Friday, September 28, 2012

The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

I've long been a fan of Donna Leon's best-selling mystery novels set in Venice with her endearing Commissario Guido Bruentti.  I leapt at the chance to review Leon's new standalone novel, The Jewels of Paradise.

Like the Bruentti novels, The Jewels of Paradise is set in present day Venice and revolves around a mystery of sorts.  Caterina Pellegrini is a native Venetian who has numerous degrees and expertise in Baroque music.  She's pursued her career abroad and established a reputation as a researcher.  She accepts a short term research project in Venice but the job she's taken is shrouded in mystery and brings her in contact with strange characters.

On its face, the project is straightforward.  Caterina is asked to examine the contents of two ancient trunks and to determine who has a better right to the contents and any additional inheritance that might come from a largely forgotten baroque composer.  The two claimants are distant relations and natives of Venice with slightly unsavory reputations.  The composer's identity is kept a secret from Caterina until the day that she's selected and allowed access to the trunks.

Caterina's research takes her to stories of a notorious affair, a murder, rivalries, betrayal and mention of treasure.  There are ties to the Protestant Duke of Hanover, countess, and the Queen of Prussia.  But Caterina's investigation into the past somehow seems to spill over to the present as she begins to worry about her personal safety.  

More than anything, The Jewels of Paradise strikes me as a novel that pays homage to Venice and the art of music.  Unfortunately, I'm not well versed in music or Italian, so I didn't fully appreciate the nuances of the language or the plot.  Donna Leon does give her main characters a sense of humor, an appreciation of food and the beauty of Venice - all of which give the story a certain charm and pace.   I'd recommend The Jewel of Paradise for aficionados of music and Italy and of cerebral mysteries.  While I enjoyed The Jewels of Paradise, I much prefer Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Bruentti novels with a clear dead body, crime, and the pursuit of the criminal.  

ISBN-10: 0802120644 - Hardcover $26.00
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (October 2, 2012), 256 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
A New Yorker of Irish/Spanish descent, Donna Leon first went to Italy in 1965, returning regularly over the next decade or so while pursuing a career as an academic in the States and then later in Iran, China and finally Saudi Arabia. Leon has received both the CWA Macallon Silver Dagger for Fiction and the German Corrine Prize for her novels featuring Commisario Guido Brunetti. She lives in Venice.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Precious Blood by Jonathan Hayes

I discovered Jonathan Hayes and his debut novel, Precious Blood, through this year's ThrillerFest.  ThrillerFest is a conference organized and largely taught by International Thriller Writers - a generous,  unpretentious group.  For those of us who love to read thrillers and aspire to write, it's one of the most amazing experiences.  You get to learn from, speak to, interact with some of your favorite authors.  There's Craftfest,  which is dedicated to developing your craft of writing.  This is followed by AgentFest - a sort of speed dating event for unrepresented writers and literary agents to meet.  Every year you hear of success stories from AgentFest.  Finally, ThrillerFest proper which has several seminars and talks going at the same time. Each covering different aspects of the thriller genre.  It's amazing to be among these authors and to find them accessible and participating in the experience.  ThrillerFest 2013 is scheduled for July 10-13 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York.  Early Bird registration has begun at

Jonathan Hayes' Precious Blood touches on NYC during the time of 9/11.  The hero is NYC medical examiner Edward Jenner who worked throughout the horrifying days after 9/11.  The aftermath left Jenner emotionally scarred and he'd left the field of pathology.  But when one of his closest friends calls for his help, Jenner is forced back to help in the forensic investigation of the brutal mutilation of a young woman.

The victim is found naked and nailed to the wall.  Jenner is certain that there is a serial killer prowling NYC.  Jenner has taken it upon himself to help  his friend's niece, the victim's roommate and a witness to the crime.  The young woman's stay brings about all sorts of complications for Jenner - in his personal life and professional - and draws the attention of the dangerous and unstable killer.

While I enjoy a certain amount of violence and action in my thrillers, my threshold for gore is quite low.  As far as graphic violence goes, Precious Blood is quite explicit.  That was something that kept me from fully enjoying the novel. On the other hand, the plot is complex and the lead characters are well fleshed out. If you enjoy the grittier, violent, thrillers, then Precious Blood will give deliver both in excitement and thrills.  It has the added bonus of giving us an inside view of what NYC was like during the frantic days after 9/11 from the point of view of someone who truly lived it.

