A lookery at “Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain

Elsa Hart

St. Martin’s Press

Minotaur Books

September 1, 2015

336 pages

$25.99

Elsa Hart’s historical mystery Jade Dragon Mountain takes place in early 18th century Dayan, located in China’s southwest province. The Manchu Emperor, the Kangxi of the Qing dynasty is due in the city in six days to command a solar eclipse. For nearly a year, the Emperor has been traveling from Beijing to this outpost of his empire, while the local population has been preparing for his imperial visit and the wonder and power of the eclipse.

Li Du, the exiled and disgraced court librarian arrives in town, unaware of the Emperor’s upcoming presence and the festival to be held in the Kangxi’s honor. As an exile, Li Du must inform the magistrate of the province of his arrival, and obtain permission to pass through the area to his intended destination of Tibet. Tulishen is the province magistrate, and cousin to Li Du. When Li checks in with him, Tulishen is anxious to have his cousin leave the city before the Emperor arrives. It would be inappropriate for an exile of the court to cross paths with the Emperor, and Tulishen does not want to lose face.

But the magistrate allows Li Du to stay for dinner at his mansion. The town is abuzz with activity and visitors, and the magistrate has many guests. China is a closed country, with Jesuits being the only foreigners allowed in the empire. The Emperor favors the order because of their extensive knowledge, and the priests are eager to learn about Chinese history, customs and culture.

There are two Jesuits staying with the magistrate — Brother Martin and Brother Pieter. Other guests include the Arab storyteller, Hamza, who entertains with his tales and Sir Nicholas Grey an ambassador from the East India Company who is to present the Emperor with gifts, and perhaps gain trading rights within the empire.

The household is run by Tulishen’s favorite consort Lady Chen, who has yet to provide the magistrate with a son, Jia Huan the administrator’s efficient secretary, Old Mu the recordkeeper, Mu Gao, the librarian and Old Mu’s cousin, as well as various other staff, including the disgruntled but pretty maid, Bao.

Tulishen hosts an elaborate dinner for his guests, and Hamza provides the entertainment after the meal with his storytelling. Several people come and go during the story, including Brother Pieter, who is later found murdered in his room.

It is imperative that the murderer be caught before the imperial visit in six days. The magistrate calls on his cousin, Li Du, to remain in Dayan to solve the mystery of the murder.

False leads have Li traveling to visit the Khampa traders outside the town, interviewing members of the household, the guests, as well as a few outsiders. Hamza, who is staying at the same inn as Li Du, often discusses the case with Li. The motive for the murder is increasingly confusing and most believe Li Du will not be able to solve the crime prior to the powerful Kangxi’s eclipse.

At first, I was confused about the plot of the book. Jade Dragon Mountain starts with a brief history of the Yunnan territory, the reason for the presence of Jesuits, and background information on the Qing Dynasty. The story is told in 1780, but flashes back to the first decade of the century. Up until the murder, it wasn’t clear where the story was headed.

However, Li Du’s adventures lead the reader into the meat of the mysterious murder. As a historical mystery, the important role of the Jesuits, provincial and imperial politics and history, the inner-workings of a magistrate’s estate, and the politics of trade are explained.

The murderer is elusive, the rush to find the culprit is critical, and the suspects are many. The book was hard to put away when other priorities called. I found myself thinking about the characters and the country wile anxiously waiting to get back to Jade Dragon Mountain to learn more about the hunt and the era.

Once the story gains traction, Elsa Hart’s fast-paced debut novel Jade Dragon Mountain is an intriguing murder mystery wrapped up in historic background. Much is learned about China’s culture at the beginning of the 18th century while Li Du sets about solving the problem of the Jesuit’s untimely death. Elsa Hart is a new author worth following.

With thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for an advance copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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A Lookery at: Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”

Murder on the Orient Express                   

Agatha Christie (1933)

Harper Paperbacks (reprint 2011)

$6.99

As a kid, I devoured Bobbsey Twin Mysteries by Laura Lee Hope, but was never a big fan of Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys mystery series. From Hope’s books, I graduated to mystery novels by Agatha Christie. Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence all became favorite characters of mine very quickly. In the 1970s, several Christie mysteries were released in film – just at the time when I was beginning to enjoy outings to the movie theatre with friends. My favorite was the 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express, starring Peter Ustinov as the internationally famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. Something about that movie, and perhaps the beauty of the train itself captured my imagination, and I still get a thrill watching the movie nearly 40 years later. For some summer fun, I decided to revisit the tale of the storied train, both in film and in novel form.

At the conclusion of a case in Syria, Hercule Poirot arrives in Stamboul in order to catch the Orient Express to Calais, continuing on urgent business to London in order to solve another crime. Although it is December, the first and second class coaches to Calais are completely booked. M. Poirot’s Belgian friend M. Bouc, director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagon Lits demands that the conductor of the car puts Poirot on the train, albeit in a shared compartment, when another passenger fails to appear close to departure time. The spectacular train takes off to its first stop in Belgrade, its first class car populated with over a dozen passengers from all walks of life.

One rider, an American businessman by the name of Ratchett stops the detective in the empty dining car, and tries to hire him to protect him from an unnamed person who has been sending him threatening letters. The Belgian firmly declines the offer.

After a brief stop in Belgrade, where Poirot is transferred to a compartment of his own, the train becomes stuck in the snow in Jugo-Slavia in the middle of the night. The passengers pass the night in various states of rest or activity. In the morning, Ratchett is discovered murdered in his bed. He is the victim of a dozen stab wounds to his chest – all of varying degrees of damage.

M. Bouc immediately implores Hercule to solve the murder before the train is rescued and becomes subject to a traditional police investigation on arrival in Brod. The sleuth quickly establishes that the victim is not named Ratchett, but rather Cassetti; the mastermind of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl, Daisy Armstrong, several years earlier. Most of the Armstrong family and household died shortly after Daisy’s body was discovered. Cassetti was caught and put on trial. But Cassetti was acquitted of the crime due to crooked deals made with his illegally-gained fortune. The brain behind the crime disappeared from America, out of reach of the public eye.

Poirot obtains the floor plan of the passengers’ compartments, their passports and train tickets. Hercule, Monsieur Bouc, and a Greek physician riding in another car on the train, Dr. Constantine, examine the scene of the crime and the body before setting up shop in the dining car. There the Belgian detective conducts interviews of the various passengers who boarded the train when he did. The dozen or so passengers are of all classes and status – from the Hungarian diplomat and his beautiful young wife, a Swedish missionary, an obnoxious American woman, an English valet – even a Russian princess and her German lady’s maid.

As is typical of an Agatha Christie mystery, the suspects are numerous, decoys prevalent and motives obscured. Most Agatha Christie stories seem to be solved almost magically, using vaguely presented clues. Christie deftly distracts the reader from noticing a glaring clue with a multitude of seemingly unrelated facts and tales. But Hercule Poirot uses his “little grey cells” (as he refers to his brain matter), and ultimately solves the mysterious crime.

A film following the release of a successful novel is very often a disappointment. But to me, both the trips back in time to re-read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and watch the 1974 movie version of the book, were a great thrill. Thebooklookery gives 4 eyes to the book and the movie. Both are recommended in tandem for a delightful summer vacation!

A Lookery at: “The Book of Lost Fragrances” by M. J. Rose

The Book of Lost Fragrances        

M.J. Rose

Atria Books (2012)

$24.00

Founded before the French Revolution by the family of the same name, The House of L’Etoile is an exclusive perfumery. L’Etoile has developed some of the world’s most famous and beloved scents for centuries. But now, the future of the company is threatened because of the mental deterioration of its current director, Louis L’Etoile. It is up to Louis’ children, daughter Jac and son Robbie, to sort through the mess left in the company office by their father.

