Thursday, October 25, 2018

November Road by Lou Berney

First Sentence:  Behold!
     
Frank Guidry of New Orleans is a fixer, a loyal lieutenant to mob boss Carlos Marcello.  But loyalty isn't always a two-way street.  Charlotte is a woman with a dream but is stuck in Oklahoma.  Taking her daughters and their dog, Charlotte runs away from Oklahoma hoping to realize her dream.  She didn't plan on meeting Frank along the way.  For Barone, it's nothing personal.  Frank is simply a job to Barone, and Ted is just a driver.  But roads have intersections which can change lives.
      
This review is going to be very different from those I normally write.  Most of my reviews break down the elements of the book and addresses the strengths, weaknesses, and highpoints I found therein.  Not this one because how does one describe the indescribable?  How does one dissect a book so well written, one's overall reaction is simply "Wow!"? 
      
Berney has created a compelling set of characters and hardly any of them are quite what one expects.  Dooley, Charlotte's alcoholic husband, isn't a bad guy, just addicted, and Charlotte knows nothing in her life will change as long as she stays—"Charlotte dipped her brush again and not for the first time imagined a tornado dropping from the sky and blowing her far away, into a world full of color."  Sometimes one has to be one's own tornado.  Charlotte becomes the embodiment of who women strive to become.  Some of those who are younger sisters may identify with being the stronger sister of the two.  Frank isn't cruel, but he doesn't mind if others die.  Seraphine is an administrator whose job it is to make certain what mob boss Carlo's Marcello wants to be done, gets done.
      
The blending of history, real figures, and fictional characters is so well done.  While those involved in the Kennedy assassination are real, so, too, was Carlos Marcello.  Adding "Wizard of Oz" actor Ray Bolger was a nice touch.
      
One has to admire an author whose character quotes from "Dante's Inferno" by Milton.  In fact, one finds Berney a wonderfully quote-worthy author on his own—"'My philosophy is that guilt is an unhealthy habit,' he said. 'It's what other people try to make you feel so you'll do what they want.  But one life is all we ever get, as far as I know.  Why give it away'."
      
The 60's were a time of cataclysmic changes in society. "The Negroes, you mean," Guidry said. "Civil rights and all that…"  "Not just the Negroes," she said. "Women, too.  Young people.  Everyone who's been pushed aside for so long that they're sick and tired of it."  Berney captures the feel of the period perfectly, both the uncertainties and the possibilities—"With every decision, we create a new future," Leo said. "We destroy all other futures.  There's nothing quite like traveling down Route 66, listening to Bob Dylan, or looking for a phone booth to anchor one to a sense of time and place.  
      
"November Road" is an exceptional book.  It is a love story with danger and suspense enough to keep one reading late into the night.  Berney's previous book "The Long and Faraway Gone," was excellent.  "November Road" surpasses even that.  Simply put; read it!

NOVEMBER ROAD (Thriller-Frank/Charlotte-USA-Contemp) - Ex
      Berney, Lou – Standalone
      William Morrow- Sept 2018

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Robert B. Parker's Colorblind by Reed Farrel Coleman

First Sentence:  She thought she might pass out from the ache in the side or that her heart might explode in her chest as she ran barefoot along the dunes.
      
Police Chief Jesse Stone is back at his job after spending two months in rehab for alcoholism and is called to a neighboring town by the state's chief homicide investigator, Captain Brian Lundquist, to help with a murder investigation.  Officer Drake Daniels made an association between the condition of a current victim and a murder that was Jessie's first case in Paradise.  The so-called "Saviors of Society" have set up shop and are targeting interracial couples.  Do they have a bigger plan?  And who is the troubled young man with the huge chip on his shoulder?
      
Could the themes of a book be any more relevant?  It's a painful first chapter, but it sets the stage.
      
Although this book is well into the series, Coleman does a very good job of fleshing out the characters, particularly Jesse, so that new readers don't feel lost.  There is a real sense of who he is, what he has been through, and for what he stands.  The definition of police work is nicely done—"Cops rode the wave or followed the wave onto the beach.  It wasn't their job to get ahead of it.  Cops were really like the guys who followed the parade with brooms and shovels, cleaning up the mess the horses and the spectators left behind." 
      
Coleman's reference to Shakespeare and the Old Testament can make one smile. The interesting observation that—"Some forms of evil don't just appear in your house.  They have to be invited in."—is an interesting subject for debate.  One should never underestimate the determination of evil. 
      
