Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Key to Deceit (An Electra McDonnell Novel #2) by Ashley Weaver

It's September 1940 and it's only been a few weeks since Ellie McDonnell helped the handsome, aristocratic Major Gabriel Ramsey break  into a house to retrieve some important blueprints before they could be given to the Nazis in A Peculiar Combination. Naturally, she's antsy for another chance to work with Major Ramsey, but first a little background information for those who haven't discovered this great series: Ellie was raised by her Irish Uncle Mick in London after her mother was arrested and imprisoned for supposedly killing Ellie's father, Uncle Mick's brother. Uncle Mick is a locksmith by day, and He, his three sons and Ellie were a safe crackers by night until Major Ramsey caught them in the act and gave the McDonnell family an ultimatum: live on the straight and narrow and help in the war effort or go to prison. I guess you can figure out which choice they made.

Luckily, Ellie doesn't have to wait long for the Major to need her safe cracking skills. A woman found dead floating in the Thames is wearing a curious bracelet - it's a thick cuff that is locked to the wearer's wrist. Ellie is a little queasy about picking the lock on the wrist of a dead woman and stalls by going over her clothing, which was new and expensive. Once Ellie has picked the lock open, they determine it contains a miniature camera. Major Ramsey dismisses Ellie and sends her home, but not for long. Turns out the clothing description helped them determine that the woman was doing something underhanded - there was a bag of precious gemstones hidden in her coat. 

Ellie and her sorta, kinda boyfriend Felix Lacey call on a pawnbroker friend to help them identify and figure out the source of the gems, the women, now identified as Myra Fields, had hidden in her coat. Myra was engaged in espionage for the Germans and the photographs she had taken would be very useful to the Germans should they ever begin bombing London. They also learn that she had been staying in a boarding house run by a Mrs. Paine. 

Ellie and Major Ramsey decide to visit the boarding house as an engaged couple and cousin of Myra's, to see what they can find. And in the midst of gathering evidence of a possible spy ring, the Nazis begin bombing London. Once bombing begins, not knowing who is part of the spy ring or how large it is makes the need to capture the spies taking pictures of possible bombing sites and their ring leader even more imperative. 

There's a lot going on in this novel and it moves at a pretty quick pace, but it is by no means overwhelming. In fact, some of it is a nice break from the mystery at hand. First, there is the relationship between Ellie and Major Ramsey. She is feisty, and can be a buster, while he is aristocratically uptight. Yet, there is chemistry brewing between them and Ellie's family would be pleased a punch to see her involved with him. And Ellie does think about it, but wait, what about Felix? He's so sweet and things could get more serious between them and he is more her sort, criminally speaking. Then, there is the case of Ellie's mother, who maintained her innocence right up until her death from the flu epidemic. Can Ellie find a way to clear her mother's name? And of course there are the everyday changes that war brings on in people's lives. I just love details. 

All in all, I found The Key to Deceit an enjoyable mystery, with lots of details and good plotting so that when the culprit was finally revealed, I was surprised.  The fact is that I was a little skeptical about the Electra McDonnell series when I first heard about it, but after reading these first two novels, I can't wait for the third book. 

Thank you, NetGalley, for supplying me with an EARC.

Monday, July 11, 2022

The Lion Above the Door by Onjali Q. Raúf

Every year for my birthday, I throw a few books I want to read into a shopping cart and say Happy Birthday to myself. One of the books I chose for my last birthday was The Lion About the Door. It's a contemporary WWII story by Onjali Q. Raúf, who have become a real favorite author of mine. 

Leo Kai Lim and his best friend Sangeeta Singh are both looking forward to their class trip to the RAF Museum and Rochester Cathedral (in Kent). They've been studying WWII in school and even though the two friends know that they are probably the only ones in their class who don't have a personal connection to anyone who fought in WWII, they are excited to see the planes on display. Leo's parents are from Singapore, and Sangreta is Indian descent. 

