Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Dying Fall by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence: At first he isn’t even scared.         
Forensic archeologist Ruth Galloway is shocked to learn that a friend has died in a house fire. Things take on an eerie quality when she receives a letter from him, written days before he died. He talks about an historic archeological discovery but also that he is afraid. With her daughter Katy and Druid friend Cathbad, Kate heads north to Lancashire. What she doesn’t plan on is that DCI Nelson, father to Katy, will also be there, in his former hometown, with his wife and family.       
If a completely compelling, albeit somewhat horrific, hook is what captures your attention; you can’t do better than here. Griffiths immediately draws you into the story and makes you want to keep reading by making each chapter more intriguing than the last. This is not a book you’ll put down.     
Griffiths is very good at creating complicated relationships wherein you have sympathy for each of the characters involved. That takes real skill, and she has it. She also introduces characters very well and If you’ve read previous books, you become reacquainted; if you’re new to the series, you never feel lost wondering who they are and how they fit together. Sadly, not all authors are good at this. There are the favorites, of course; Ruth and Cathbad in particular. Children can be awkward, yet Katy is neither precocious nor annoying, but very realistic. One of the most appealing new characters is Sandy, Nelson’s friend and fellow DCI.       
The atmosphere and tension created are excellent. The history related to the story is fascinating. I’ve always been a fan of Griffiths’ ear for dialogue and her occasional subtle humor.      
A Dying Fall” is a book which broad appeal as it works on so many levels. It may just be my favorite or second favorite, book in this series so far. What most pleases me is to know that there will be more books coming.
 
A DYING FALL (Trad. Myst-Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) – VG+
Griffiths, Elly – 5th in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Golden Mile to Murder by Sally Spencer (aka Alan Rustage)

First Sentence:  Behind them shone the bright lights of Blackpool, ahead of them lay the darkness of the Irish Sea.

DCI Charlie Woodend is out of Scotland Yard and banished by his new boss, SD Ainsworth to Blackpool—without his right arm, Bob Rutter, to investigate the murder of a Blackpool policeman.  There, he is assigned DS Monika Paniatowski, who has issues of her own, not the least of which is being the first female sergeant in Blackpool.  They are also up against a squad determined to prevent Woodend from finding out too much.
      
The book opens with a classic scene of a young couple at the beach, but the scene has a very non-classic ending.  At the end of the first chapter, there’s no question that you’ll go on to read the rest.
      
Spencer provides wonderful descriptions of Woodend’s return to the town in which he grew up and that feeling of both familiarity and foreignness one can have…”So perhaps you never really could go back, he thought—because back wasn’t there any longer.”
      
The best description of Woodend is given by an officer who’d worked with him previously…”You don’t really know the meaning of the term “bloody-minded” until you’ve worked the Cloggin’-it Charlie.  He’s stubborn, unreasonable, relentless, and possibly the best policeman it’s ever been my privilege to work with.”  He is also a fan of Dickens, hard, but fair and, it turns out, a very good team leader and boss to the young, female, D.S.  Monika’s background is very much incorporated into the story.  Spencer’s representation of a woman who has experienced that which Monika has done, is painfully accurate. 
      
Spencer’s descriptions can be delightful, particularly that of Woodend’s landlady…”She was a real dragon, Woodend thought admiringly. If Saint George had had to face a creature like Mrs. Bowyer in this quest to free the maiden, he would have abandoned the girl to her fate and gone off in search of the nearest pub.” He also provide an excellent sense of time by including references to books, television shows—Bonanza--and movies—The Guns of Navarone—of the time.
     
TheGolden Mile to Murder” is an excellent mystery that is so well plotted.  Not only did I not identify the killer, but the epilogue provides a wonderful “WOW” moment.

THE GOLDEN MILE TO MURDER (Pol Proc-DCI Charlie Woodend-Blackpool, England-1960s/Contemp) - Ex
Sally Spencer (aka Alan Rustage) – 5th in series
Severn House, 2001

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  Vera swam slowly.
      
It’s not every day a police inspector finds a dead body sharing a sauna with her in a hotel health club, especially when that body is of a murder victim.  Vera and her team work to find a killer in a village filled with people, and their secrets.
     
 From the very first paragraph, one is caught up in the author’s voice; her dry humor and the character.  By the end of the first chapter, on is also caught up in the story.
      
