The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #34 Out of the Easy

As I return to my victory lap worth of extra book reviews, I’m going to work in a few reviews of selections from the Children Literature Network’s suggestions of potential Printz Award Honorees. (You can read the full review and see my ballot at my other website: The Scruffy Rube)

Ruta Sepetys’ protagonist is less easy to relate to. Sure, Jo Moraine has some of the same problems and dramas that plague every girl on the cusp of 18: boys to choose from, applying to college, dealing with an absentee father, finding friends, balancing academics and work, avoiding the same mistakes her mother made, growing into her womanhood.

Of course, she’s also the daughter of a prostitute who is also caught up in a murder investigation set in 1950’s era New Orleans, so it’s not exactly a perfect match.

Still, It’s a credit to Sepetys that her characters are believable and the setting feels fresh rather than mothballed or stuffed with overwrought sentiment. The 50s and its segregated past are there, so is the setting of New Orleans, dank and musty. And still we can connect to the drama surrounding Jo, wondering whether or not she can break the cycle of dependency and degradation of life in the French Quarter and find a better place somewhere else.

It’s a further credit to Sepetys that she makes us care whilst juggling plotlines like a stilted mardi-gras parader juggles flaming torches. At times it feels a little ungainly (again, like the juggler on stilts), lunging for a plot point that you might have forgotten about, but she keeps them all in the air, and builds her world with a number of valuable, believable characters (even amongst those who only appear for a page or two).

In the end, Out of the Easy beautifully pairs a rich setting with a believable (if not entirely relatable) character. As Jo gradually ticks off each of her dramas, she becomes a powerful and winning character whose setting enriches her, even as she seeks to escape it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #50 – The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

Ah, yet another Victorian era murder mystery that involves Dickens and/or Dickensian characters. Not that I’m complaining, I like this kind of stuff. I’m mostly just jealous of the people who beat me to the idea, especially the good ones. And this one is pretty decent.

The story takes place in London, 1850. Our hero is Charles Maddox, a young man who wanted to be a police detective. Unfortunately, his detective skills and his temper got him dismissed from “the Detective,” and possibly gained him an enemy in Detective Bucket. Charles is named after his great-uncle, a famous thief taker; so now Charles begins a life as a private detective. Charles has some baggage, because what detective doesn’t have any – Charles’ baggage involves the disappearance of his sister, for which he blames himself. As the book progresses, we learn exactly how that event tore his family apart.

Charles is given a job by a famous barrister, Edward Tulkinghorne, who plays a role in Dickens’ Bleak House. In fact more than one Bleak House character appears here, because Shepherd used that book and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White as inspiration and source material. The job is to find a guy who has been sending threatening letters to a baronet. Charles finds the guy, gets his ass kicked by him, and then that guy is (of course) murdered.

There’s a lot going on here, and the author touches pretty much all of the Dickensian touchstones. Squalor of London? Check. Rat catching & dogs killing the rats? Check. Very young prostitutes? Check. Jack the Ripper? Check. It’s all there. Lots of cliches, but somehow the book was still gripping and a good read. The mystery and most of the perversions were pretty easy to figure out, but sometimes that’s Ok.

The author has another book – Murder at Mansfield Park – about which I’m pretty curious. I won’t be reading it until I can get it cheap or free on the Kindle, or through the library. The writer is good, but she’s not quite good enough to make me spend money. Yet.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #49 – The Poisoned Pilgrim – by Oliver Potzsch

Jakob Kuisl and his family are back again. His daughter Magdalena and her husband Simon are on a pilgrimage to a monastery to give thanks for the survival of their children. It’s a few years after the last book – Magdalena is a mom now, she’s got two boys who made it through the last plague that swept through the village. And monastery at Andechs is a pilgrimage spot because of a whole mess of religious relics which draw thousands of people from all over Bavaria. The gang heads there for the Festival of the Three Hosts.

After braving horrible storms, lightning, bandits and wolves, Magdalena and Simon get to the monastery. They don’t get to stay there with the other pilgrims, on account of being gross and beneath everyone. So they stay with Jakob’s cousin, the town’s knacker (the guy who skins all the dead animals). They also meet Brother Johannes, who isn’t what he seems to be. In fact, no one at Andechs is what they seem, which leads to all the usual mess that the Kuisls get into.