Leo and Sangeeta are the only two kids in their school who look like them and of course, there is a bully named Toby who never tires of going after Leo. He's kind of an Eddie Haskell character in that he acts sweet and innocent in front of teachers and parents, but all that changes in the school yard and sometimes in class. He makes fun of the Singaporean food Leo brings for lunch, pushes and shoves him and the morning of the school trip, Toby hits Leo hard several times with a tennis ball. As a bruise developed on his leg, Leo thinks about the bruise inside him that never seem to heal, getting hit over and over. Leo is convinced his inner bruise will only heal if "something big and unexpected and brilliant happened." But the chances of that happening were zero as far as he was concerned, after all, he and Sangeeta "were too different for brilliant things to ever happen to us. And the bruise knew it." (pg27) 

But imagine the surprise Leo gets when he sees the name Leo Kai Lim DFC and a golden lion above it carved into the marble with other names of other soldiers who were WWII heroes. Stunned by this discovery, Leo promises to find out all he can about this soldier. 

Back at school, Leo's teacher Mr. Scott announces that for Remembrance Day, their class has been selected to take part in TV's Real Kidz Rule competition, a program everyone loves. For Leo, it becomes the perfect opportunity to research all he can about Leo Kai Lim DFC and keep his promise. Unfortunately, finding information about this hero pilot of WWII turns out to be quite difficult. Sangeeta is also excited about the competition since it will give her an opportunity to research Indians who participated in the war for the British named Singh, as well as the contributions of Indian women. Could good things be coming Leo's way finally? Will his bruice have a chance to heal? Or is Leo headed for a big disappointment?

I really enjoyed reading The Lion Above the Door and found myself reluctant to put it down when I had to do other things. Leo's first-person narration is appealing and so endearing in its innocent truthfulness, even as Raúf threw themes of family and family history, cultural underrepresentation, contemporary and historical racism, perseverance, courage, and teamwork his way, but all with a sensitive hand and a combination of seriousness and humor. 

And because this is a Onjali Q. Raúf novel, there is one surprising turn of events when Olivia Morris, the coolest most popular girl in class offers to help Leo and one very zany episode when Leo and Sangeeta break into the RAF museum. 

I did like that Raúf allowed her characters to be flawed. For example, Leo had trouble with his dad's never standing up for himself or Leo until he learns why, and Mr. Scott is not always the most culturally sensitive person but he does learn to be more aware of it thanks to Leo and his project.

Back matter in this book includes information on racism and prejudice, now and during WWII, as well as the real forgotten heroes WWII included in this book.

The Lion Above the Door is one of my better birthday books and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in WWIIs ignored heroes, or for anyone concerned about cultural underrepresentation. Both Leo Kai Lims are heroes in my book. 

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Where I've been...

One of the ways I put myself through college and grad school was by doing freelance research for other people. And I've had a lot of interesting jobs, have met some really great people, and my fees paid the bills. I learned my way around a number of libraries in New York City, including the research branch of the NYPL (my favorite), the NYPL for the Performing Arts, Columbia University, Columbia Law School, Hunter College (which at that time had a phenomenal library), Hunter School of Social Work Library, the Library of Congress (my second favorite), among others. I also did research for graduate students who, for one reason or another, needed assistance (one student needed someone who knew Latin) or who were unable to do their own (usually through Student Disability Services). 

I had kind of given up freelance research when I began teaching. Now, I only teach part-time, so when the opportunity to do some research for someone came along, I realized how much I missed doing it and accepted the job. It sounded kind of easy and interesting - researching this person's family history, something I'd done before and I've always loved working in the Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, part of the research branch of the NYPL. It's very peaceful and the librarians are always so helpful. 

What I wasn't expecting was how involved I would get in this latest project. It's turning out to be absolutely fascinating...and time consuming. But the good news is that I have been doing lots of reading and will be posting my reviews more frequently (I hope).