There is so much one could say about the characters, particularly Vera.  How nice it is to have a female protagonist such as Vera. She’s a mature woman, overweight and unconcerned about her appearance—except, not totally unconcerned.  She does care about being fair to her team, knows what motivates each of them, and is a very good leader; even though she drives them hard.  She’s respected by her colleagues, even when they frustrate her.  The relationship she has with Joe, her sergeant, is an interesting one…”Sometimes Vera though he represented her feminine side.  He had the empathy, she had the muscle.  Well, the bulk.”  Even with the suspects, she doesn’t just investigate clues, but motivations; what makes people do what they do, what drives them.
     
Cleeves has a very interesting style.  Although the story is told in 3rd person, when she focuses on Vera, it switches somewhat to first person as we gain insight on her life and character through an internal monologue and her observations…”These days, people expected senior female officers to walk straight out of “Prime Suspect.”
     
There is a very strong sense of place and wonderful descriptions.  Particularly appealing is the contrast between the town and the desolation of Vera’s home.  It’s very much part of her character.
      
Although the story is character driven, it certainly doesn’t lack for plot or suspense.  We’re given plenty of characters with motives, nice red herrings and plot twists.  “Vera” is currently a television series done by British ITV, and very well done it is.  The only way I knew the villain in the book was having seen the episode.  Otherwise, it really wasn’t obvious.
      
SilentVoices” is a thoroughly engrossing read.  It’s not a book you’ll put down and come back to later.  Cleeves is a wonderful author who should be much better known to American readers.

SILENT VOICES (Pol. Proc-Det. Insp. Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) – VG+
Cleeves, Ann – 1st in series
A Thomas Dunne Book for Minotaur Books, 2011

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fatal Harbor by Brenden Dubois

First Sentence:  In my home state of New Hampshire, death certificates are a formal-looking document, with a light watermark in the center outlining the shape of our fair state.          
      
Lewis Cole’s best friend, Police Detective Diane Woods, was on duty at an anti-nuclear demonstration that turned violent.  Diane was singled out by a man who beat her so severely; she now lies in a coma.  Cole, formerly an analyst with the Department of Defense, with the help of his friend, security consultant Felix Tinios, is determined to find the man and mete out his own form of justice.  However, men who are willing to kill are doing their best to stop Cole.
      
The first chapter starts by tugging at your heart, ends with a bang.   From there, the story rarely lets up.  Dubois definitely knows how to write action.
      
Dubois does create a strong sense of place.  It’s clear he knows Boston well.  If the reader does, they will smile at his reference to “the People’s Republic of Cambridge.”  West Coasters; think Berkeley.  He does make an interesting, and sobering, point about how fragile is our power grid and the potential impact should it fail.
      
The protagonist, Louis Cole, is an interesting one.  Yet if one hasn’t read previous books in the series, it’s difficult to see how he went from being a DoD analyst and magazine writer to the character he is here.  It’s nice to think a friend would do anything for you, but this is a bit extreme.  Yet without his actions, we have no story.
      
Granted, I am reviewing from an Advanced Readers’ copy, but I found there to be a considerably amount of repetitive information.   I shall hope further editing prior to the final publishing will have corrected. 
     
Fatal Harbor” is suspenseful, exciting, and filled with very effective plot twists.  Although it seemed a bit over the top, it was a non-stop read.

FATAL HARBOR (Non-licen. Invest-Lewis Cole-East Coast-Contemp) - Good
Dubois, Brendan – 8th in series
Pegasus, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Baklava Club by Jason Goodwin

First Sentence:  The man lives, or the man dies.
      
A group of young Italians, spending much of their time with Yashim’s friend Ambassador Palewski, are part of the revolutionaries striving for the reform and unification of Italy.  At the moment, they are exiled in Istanbul with instructions to kill a Polish Prince.  The assignation becomes kidnapping and the wounding of Palweski, causing him to become involved.
      
The book has an excellent opening with wonderful descriptions…”the sea is smooth like watered silk beneath a crescent moon, the ship’s wake fanning out like a tear.”  At the same time, we are left with a sense of dread.  However, it is the descriptions of food and dishes prepared by Yashim that are particularly wonderful.  One hopes a cookbook might be in the author’s future.
      
The two principal characters, Yashim, a eunuch in the service of the valide—queen mother of the ruling sultan--and his friend Palewski, the Polish Ambassador without a country or embassy, are wonderful contrasts to one another, yet we feel their friendship. Natasha is one of the most complex characters.  We get to know her through the story, as does Yashim.  The other characters are much less developed.
      
