihori directs Rei to a particular shop where she said a friend saw a tansu like she is looking for. Once she gets there, Rei finds herself in a bidding war with another customer. She wins, but at great personal cost — after all, Nana hasn’t paid her yet.

After the tansu is delivered to her home, Rei finds previously unnoticed flaws and realizes this tansu is a fake. She tries to return it but the seller has vanished. Then he turns up dead. Evidence begins to pile up that sends Rei on the run with no one to turn to except people she doesn’t trust.

Comments: I’ve wanted to read more in this series for almost fifteen years. During the first incarnation of The Brown Bookloft, publicists sent me hard copies of books, usually surprises based on my genre preferences. In one batch was the first book in this series, The Salaryman’s Wife. It was one of those rare books that stuck with me, leaving me want to read more by Sujata Massey.

I admit I forgot about it until the author published the well-received book The Widows of Malabar Hill., which I read and liked very much. I began hunting through over a dozen used book stores in two states trying to find a copy of Zen Attitude. I finally purchased one online through Thrift Books.

Zen Attitude has a few rough edges, particularly in its characters. There was a lot of unnecessary angst and mercurial relationship swings, but the writing was rock solid. It was the quality of the writing and the setting in Japan that most appealed to me in The Salaryman’s Wife. I found that I enjoyed both of those just as much in book number 2. I have already ordered the third book, The Flower Master.

Recommended for Mystery readers and anyone who likes books set in modern Japan.

My rating: 3.75 STARS

Posted in Arabic, French, Literary Fiction

The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre

Publication Info: Published September 3, 2019 by Black, Inc. First published March 9, 2017 by Anne-Marie Métailié. I purchased and read the Kindle edition. Other editions available.

Summary: The Widow Patience Portefeaux is a middle aged French woman plodding along on the treadmill of life. She works as a poorly paid Arabic translator — first for the courts and then for the police. She struggles to pay for her mother’s Alzheimer care facility while keeping a shabby roof over her own head. Having grown up in a dysfunctional family on the fringes of society, Patience has great survival and coping skills, but much needed cash is in short supply.

Patience spends her days listening to, and then translating, transcripts of conversations between drug dealers, most of whom are complete idiots. They rant, rave and threaten each other, more interested in machismo than intelligent planning. When a more level-headed and business-minded family group of drug dealers crosses Patience’s desk, she starts to pay closer attention.

She discovers that she has an unexpected personal connection to one member of the family. This sets off ideas in her head that lead to her solving her cash-flow problem by becoming the Godmother of the local drug crime district.

Comments: This tightly written, darkly humorous and very clever novel crossed my path because it is this month’s book club selection for a discussion group I am joining. My description doesn’t begin to do justice to the wry observations and wit sprinkled throughout The Godmother. Stephanie Smee obviously did a fantastic job of translating from the original French.

Very highly recommended for readers of Literary Fiction.

My Rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Historical Fiction, Soviet Union

Cilka’s Journey by Heather Morris (The Tattooist of Auschwitz #2)

Publication Info: Expected publication date October 1, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Kindle pre-pub edition courtesy of the publisher and NetGalley. Other editions will also be available.

Summary: Although the Tattooist of Auschwitz was primarily about Lale Sokolov and his experiences at the infamous Nazi concentration camp, one of the other memorable people from that story was Cilka Klein. Only sixteen when she was sent to the concentration camp, her youth and beauty caught the attention of a brutal Commandant. Her choice was either death in the showers or to endure being repeatedly raped, but with a hope of survival. Cilka chose to survive.

Her choice kept her alive in the concentration camp, but she was then sentenced for fifteen years to one of the Soviet Gulags as punishment for being a Nazi “collaborator” and suspected spy. At the Vorkuta Gulag, she is thrown in with a mix of political prisoners and criminals. She lives in a crude, dirty dormitory and is sent to work with other women gathering coal mined by the male prisoners. She and the other women deal with almost nightly rape by the men in the camp.

When a woman is burned by the stove in the dormitory, Cilka’s quick thinking and ministration saves her hand. This brings her to the attention of a female doctor who recognizes Cilka’s intelligence. Cilka’s life improves somewhat after she is given work in the hospital. But once again, preference sets her apart and she justifiably fears repercussions.

Comments: Although Cilka’s background story is told in flashbacks, I strongly suggest reading the Tattooist of Auschwitz before Cilka’s Journey. As horrible as the conditions are in the Gulag, they don’t begin to compare to Auschwitz. Cilka’s situation is incredibly cruel in light of what she’s already been through.

While Cilka was a real person, her story is a fictionalized blend of research and interviews of people who knew her or went through similar experiences, as Cilka passed away years before this book was researched and written. But this novel is more than just Cilka’s story. It shines a light on a shameful period in the history of the Soviet Union under Stalin. Eighteen million people were incarcerated and forced into hard labor in the Gulags. Considering that separating families and forcing people deemed undesirable into camps is a practice happening in this country today, this is more than a novel. It is a solid reminder of what happens when the power of a few is allowed to corrupt an entire nation.

Highly recommended for readers of Historical Fiction

My rating: 5 STARS

Posted in Beach Read, Best Sellers, British, Contemporary Fiction, Psychological Suspense, suspense, Thrillers, Women's Fiction

Twenty-Nine Seconds by T.M. Logan

Publication Info: Expected publication date Sept 10, 2019 by St. Martin’s Press. Pre-pub Kindle edition courtesy of NetGalley. Previously published in the U.K.: other editions available.

Summary: Dr. Sarah Haywood works hard at her job at the University. She really needs a promotion to a permanent position, as she is currently single mother. Her husband ran off with another woman to “find himself”, leaving her with two young children. Sarah works hard, keeps on top of her busy teaching schedule and even comes up with an idea for additional funding.

But all of this is threatened by one man, Professor Alan Hawthorne. Alan won’t let her — or any woman — get ahead unless they agree to his terms. At the university, Alan is untouchable. He has an impeccable public reputation on his BBC show. If a woman complains about his sexual harassment, she is disgraced and dismissed. When he steals Sarah’s ideas, she feels completely overwhelmed.

One fateful day, Sarah inadvertently does a good deed for a stranger. That stranger offers to make one person, any person, in her life disappear forever. Sarah must decide if the risks outweigh the consequences.

Comments: I couldn’t put this book down. I read until late in the evening, fell asleep, woke up and finished it. It absolutely had me gripping my Kindle until the very last few pages.

This is a very timely story of one man’s abuse of power and the fear he instills in others to keep his secrets. I know there are women out there who will relate to the situation, if not the solution.

Highly recommended for readers of Psychological Suspense and Thrillers. It would also make a terrific Beach Read and I’d love to see it on the best seller lists.

My Goodreads rating is 5 stars.