Friday, January 29, 2016

Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  Joe pushed through the crowd.
The last think Detective Joe Ashworth expects when taking his daughter Jessie Christmas shopping, is that she will find a dead body on the Metro.  Margaret Krukowsky had been a long-term resident at Harbour House, but even those who spent time with her, know almost nothing about her.  Only when a second woman dies, do the facts start to come forward, and put Jessie in danger.
How nice to have a story opening at the beginning of the actually story; no prologue.  Not only is the setting established, but we also have a sense of the character for one of the protagonists, Joe.  And Vera; how can one not like Vera and her no-nonsense style, her self-awareness—“She didn’t take notes at this point.  Notes stopped her concentrating.”--and her awareness of, and relationship to, others:  “On the platform in the distance she saw Joe Ashworth.  Her sergeant and her surrogate son, her protégé.  And her conscience.”
One sign of a really good author is when one wants to share passages and dialogue from the book with others.  With Cleeves, it’s hard to know where to stop, short of the entire book.  It is also very clever of Cleeves to allow us into Vera’s internal narrative, as well as see her from the perspective of others—“…Holly wondered if she’d get a bollocking again for complaining.  She felt every contact with Vera Stanhope was like an approach to a large and unpredictable dog.  You never knew whether it would lick you to death or take a chunk out of your leg.”
The central character of Vera is fascinating.  She is demanding of her team, but loyal to them and realizes her own faults in working with them.  It's nice learning a bit more about her childhood.  However this truly is an ensemble cast, with each member of the team being significant and dimensional.  One appreciates learning their perspective of issues.  The combination of characters provides veracity and depth to the story. 
It is always nice when a case is solved by footwork, and by following the clues.  Mistakes are make, but we always know Vera and her team will get their killer in the end.  And isn't seeing justice being done one of the reasons why we love mysteries?
Harbour Street” is another wonderful book by Ann Cleeves, with a complex, twisty plot, including one major twist at the end.  If you’ve not read her before, it’s not too late to start.   

HARBOUR STREET:  A Vera Stanhope Mystery (Pol Proc-Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) – VG+
Cleeves, Ann – 6th in series
Minotaur Books – Dec 2015 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

One Under by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  A suicide is a detective sergeant’s shout.
When is a suicide not a suicide?  When there is something much darker going on in the background and it relates to the deaths of two teenage girls about who no one really cares.  Fortunately, Bill Slider and his team do care, in spite of the pressure brought on them to drop the case.
If one wishes to learn British English, reading Cynthia Harrod-Eagles will start you down that road.  It is nice to have books which have not been “translated” into American.  However, CHE always makes the meaning of the idioms clear through the context. 
Either way, it is such a pleasure to read her for her pure mastery of language.  From chapter headings, to phrases such as “paucity of ceremony,” to her use of metaphors and malapropisms, one who loves language will find themselves smiling with pleasure at her skill. CHE’s descriptions taken the reader and puts them into the scene—“the sun was shining bleakly, but the wind was so bitter, you got no benefit from it.  …Just crossing the yard, Slider could feel surgically thin slivers of skin being flayed from his face.”
For those who follow the series, it’s nice that there are a couple new additions to newly-promoted to Detective Chief Inspector Bill Slider’s team.  And work as a team they do.  

Not only does the team support Slider, but it is also nice to see him have the support of his superior, even when Porson needs to provide counsel to Slider on the new perspective he must take in his new position.  But one can also appreciate that the characters have personal lives about which we learn, particularly Slider and his second, Atherton, who is an excellent balance to Slider—“He was turning into this boss.  For one of them to be over-sensitive was a misfortune; two would look like carelessness.”.  These are fully-dimensioned, realistic people, with realistic lives, families, and complications.  None are perfect, yet each is interesting.      
The plot is very well done.  It starts with the finding of a body which may, or may not, be a murder.  Because the victim is no one important—“Who cared for Kaylee Adams?  No one, not even her mother. …Here, in the space after the full stop, there was only Slider and his team left, to say that someone’s death couldn’t just be reduced to a budget decision.  He cared—and thank God Porson did too, for all his crustiness.”—Slider and his team must work all the harder to keep the case alive and, ultimately, they must fight the powers that be to bring it to resolution.  It is through solid police work that one very well-done connection is made, increasing the case in complexity and significance. 
One Under” is a solid police procedural with excellent characters and a plot which becomes delightfully twisty.  It is yet another wonderful book in a very good series.