The portrayal of Jessi's struggle with sobriety is very well done.  As anyone who has ever been down that road, or been close to someone who has, it is such a difficult path of constant temptation, and the inner devil is loud. In contrast to this is food; not fancy food, but good food and how to prepare it, such as an omelet with onion and sausage.  Such scenes help defuse the tension and add just the right touch of normalcy.
      
The story is filled with interesting characters who come to life from the page.  Some have been part of the series for a long time, such as Molly and Healy, while some, such as Alisha, who are more recent.  They give substance and depth to the story.  As for the antagonists, they, too, are well done and very effective.  One may not wish to believe such people exist, but one knows they do.
      
Following Jesse, as he starts to put the pieces together is filled with excitement.  The tension increases nicely as the pieces fall into place and build to a nail-biting conclusion.  The story is told in short chapters and very fast moving.
      
"Robert B. Parker's Colorblind" deals with issues that are timely wrapped within a very exciting police procedural.  The development in Jesse's life is a lovely touch. 

 ROBERT B. PARKER'S COLORBLIND (PolProc-Jesse Stone-Paradise, MA-contemp) - VG
      Coleman, Reed Farrel – 17th in series
      Putnam – Sept 2018

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Faerie Tale by Raymond E Feist

First Sentence: Barney Doyle sat at his cluttered workbench, attempting to fix Olaf Andersen’s ancient power mower for the fourth time in seven years. 
      

Phil Hastings, his wife Gloria, his daughter Gabbie and their twin boys Patrick and Sean move from Sunny California to an old farmhouse in upstate New York whose land includes virgin forest. They soon find they have more to contend with than they expected. Unexpected, and unexplainable, encounters with strange creatures, the boy’s acknowledgment of “the Bad Thing” living under a bridge and Gabbie’s almost sexual encounter with a farrier who died over a hundred years ago are only some of the strange goings on which threaten the family.
      

This is a book to read every year or so on Midsummer’s Eve or All Hollow’s Eve. However, this is not one's child’s faerie tale even though it involves brotherly love and courage. It is fantasy; it is horror. It is creepy, dark, at times violent, at times sexual and always a page-turner.
      

Those who love Celtic myth and Shakespeare will recognize magical elements of The Fool, elf-shot, Trooping Faeires, and more. It is one of those rare books that makes one feel as though it “could” be possible.  It may even cause even non-Catholics to wish for a vial of holy water, a silver sword, and a true faerie stone.
      

One may find oneself researching the legends and faerie folk involved, looking for erl-king hills and avoiding faeire rings at midnight. It's wise to remember to start earlier in the day so one is not up until midnight finishing it. Staying out of the woods is also a good idea.
      

"Faerie Tale" is the perfect blending of fantasy in contemporary life which makes this book so compelling, frightening and memorable. 

FAERIE TALE (Suspense/Fantasy-Hasting Family-Pennsylvania-Cont) – VG+
      Feist, Raymond, E. –Standalone
      Doubleday, 1988


Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Ghosts by Ed McBain

First Sentence: They might have been ghosts themselves, the detectives who stood in the falling snow around the body of the woman on the sidewalk.
      
The body of a woman is found in front of her apartment building.  Very quickly, a second call comes to the police from a woman who has found ghost-story author Gregory Craig murdered in his apartment in the same building.  The case leads Detective Steve Carella, with the help of psychic Hillary Scott, to a summer cottage in Massachusetts and an experience unlike any Carella has ever known.
      
McBain creates the perfect opening.  It's visual and evocative, yet with writing which is spare and tight.  It's classic McBain.  The dialogue has the same crispness, but it never sounds stilted.  Although the story starts off quite simply, it takes several twists almost immediately, including the introduction of a doppleganger. 
      
Remembering that the story was both written and set in 1980, reading it now reminds us how much has changed.  Many will never have heard of comedian Henny Youngman, yet his humor remains timeless such as—"…the joke about the man who wants to buy a new car and his wife who wants to buy a mink cost.  The compromise.  The wife buys a mink coat and keeps it in the garage."  The difference in technology, or lack thereof, is marked, yet the forensic and crime-scene details give the story a present-day realism which hasn't changed.
      
McBain does a very good middle section describing other members of the 87th and how the team works together, such as deciding on coverage over the holidays.  He provides a good sense of realism in that no police department works only one case, and so includes secondary cases such as the theft of an actual street.  Even the series location is interesting in that Isola is essentially New York City turned on its side.
      