Some murders happen, and Magdalena writes to her dad to get him to come help. So the Scooby gang is back together, trying to figure out who committed the murders, where the monastery’s weird watchmaker guy went, and other mysteries. They’re also racing against the clock, to save Jakob’s old friend who is being held and tortured for the murders.

The story moves along quickly, with a bunch of twists and turns, plus Potzsch’s usual excellent research and sense of time and place. If you haven’t started this series, I highly recommend it.

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #38: The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst

I love a good spy thriller, and I love some good British acting on spy thrillers. So when I saw the advertisement for David Tennant in the two-part series of Spies of Warsaw, I got excited and asked my husband to record the series.


Sadly, we missed it. So I put in a library request and saw that, hey, it was based on a book! While I was waiting for the library to get me the DVD, I decided to check out the book first. I’ve finished the book now…and I’m still waiting on the series. Alas.

Colonel Jean-François Mercier has been sent on several missions to Warsaw in 1937. He is a widower with two adult daughters, and is trying to fulfill his duties in an increasingly dangerous time of espionage, especially with Adolf Hitler building an army in Germany. He meets a lawyer for the League of Nations and becomes intrigued by her beauty and intelligence. Concurrently, he is also receiving tank plans from an engineer who is trying to maintain a mistress, while also keep his employers from discovering his deception. All in all, Furst creates a story of pre-War Europe that shows how tensions roiled beneath the seemingly peaceful surface.

This wasn’t the most exciting thriller I’d read, but it certainly adds a new perspective to the World War II genre thrillers that abound. I think too that a French point-of-view adds a certain element of poignance for the 21st century reader, because as we all know, France toppled under Hitler’s duress. If you’re a WWII buff, then go ahead and read this; it’ll give you something new to think about. If you like straight-up thrillers, then you might not enjoy this as much. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to envision David Tennant while you read. ;-)

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #28 – The Beggar King: A Hangman’s Daughter’s Tale by Oliver Potzch

The third book in the Hangman’s Daughter series starts in Shongau, where Jakob Kusil and his titular daughter live with the rest of their family and the various other Shongauians. Jakob leaves right at the beginning and goes to Regensburg – the big city. He received a letter saying his sister was very ill and needed him. She had run away from Shongau to marry a bath house owner. After Jakob leaves, Magdalena is her usual charming self, to the point that some of the less cool townspeople try to burn her house down, with her mom and younger siblings in it. The family escapes, but Magdalena decides she needs to leave the town.

Meanwhile, Jakob gets to Regensburg, goes to see his sister, and finds her and her husband dead. Interestingly the local constables show up right then and arrest Jakob for the murders. He’s clearly been set up, but he has no idea why or by whom. Magdalena and Simon head for Regensburg, find out what’s happened to Jakob, and set to investigating the crime. They also somehow are thought to be arsonists, maybe witches. They’re adopted by the local raftmaster, an Italian ambassador, and the homeless coalition.

Poor Jakob gets a dose of his own medicine while he is tortured by the local executioner, his torture being overseen by someone who takes great delight in his agony. Jakob also remembers the time when he was younger, a mercenary soldier, trying to keep his men in line, preventing them from raping and pillaging innocent villages.

There is quite a lot of running about and twists and turns in this book, with no one really knowing who to trust and who is trying to kill them. It seems like the only honorable people are Jakob and the Regensburg hangman, even though they’re thought to be the lowest of the low. It’s all wrapped up a bit neatly and violently at the end, but it all comes right in the end, or at least as right as things can be.

The fourth book is set to be released within the next month or so, I’ve already pre-ordered.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #27 – The Dark Monk: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale by Oliver Potzch

Book #2 in the series picks up not long after the events of the first book. Things have gone back to semi-normal in Shongau. It’s Winter, the snow is deep, and “doctor” Simon is called to the next town over to tend to a priest who has been poisoned. It’s murder, of course, so Jakob Kusil and his intrepid daughter Magdalena (with whom Simon is in love) get involved.