About the Author:
Jonathan Hayes, a veteran forensic pathologist, has worked in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, performing autopsies and testifying in murder trials since 1990.  Born in Bristol, England, he attended medical school at the University of London before moving to the United States to train pathology at the Boston University Medical Center and in forensics at the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office in Miami. Since 1993, he has held a teaching appointment at the New York University School of Medicine. He lectures nationally on forensic science. Hayes is also a former contributor at Martha Stewart Living and writes regularly for the New York Times, New York, GQ,  Gourmet, and Food & Wine. He lives in New York City.  Precious Blood is his first novel.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Last Refuge: A Dewey Andreas Novel by Ben Coes

The blurb:

In The Last Refuge, Dewey Andreas must face his bigger challenge and most fearsome opponent yet.

Off a quiet street in Brooklyn, New York, Israeli Special Forces commander Kohl Meir is captured by operatives of the Iranian secret service, who smuggle Meir back to Iran where he's imprisoned, tortured, and prepared for a show trial.

What they don't know is that Meir was in New York to recruit Dewey Andreas for a secret operation.  Meir had been tipped off that Iran had developed a nuclear bomb and was planning to use it to attack Israel.  His proof was a photo of the bomb with the words, "Goodbye Tel Aviv" written in Farsi.

Dewey Andreas, a former SEAL and Delta, owes his life to Meir and his team of Israeli commandos.  Now to repay his debt, Dewey has to attempt the impossible -- to both rescue Meir from one of the world's most secure prisons before he's executed and to find and eliminate Iran's nuclear bomb before it's deployed.  All without the help or sanction of Israel or America (or risk near certain detection by Iran before the plan is in place).

Unfortunately, Dewey's first moves have caught the attention of Abu Paria, the brutal and brilliant head of VEVAK, the Iranian secret service.  Now Dewey has to face off against, outwit and outfight, an opponent with equal cunning, skill and determination with the destruction of Israel's largest city hanging in the balance.

I hadn't read any of Ben Coes' earlier novels before diving into The Last Refuge.  I've reading more thrillers in the last few weeks and The Last Refuge sounded action packed what with Andreas having to rescue Meir, the Israeli commando from a secure prison and to find and acquire a nuclear bomb.

I gravitate towards actions series with flawed lead characters, so I quickly grew to like Dewey Andreas.  We learn early on that the political regime in Iran is corrupt and unreliable and that the White House is attempting a political solution to halt Iran's nuclear research.  When Kohl Meir is kidnapped from US soil, the story is very black and white.  While the US is unable to take official action and unwilling to interfere, we know that Dewey Andreas is equally unable to walk away.

Andreas must find a way to track down Meir with his limited resources - he is an unemployed private citizen with a mission that most governments would balk to undertake.  Coes makes clear that Andreas' operates on a code of honor and it's a code that the politicians can't afford to follow.  Though it is clear where Coes' sympathy lies, when Andreas contacts the Israeli government and Meir's family, I immediately root for Andreas and the Israelis.  The Iranians in The Last Refuge are largely two dimensional villains and this is the story's weakness.  The Iranian secret police, politicians, nuclear scientists are wholly unsympathetic with the exception of one man who tries to prevent the attack. This brave man speaks out for the terrorized citizens who are against the extremism that rules Iran.  With that caveat, it was easy for me to overlook the flatness of the Iranian villains in The Last Refuge because of the strength of the leading character Dewey Andreas.  Andreas is larger than life and an unstoppable killing machine but he operates with a distinct moral code and deep loyalties.  Though he's quite different from Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Ben Coes' Dewey Andreas reminded me a bit of Jack Reacher with his incredible reflexes and abilities and his willingness to dive into danger for what he believes in.  If you enjoy an action packed thriller, I recommend giving Ben Coes' The Last Refuge

ISBN-10: 1250007151 - Hardcover $25
Publisher: St. Martin's Press (July 3, 2012), 416 pages.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

About the Author:
Ben Coes is the author of the acclaimed novels Power Down and Coup d'Etat.  A former speechwriter for the George H.W. Bush White House, he was a fellow at the JFK School of Government at Harvard, the campaign manager for Mitt Romney's successful run for governor in 2002, and is currently a partner in a private equity firm.  He lives in Wellsley, Massachusetts.