The link between the murders in Isola and a death in Massachusetts provides an opportunity not only to introduce a new location—"The town seemed to have crawled up out of the Atlantic like some prehistoric thing seeking the sun, finding instead a rocky, inhospitable coastline and collapsing upon it in disappointment and exhaustion."-- but add weather almost as a new character, and address the issue of fidelity.  The introduction of the very un-McBain-like scene of the paranormal works incredibly well when set against the normalcy and matter-of-factness of that which preceded it. 
      
McBain created an interesting motive; one that seems very timely—"Adolf Hitler must have thought of himself as a hero; Richard Nixon probably still thinks of himself as one; every man and woman in the world is the hero or heroine of a personal scenario."  The takedown of the bad buy is a final, brilliant twist.
      
"Ghosts" isn't usual McBain, in terms of its plot, but all the classic, elements are there in a completely engrossing, brilliantly crafted 212-page story.  However, starting with his first book "Cop Hater," McBain should be required reading for anyone who loves detective fiction.

GHOSTS (PolProd-87th Precinct-FicCity of Isola-Contemp) - EX
      McBain, Ed – 34th in series
      Viking Press – May 1980

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Shotgun Lawyer by Victor Methos

First Sentence:  This was it.
            
Peter Game is an ambulance chaser, a personal injury lawyer who takes the cases no one else will in order to make a quick buck, but who dreams of the big score.  Melissa Bell is the mother of a 7-year-old school-shooting victim.  In spite of the law, Bell wants Peter to sue the manufacturer of the gun used to kill her son, six other children, and a teacher.  Standing against Peter are the opposing attorney, Brennen Garvin, the gun lobbies, and the entire legal system.   
      
Those who follow the discussions on gun laws and the rights of those, directly or indirectly, harmed by guns may know--"The law was clear:  gun manufacturers were in no way responsible for what people did with their guns."  Yet Game begins with the assertion that cases against gun manufacturers can be won—"These gun guys, what they're scared of is publicity, not having to pay out money.  … if a lawyer goes to them and signs and NDS and keeps everything quiet, they'd rather settle than have another case in the papers.  Even if they win."
      
Methos walks one down the path of how things happen, including the way in which those who shouldn't be able to buy guns are able to obtain them.  He explains the whole process of strawmen, or scarecrows—people who go into stores and buy quantities of guns for people who can't legally purchase them. 
      
Stories which deal with the law are fascinating but can also be confusing for non-lawyers.  Methos explains each of the terms and aspects in a way which can be easily understood without slowing down the pace of the story. 
      
This is such a wonderfully current book.  It is one some people won't like and possibly may not read.  But others will read it and cheer for the characters and the subject.  The gamesmanship, from both sides of the aisle, that goes on is rather astonishing and not something about which the average person would even consider or be aware.  If one is called to serve on a jury, which is a fascinating experience, one may look at it with different eyes.
      
Methos clearly conveys the nerves a lawyer may experience the night before a jury case.  At the same time, he offsets it well with the complications in Peter's life.  The situation with Peter's son provides a good balance to the focus on the legal case. 
      
There is a very well-done scene of Peter hitting bottom, surging to a "Rocky" moment, and being knocked down again. Things such as that truly humanize the character.
      
"The Shotgun Lawyer" is a terrific read with an ending which is realistic.  The next time one is considering reading legal suspense, consider walking past the usual names and try Methos instead.  He doesn't disappoint.
     
THE SHOTGUN LAWYER (LegalSusp-Peter Game (née James)-Utah-Contemp - VG
      Methos, Victor - Standalone
      Thomas & Mercer – Oct 2018

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Leverage in Death by J. D. Robb

First Sentence:  Thou shalt not kill.
      
Marketing VP Paul Rogan attends a meeting where the announcement of a major corporate merger is set to take place.  Looking distraught, he opens his jacket exposing a suicide vest whose explosion immediately kills 11 people and injures nine. With the help of Roark, Eve's billionaire businessman husband, Lieutenant Eve Dallas, Detective Delia Peabody, and the team determine the motive is money, and that this won't be a singular incident.  How many more will die before Eve can find, and stop, the killers?
      
Reading J.D. Robb is always an entertaining way to spend several hours. Unfortunately, it also has come to feel formulaic, as though there are cards on a board and one simply shuffles the order.   
      