Jac is convinced that the only way to save the company is to sell off the formulas and rights to two of The House of L’Etoile’s signature scents. Robbie feels the business has a future if the storied and elusive family treasure – Cleopatra’s “Book of Fragrances” – can be recovered. Central to this ancient document is a formula for a fragrance that can induce memories of past lives using exotic ingredients that may be extinct. Neither sibling has ever seen the mysterious book, but in his Alzheimer’s confusion, Louis has torn apart his workshop looking for it.

Jac, who has the most highly developed “nose” in the family, has rejected the perfume industry in favor of becoming a mythologist. She studies and researches the origins of myths and presents her findings on her American television program and in books she’s authored. For much of her life she has experienced psychotic episodes. Most of these visions reveal stories of Egypt and France’s pasts. Several specialists have tried to treat her for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Jac finally consults with psychologist Dr. Malachai Samuels, who believes in the possibility of discovering past lives through hallucinations like Jac’s. Malachai teaches Jac to analyze her trances and eventually, her episodes decrease.

Robbie lacks Jac’s gift of a finely developed nose for fragrances, but is still talented enough as a perfumer to develop niche scents for The House of L’Etoile. He is dedicated to saving the business without compromising it in any way. Robbie is also a follower of the Dalai Lama and is a believer in reincarnation. He discovers pieces of an ancient Egyptian fragrance pot amongst his father’s possessions that he feels may have contained Cleopatra’s famous “Fragrance of Lost Memories”. Jac’s brother is determined to analyze the remnants of the pot’s contents and the symbols on it to prove that such a scent existed, thereby making it possible for The House of L’Etoile to recreate the perfume, thus rescuing the business.

The search for the Egyptian document wanders through the epochs of Cleopatra’s reign, pre-revolutionary France, modern Tibet and the People’s Republic of China, and even the centuries-old underground tunnels beneath Paris.  M. J. Rose’s The Book of Lost Fragrances explores the possibilities of reincarnation and the effect of scent on memories and emotions. In scenes set throughout history and the world, myths, legends, politics, belief systems and of course, the perfume industry are explored within this novel of suspense. A very intriguing read, The Book of Lost Fragrances rates three eyes from thebooklookery.

A Lookery at: “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

An Audio Clip from “Spring Fever” by Mary Kay Andrews

Spring Fever

Mary Kay Andrews

St. Martin’s Press (2012)

$25.99

In Mary Kay Andrews’ latest “escapist novel”, Spring Fever, Annajane Hudgens is about to say good-bye to the only life she’s known in the quaint lakeside town of Passcoe, North Carolina and move on to a better future in Atlanta. She’s sold her loft, quit her job at the Quixie soda pop company, and is engaged to bluegrass musician, Shane. Proving that she is over her short-lived marriage to Mason Bayless, Annajane attends his wedding to the perfect-in-every-way Celia shortly before leaving town.

But the wedding doesn’t go off quite as planned, and Annajane finds herself and Mason Bayless coping with a family crisis instead. For years following their acrimonious break-up and divorce, Annajane and Mason continued to work together at the Bayless family’s specialty cherry soda soft drink corporation, the largest employer in the small town of Passcoe. They have managed to keep their working relationship professional even after the arrival of wunderkind Celia. Now, the formerly married couple are trying to manage a situation that Celia’s stellar business skills cannot control.

Annajane’s departure date arrives sooner than expected. She packs in a hurry and leaves her hometown for her fiance’ Shane, and the big city of Atlanta.

What follows is a fairly predictable “girl meets boy; girl loses boy; does girl want boy back?” story, set against a backdrop of corporate and familial backstabbing, deceit, betrayals, and eventually, an outpouring of closely held secrets. Much of the plot is easy to foresee; however, there are enough twists and turns at the end to forgive the novel’s somewhat unexceptional plotline.

Definitely not highbrow literature, Spring Fever is a fluffy, fun summer frolic that is easy-to-read and entertaining. It has an element of romance to it, but enough intrigue to keep the book from becoming overly sappy. Mary Kay Andrews has served up a novel as refreshing and as bubbly as an ice-cold bottle of Quixie cherry soda, and for that, I give it a rating of 3+ eyes.