Goodwin writes wonderful dialogue.  When viewing Palewski’s library, a priest comments, “It’s not a collection you have, Palewski. It’s a disease.”  At the same time, having a dictionary handy is useful…”I palliate the torment, Palewski, by a strict diet of incunabula…”
      
One thing that does help is to have a good overview of the history of this period.  An Advanced Reader’s Copy unfortunately does not include any “Author’s Notes” which may be in the final publication.  One is, instead, thankful for the internet.  Without it, the motives can be a bit difficult to grasp.  Credit where due, however, is that Goodwin does do a decent job of providing the information within the text.

The Baklava Club” has humor, suspense, interesting characters and wonderful descriptions.  It’s not, perhaps, the best of the series, but it’s still worth taking the time to read.

THE BAKLAVA CLUB (Hist Mys-Insp. Yashim-Istanbul-1842) – G+
Goodwin, Jason – 5th in series
Sarah Crichton Books/Macmillan, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

Any Other Name by Craig Johnson

First Sentence: Joseph Conrad said that if you wanted to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm; if you want to know the age of the Powder River country just be on the wrong side of a coal train.

Sheriff Walt Longmire is about to be a grandfather—very soon. He has promised his daughter, Cady, that he will be in Philadelphia for the baby’s birth. His old friend and former boss, Lucian Connally, asks him for a favor of going with him to an adjacent county and visit a woman whose daughter is missing. One missing woman leads to secrets, corruption and possible death.

Johnson is the epitome of a story teller. You are not a viewer; you are a participant. How does he do it? He starts by hooking you into the story from the very beginning by his strong voice and the ability to create a very visual sense of place. He makes you feel and see what he describes. His inclusion of spiritualism adds to the sense of place, the strength of the character and the story.

Part of that voice is his humor. It’s not situational, but dry and natural. His dialogue is among the best being written. Most of it is his characters. Walt is such an engaging character. He is truly the “long arm of the law” and well-liked by his colleagues. But he’s not infallible nor is he superman. 


The supporting characters of Henry Standing Bear and Undersheriff Vic Moretti, Lucian and Dog are significant to the story. Best of all, even the secondary characters are well developed. None of Johnson’s characters are flat or stereotypes. They all have a part to play in the effectiveness of the story. Even the weather becomes a character within the story.

Any Other Name” is an excellent book. It’s filled with tension and breath-catching suspense, but the pacing is perfect with enough pauses in the action for balance. Johnson is an author who both entertains you and educates you. There’s not a single criticism to be made. 

ANY OTHER NAME (Pol Proc-Sheriff Walt Longmire-Wyoming, Contemp) - Ex
Johnson, Craig – 10th in series
Viking, 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Dark Winter by David Mark

First Sentence: The old man looks up, and for a moment it feels as though he is staring through the wrong end of a telescope.

An old man is telling a journalist the story of how he survived the sinking of a trawler thirty years ago. They take a break and he disappears only to be found dead later in a lifeboat off the coast of Finland. Det. Sgt. McAvoy is sitting at an outdoor café with his son when they hear panicked screaming from the church across the way. As he arrives, he barely being struck by a blade carried by a man all in black. What he does find is a young woman, hacked to death. 

It’s always a bit sad to be introduced to a character one likes only to have him be the first victim. We then segue to our protagonist is peacefully sitting in the town square only to have total chaos. 

McAvoy is an interesting character whose personality belies his physical appearance. He has a past with the force, resulting in some bitterness. He’s a wonderfully complex character. He’s a cop who really cares about his job… “…And he knows that the reason he has to catch the right man…It’s because somebody has to give a damn about the rules. Idealistic? Perhaps; but it makes him an interesting character. 

Mark provides some wonderfully evocative descriptions which provide a strong sense of place. “There are still proud homeowners here and there. Amid the black teeth and rotted gums of the burned-out and vandalized houses stands the occasional white-painted molar.”

The story had an excellent plot. As the pieces started fitting together, the pace increased and uncovering the villain and the motive keep the pace moving forward at a fast pace, but not without some introspection.

The Dark Water” is a very good debut book with an unusual protagonist who is interesting enough to what to know more.

THE DARK WINTER (Pol Proc-Det. Sgt. Aector McAvoy-Hull, England-Contemp) – VG+
Mark, David – 1st in series
A Plume Book, 2012

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson

First Sentence: The room is dark, lit by only a single candle on the surface of a rough wooden table.