Robb does do characters very well.  Eve and Peabody contrast and balance one another nicely.  Eve and Roark are intriguing as characters who grew up with violence and poverty yet achieved wealth and success.  They are examples of loyalty, to one another and to their friends, and the secondary characters are ones readers have come to know and enjoy.  However, there is one scene over an issue which seemed out of sync and as though it was simply an excuse for a hot sex scene.  There had to have been a better way.  There is also food, the descriptions of which can leave one salivating, and certainly wishing for an Auto Chef. 

Of all her numerous skills, one is the natural way in which plot threads are balanced.  Even when working a case, there are considerations given to things outside the job.  A subplot is the upcoming Academy Award ceremony where the movie made about one of Eve's cases is up for several awards.  This provided an opportunity for humor to lighten the plot.
      
The theory about the motive is clever and different.  The analysis of the perps is logical and well-created.  There are a lot of non-recurring characters involved.  Some are interesting, some even provide red herrings, but one never felt truly connected to any of them.  

There was a considerable amount of time spent that really didn't go anywhere at all.  Severe editing might have helped.  Cutting out about 50 pages could have tightened the plot considerably, focusing it on the things which mattered.  Once one gets to the end it seems that the resolution is too quick, too compressed, and without the tension, it could have had. 
      
"Leverage in Death" is a good airplane book, although not up to the standard the series once had, which is a shame.  Still, it will keep one well occupied and, for those who like to leave books for others, be an enjoyable gift for the next traveler.  

LEVERAGE IN DEATH (FutPolProc-Lt. Eve Dallas-NYC-2060) – Good
      Robb, J.D. – 47th in series
      St. Martin's Press – Sept 2018

Friday, October 5, 2018

Secret Undertaking by Mark de Castrique

First Sentence:  "I want you to put me in jail."
      
Part-time deputy sheriff Barry Clayton locks his friend Archie in fake jail as a fundraising gimmick during the Apple Festival Parade.  Things go wrong when the Grand Marshal, North Carolina's Secretary of Agriculture Graham James, is attacked by a gunman and Barry's Uncle Wayne is critically wounded and the gunman killed. When the license of the gunman is found, less than an hour later, in the pocket of a murdered convenience-store operator, Barry, Archie, and Sheriff Tommy Lee Wadkins end up working with federal agencies on a case much bigger than they first thought.
     
de Castrique truly captures the feel of a small town and picks up on the current crises being faced by farmers across the country.  Archie is well used as a comedic element in a case that turns from being fairly light to much more serious.  Tommy Lee is an excellent balance giving just the right touch of maturity and expertise.  The vernacular used by the author helps reinforce the sense of place while avoiding "ah shucks" stereotyping—"I'll pray that God will be with you and that you'll prepare like He won't be."
      
There's a nice forensic twist.  New clues are cleverly, but naturally, introduced.  It's interesting learning how the food-stamp card scams work.  Later, there is a very well-done circling back of the plot and inclusion of one of those wrinkles one should have seen coming but didn't.  de Castrique is very good at tossing in twists without making them feel contrived.
      
Balancing the case with events in Barry's personal life provides an excellent sense of realism.  He engages the full range of the reader's emotions. 
      
It is very interesting how the author does a recap of the events of the case rather as a homicide team would by using a murder board.  This technique gives the readers a chance to look at the pieces and come to one's own conclusions.  The result is an explosive conclusion followed by a final twist.
      
"Secret Undertaking" is an enjoyable, and occasionally educational, story with a good blend of the criminal case and domestic events.  And who doesn't like a happy ending?   

SECRET UNDERTAKING (Pol Proc-Barry Clayton-Gainesboro, NC-Cont) – G+
      de Castrique, Mark – 7th in series
      Poisoned Pen Press, Sept 2018

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Solemn Graves by James R. Benn

First Sentence:  The first dead body I saw in Normandy was a cow, tangled in the branches of a shattered tree at a crossroads by the edge of a field, a good thirty feet off the ground.
      
D-Day has passed but France is still a very dangerous place to be as the war goes on.  A man wearing the uniform of an American Army Officer is found murdered in a manor house.  Captain Billy Boyle, Staff Sergeant Mike "Big Mike" Miecznikowski go to view the body and ultimately request that Lt. Piotr "Kaz" Kazimierz join them.  With spies and informants everywhere, the team must act carefully not to expose the nearby 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, aka, the Ghost Army as doing so could mean disaster for the Allies.
      