There’s a whole new cast of characters added to the Shongau locals – including the priest’s sister and a group of creepy monks. Oh, and the Knights Templar, since I think mystery/thriller writers are bound to use them in at least one story. The poisoned priest may have stumbled upon the lost treasure of the Templars, and the creepy monks don’t want anyone to find it but them. They somehow have a man on the inside in Shongau, and send Jakob off to chase robbers in the woods (which he of course figures out pretty quickly).

In the meantime, Magdalena is in peril (as she was in the last book), everyone is running around the countryside trying to find her, the treasure, the murderer, and maybe some other stuff. Potzch has definitely done his research, and knows the countryside well (he even includes a little travel info at the end). He can certainly spin a good yarn, too. There’s a bit of an interesting twist at the end that caught me a little bit by surprise, which I enjoy in murder mysteries.

Like I said in the last review, I enjoyed these books enough to recommend them to my mom – and if they’re good enough for mom, they’re good enough for everyone.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #26 – The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Potzch

The Hangman’s Daughter is the first book in a series written by Oliver Potzch, and are apparently based on the life of the author’s great great something or other, and are based in Bavaria in the mid-1600s. Normally one would refer to that time period as early Renaissance, but at least in the world of these books, the setting is definitely medieval.

Jakob Kusil is the hangman (executioner, torturer, garbageman, semi-doctor) of Shongau, a small walled town in Bavaria. Because Kusil is shunned by the townspeople (except for when they need him), he lives outside the walls, in the stinky part of town. He’s the son and grandson of executioners, and executioners are only allowed to marry the kids of executioners or some other sort of persona non grata. The whole social structure is very interesting, and way too much to go into here. Jakob has a daughter (of course) named Magdalena, although she doesn’t feature as heavily in the story as one would think.

Jakob is also probably the smartest guy in town. The second-smartest guy is probably Simon, the local “doctor’s” son, who is also a sort-of doctor himself. Both Jakob and Simon, along with another Jakob (Schreevogel) are the local renaissance men, although pretty much everyone else is well mired in the dark ages. This may have something to do with the war with the Swedes, and the remoteness of the location.

There is a series of murders, several young kids turn up dead with odd symbols on their shoulders, possibly a witch’s mark. So the townspeople of course blame the midwife (witch, bitch, same diff). Jakob knows she’s not guilty, but he still has to throw her in jail and torture her (standard operating procedure, she can’t be executed unless she confesses. Or she could die under torture. They’d be happy either way). Jakob tries to buy time so he can solve the murders and save the midwife.

A lot happens in this book, which is well-written. The story flows along nicely, even though I had to interrupt my reading a couple of times to look up the history parts. I’ve also read the next two books in the series, and pre-ordered the fourth. And as proof of how much I enjoy the books, I recommended them to my mother, who is in the middle of the second book.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #22 – City of Silence by Kim Wright

This is the third book in the City of Mystery series, and takes place in St. Petersburg (Russia, not the place where I live). The Scotland Yard forensics team heads to Russia at Queen Victoria’s request. Her favorite granddaughter, Alix, has fallen in love with a member of the Russian imperial family, and Vicki’s not happy about it. She has already lost one granddaughter to Russia, Ella, Alix’s sister. Ella’s letters seem to be a bit too cheerful, and the queen is skeptical. She was already suspicious, and sent Ella a “lady in waiting,” who is actually a spy.

The imperial family is all staying at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, and is planning for a grand ball to celebrate Tchaikovsky’s triumphant return. There is to be a performance of Romeo & Juliet – or there was, until the leads were murdered in the theater. Ella doesn’t mention this to Victoria, but the spy reports on it. So Victoria decides to head there – with Alix and the team – to show Alix that Russia is not the place for her.

The team starts to investigate the murders, and figure out that there is a larger plot involving the student activists, including a young man named Vlad (see if you can guess who he turns out to be).