Widow Harriet Westerman receives a letter from her newly married sister, Rachel. In Germany, where they are touring, Rachel's husband, Daniel Clode, was found in a locked room with the body of Lady Martesen. Although very confused, seeming to have attempted suicide and having no memory, Daniel is imprisoned and awaiting execution for murder. Harriet, with her friends; anatomist Gabriel Crowther, Daniel's employer Owen Graves and Michaels, landlord of the local inn who insists on overseeing their travels, travels to the Duchy of Maulbery. There they find a Duke preparing for his wedding, an enemy, intrigue and several more deaths.

Robertson has a very intriguing style. The prologue both compels and slightly baffles us. The wonderfully evocative descriptions of the story's first chapter informs us that a crime has occurred so that the intrigue is presented, possible ramifications established, and many of the characters introduced with an overview of their backgrounds established. It is a very satisfying beginning.

The characters drive the story, and they are characters about who we very much care. For those of us who are Jane Austen fans, one sees shades of Mrs. Croft (Persuasion) and Colonel Brandon (Sense and Sensibility) and the characters of Harriet and Crowther. Harriet is very much a person one would like to be. She has strength, but not false courage. She is intelligent, traveled and capable. ..."Harriet tilted her head to one side. "I was going to stab him with one of Mr. Al-Said's files, but he provided a pistol so I almost shot him instead. I hate to say it, but I think having the opportunity to do so, and not killing him, has done me a great deal of good." Each of the characters is memorable and significant to the story and it's hard to say enough about them without this review becoming as long as the book itself. There isn't a cameo player among them, even if their role is small.

Robertson's voice and style are very special. There is elegance to her writing. Her descriptions are evocative; her ability to convey emotion is visceral. Her voice is neither modern yet doesn't focus on being of the period. It is conveyed through scenes and narrative, such as Harriet her musing on the comparison of her beginning an intimate with her late husband, as opposed to what may possibly have been her sister's experience. Her dialogue is always to be appreciated ..."Are you encouraging me to speculate, Crowther?" ..."I suppose I am to a degree. I will try not to do so again."

The plot is not a simple one. Beginning from the first page, we are uncertain as to the road on which we travel. One must pay attention to the details, and it is very well worth so doing. As with the characters, every aspect is significant. This isn't a story to skim, but neither is one tempted so to do as each page is engrossing.

"Circle of Shadows" is an excellent read. For me, it is the best book, so far, in the series. That is saying quite a lot as this is a series I truly love. 

CIRCLE OF SHADOWS (Hist Mys-Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crowther-Germany-1784) – Ex
Robertson, Imogen
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2013

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Slash and Burn by Colin Cotterill

First Sentence: You know?

Dr. Siri, the nearly 80 year old corner of Laos, wants to retire and spend some time with his wife before he dies; a death predicted by the local transvestite fortuneteller. Yet it agrees to one last job. 


Ten years earlier, during the Vietnam War, a US fighter pilot went down in the jungle. A search party of Americans and Laotian scientists and high-level politicians set out to find the pilots remains. They don’t expect to be trapped in a remote cabin due to smoke. Even less, do they expect one of their party to die.

From the very beginning, it’s clear that this isn’t your usual mystery, unless you read a lot of books where the protagonist embodies a centuries-old shaman and a transvestite fortune teller are among the charters. But the wonderfully quirky cast of characters is only one thing that makes this book a delight to read. However, one thing devotedly to be wished, would be a cast of characters at the beginning of the book, as it did become confusing at times.

Excellent descriptions; “But the setting was idyllic. It wasn’t yet 10:00 A.M. and not all the mist had burned away from the surrounding mountains. The sun was still a fuzzy egg yolk behind a lace curtain. The air was fresh and tingled the back of Siri’s throat. The sound of running stream water provided the soundtrack. The second hands on the watches on the wrists of the Americans began to crawl more slowly around the faces. Time had altered.” 

The book is filled with humor, but there’s pathos as well. We’re presented with a country subjected to war, and a description of a village which has lost an “entire generation of able-bodied young men.” Tucked into this story is the remarkable story of what happened to the people of this area. The title is explained by a tradition of the farming people in this area. However, one also learns about the various ways in which marijuana can be used. 

Some may describe this series as being light and, granted, there is a lot of humor both in the characters and the events. However, there is a deeper layer that, when looked for, provides a real grounding to the story.

Slash and Burn” is a really good read. There is a surprising twist and motive, but one that makes perfect sense in the end. Be assured, however, that Dr. Siri and his crew remain firmly on my “must read” list.

SLASH AND BURN (Lic Invest-Dr. Siri Paiboun-Laos-Contemp) – G+
Cotterill, Colin – 8th in series
Soho Crime, 2011