It's an effective opening that reminds one that the cost of war can be more than human lives.  However, it does get confusing as there are a lot of characters with different ranks from different areas of responsibility who come and go without our knowing quite how they fit within the plot.  Such, one supposes, is the confusion of war. 
      
Madam Janvier, the owner of the manor, presents a small picture of life during the Occupation and a realistic view—"The Germans killed many.  Took the Jews and Communists off to God knows where.  So many of the old people died last winter, with not enough to eat or fuel to stay warm. Forgive me if I make light of your American chocolate and coffee.  Otherwise, I should only weep."  Benn is very good at conveying both the realities of war—"Liberation wasn't always about the liberators.  Today, it had been about power."  At the same time, he is about to balance that with a touch of humor—"GIs worked at unloading a truck, carrying cases of grenades and Spam, each deadly enough in their own way."
      
One of the many things so interesting about reading Been is learning facts about the war few knew.  Here, we learn about the 603 Camouflage Engineers and the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.  It is fascinating—"It's like Broadway invades Europe."—but this is no Bob Hope show for the troops.  This was about saving the Allied troops while defeating the Germans, and the Black Legion in Detroit.
      
Benn has created a wonderful, and interesting, set of characters.  For those new to the series, take heart.  About one-quarter of the way into the story, one does learn of Billy's background and his relationship with Kaz, an extremely wealthy Polish baron from a country to which he couldn't return.  Kaz has known devastating personal loss yet chooses to work with Allies.  For those who've read previous books, it is nice to have Diana Seaton, Billy's love, back on the scene, especially with the revelation which follows.  It is also nice the Benn recounts an accurate, non-Disney, account of "Sleeping Beauty.
     
In this time of division over immigration, it makes one wonder how many may be descended from the German and Italian POW soldiers who were sent to the U.S. to work the farms.  It's an interesting thought.  At the same time, there's nothing like a small truth to make one stop and consider—"'What was it you realized?"  "That hatred is incompatible with hope.'"  Big Mike, a former cop, knows how to get things done and how to put help others put things into perspective 
      
"Solemn Graves" is really well done for both mystery and history fans alike.  It has plenty of action, as well as suspense related to the murder.  The motive is very well done and is as old as time.  Do be certain to read the Author's Note at the end.

SOLEMN GRAVES (HistMys-Billy Boyle-France-1944) – VG+
      Benn, James R.
      Soho Crime – Sept 2018

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Wild Fire by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  Emma sat on the shingle bank and watched the kids on the beach below build a bonfire.
      
DI Jimmy Perez is approached by a Helena, a woman whose family are new residents on the island.  She has been receiving anonymous notes with images from the game "hangman," and asks for Jimmy's help.  When Emma, the nanny to the children of the Island's Doctor Moncrieff, is found hanged in Helena's barn, where the previous owner hanged himself, by her autistic son Christopher, Jimmy calls together his team, including Willow Reeves, the Chief Inspector of the Serious Crime Squad and Jimmy's occasional lover.  Complex relationships hide dark secrets.
      
Cleeves brings one into a community so small that everyone new is subject to speculation.  There is a good reminder of how interconnected are people in such communities—"There are only twenty-three thousand people in the islands, and most have some connection with each other."
      
There is a shift in Jimmy and Willow's relationship.  Willow is wonderfully done.  She is very much an example of who many women have become; self-supporting, self-reliant, strong, not opposed to having a partner, but willing and able to get on alone if needs must while still feeling the hurt and uncertainty.  Christopher and his autism is well handled.  It feels just right, without being overdone. 
      
What an interesting observation regarding the popularity and gentrification of what had been small communities—"Willow wondered if it caused resentment:  these confident, educated incoming, buying up the nice houses, subtly changing the character of the place. …Wouldn't it feel like an invasion?"  How also true is it that one never really knows what goes on within a family—"…the whole happy-family image seems to have been a bit of a sham."
      
Cleeves doesn't rely on twists, but when she does include one, it's very effective.  She also does a very good job of increasing the level of mystery and suspense, keeping the killer's identity from the reader until the last possible moment. 
     
"Wild Fire" is yet another excellent read from Ann Cleeves.  Almost as intriguing is the reference at the end to the young women on the ferry.  Those who know her history can't help but suspect the character is Ann herself in an homage to a place so special to her.  Most intriguing of all the is the subtle Easter egg at the end.  We shall just have to wait to see.
 
WILD FIRE (PolProc-Jimmy Perez-Shetland Islands, Scotland-Contemp) – Ex
      Cleeves, Ann – 8th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2018