Thanks to my useless American education, I know next to nothing about Russian history. I had never heard of Ella, and looked her up. She turns out to have been really interesting (and Alix’s real name is Alexandra, so we know how her life ends up). I like books that make me want to do research. But, Ella – she married the Tsar’s younger brother, who might have been gay. Their marriage may never have been consummated. He was assassinated in a really horrible way, and she forgave the man who did it, and tried to prevent the man’s execution. Then she renounced all of her wealth, became a nun, and started a hospital. Then when the Bolsheviks took over, they arrested her, threw her down a mine shaft with a bunch of other people, threw in some grenades and some brush, set the brush on fire, and left. Not a great way to go.

So the book is fine, the story is fine, but the best part for me was learning about Princess Elisabeth of Hess and by Rhine, also known as Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna. She was canonized by the Russian Orthodox church, and she is one of the 20th century martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey. I’m not sure if it’s out there, but someone needs to tell her story.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #20 – City of Light by Kim Wright

This is the second book in the City of Mystery series, and if you haven’t figured it out, it takes place in Paris. A member of the Scotland Yard newly created forensics squad, Rayley Abrams, went to Paris in the last book to learn forensic techniques from the French, who were miles ahead of the Brits in the science. Also to get him out of the way during the Ripper investigation. He’s having a little trouble, since he barely speaks French, but gradually earns the respect of at least one detective.

The story is set just before the Exposition of 1889. The Eiffel Tower is being built, and people are coming to Paris from everywhere, some for good reasons, some for bad. Rayley meets the enchanting Isabel Delacroix, another Brit living in Paris. A British journalist befriended by Rayley is murdered, and is found at about the same spot along the Seine that the corpse of a young girl was also found several days before. Isabel asks Rayley for help, and when he goes to her, he instead is knocked out and held prisoner.

At the same time, the rest of the group is in London, and is assigned to investigate a brothel that specializes in young boys for closeted wealthy and powerful men. They find out about Rayley’s disappearance, and head to Paris to find him. As they investigate, they find out a number of unsavory and interesting things, and somehow the two cases are tied together.

This is another enjoyable mystery from Wright, who seems to have a knack for writing intricate plots that somehow don’t stretch the ability to suspend disbelief too far. She is able to weave all the threads together and bring them all home at the end. Wright is also not afraid to get gritty – the first book was pretty detailed about Jack the Ripper, and I won’t spoil what’s in this book. I have the same problem that I did with the first book: poor editing; not just spelling and punctuation, but vocabulary as well. I almost want to offer myself as an editor – I’d work cheap!

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #4 – Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I got this book as a freebie (or a cheapie) for the Kindle (sorry if I keep sounding like an advert for Kindle, but I do love it. I was solidly anti-e-reader, pro-paper book, until I started reading the Song of Ice & Fire series, which was difficult to lug around, and since I was getting the books from the library, there was the whole sanitariness issue. But I digress). Anyway, I felt like I had read Pratchett before, but it turns out I haven’t. Guess I just heard people talking about him. This book was an excellent introduction, and I kind of feel like I need to dive into the whole Discworld thing.

Part of what drew me to this book was my family’s habit of naming our pets after Dickens characters. I had a dog named Dodger. He was adorable. That, and my love for Oliver Twist. This may or may not be that Dodger. He’s a teenager living in the slums of London, making his living as a pickpocket and a tosher (a dude that rummages around in the sewers, picking up the stuff that gets swept and/or dropped down there). He comes up into the street in the middle of a rainstorm, and sees a young woman being assaulted. He saves her, because this particular Dodger is a paragon. As he’s trying to help her, they’re accosted and aided by Charles Dickens and the guy who started Punch. This begins a mystery, because no one knows who this girl is; it also begins the story of Dodger’s rise in the world.

Throughout the book, Dodger encounters real and fictional characters (Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sir Robert Peel, among others). He dodges and outsmarts pretty much everyone, while figuring out who the girl is, and solving the mystery of why she was being chased and beaten.

One of the neat things was that Dodger lived with an older Jewish man, who had been all over the world, and was respected both in the slums and by the gentry. It’s definitely an interesting take on Fagin, almost a redemption of the Dickens character.

There is plenty in this book that defies even the strongest suspension of disbelief, but somehow it all worked for me. I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and would recommend it to pretty much anyone. If you like Dickens, historical mysteries, Zelig-type stories, or just a ripping yarn, then I’d grab this one.