ONE UNDER (Pol Proc-DCI Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – G+
Harrod-Eagles, Cynthia – 18th in series
Severn House – 2015

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Watching You by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  When Marnie Logan was fourteen she dreamed of marrying Johnny Depp of Jason  Priestly and living happily ever after in a house with a Gone-with-the-Wind staircase and a double-fridge full of Mars Bars.
Psychologist Joe O’Loughlin’s patient, Marnie Logan, is trying to put her life together after the disappearance of her husband, Daniel.  She trying to have him declared dead so she can access his bank account and life insurance for her, and her daughter’s survival.  Otherwise, her only choice has been to perform as a call girl.  As Joe, with the help of ex-cop Vincent Ruiz, works to help Marnie, he starts to realize that other people around her have disappeared/been murdered.  Is it Marnie, or is there someone else?
Robotham immediately captures the reader’s attention with a very creepy opening.  He also creates very vivid characters.  Marnie is interesting in that one doesn’t really like or trust her.  Ruiz is the classic tough copper; you’d definitely what him on your side.  Yet it is Joe who is the most interesting.  He is not without his own baggage, which makes him human; and has a degenerative medical condition.  It is Ruiz who describes him best—“You’re made differently from most men.  …You understand more than most people.  You look harder.  You care more.  You let things bruise your soul and question what’s wrong with humanity,…”.
The plot is suspenseful, increasingly so.  There is a major, very effective, plot twist one does not see coming.  But one also questions whether it is true.  Robotham also includes fascinating information on the psychology of stalkers versus voyeurs. 
Watching You” is a wonderful, suspenseful read with a shocking turn, and an ending that leaves you questioning. 

WATCHING YOU (Psy Suspense–Joe O’Laughlin-England-Contemp) -  VG
Robotham, Michael
Mulholland Books – Feb 2015 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Lamentation by C.J. Sansom

First Sentence:  I did not want to attend the burning.
These are troubled times in England as the religious factions struggle to determine who will control the Government and the danger of being accused of heresy is still present.  Even Queen Catherine Parr isn’t safe.  When she finds the book she wrote, “Lamentation of a Sinner,” missing from a locked chest within her chamber, she calls on the aid of her faithful follower, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, to find it for her before her enemies can destroy her.
Sansom doesn’t just describe a scene, he makes you part of it through the descriptions and Matthew’s thoughts—“I looked out from the mullioned window where I allowed Agnes to install some beehives and cultivate a herb garden….The birds were signing and the bees buzzed round the flowers, everything bright and colourful.  However, he also makes it very clear that this is not a time of peace and placidity.   Sansom’s description of the burning of heretics is also very vivid, and makes clear that this is a time of great danger, when books were forbidden and destroyed; and heretics hunted down, tortured and killed. 
This is a time of religious conflict between Rome, King Richard, the Sacramentarians, and the Anabaptists.  The whole story of the religious upheaval and the division among the factions is complex yet fascinating.  Sansom does an excellent job of presenting the information clearly, and very much makes the point about the danger of the time in which the story is set, and the cost of combining religion with government.  At the same time, he is meticulous about relating the details of the period—“Since your father’s being a landowner decrees you a area gentleman and gentlemen wear swords in public, we may as well turn the sumptuary laws to our advantage.”  The descriptions of clothing, jewels, and the palaces are exacting and are offset by the areas wherein reside people such as Matthew, and those of the lower, and lowest, classes.
Sansom is very good at introducing—or reintroducing, to the followers of the series—his characters.  He ensures one knowing how each fits into the story and Matthew’s world.  It is also extremely helpful that the book includes a “Principal Dramatis Personae.”  The characters are fully-dimensional.  Matthew is certainly interesting.  He is a hunchback who has been bullied, a man who has seen war—“…whenever I saw soldiers now I thought of my friends who had died, as I nearly had myself…” a lawyer, a man who is pragmatic, yet one with tremendous loyalty to Queen Catherine Parr.  He is also fallible; both in actions and decisions.

Each of the characters contributes significantly to the story.  There is a strong subtext of loyalty, friendship, and the cost of both.  The descriptions of King Henry VIII in the last stage of his life is sad and an example of extreme excess and illness.

The first hundred or so pages are rather slow reading, but they are critical for understanding the period and the danger.  However, when one gives oneself over to them, they are also rather fascinating, and certainly informative.  From there, the story picks up quickly and the length of the book quickly becomes irrelevant and unnoticed.  
Lamentation” is not a story of palaces. It is a story filled with history, danger, sword fights, death, suspense and plot twists; it is all here.  There is even a rather fascinating secondary plot which serves to relieve a bit of the tension and serves as a diversion from Royal intrigues.

LAMENTATION (Hist Mys-Mattthew Shardlake-England-1546) – VG+
Sansom, C.J. – 6th in series
Mulholland, Feb 2015

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Silence of Stones by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence:  The columns rose to impossible heights, casting irregular shadows upon the crowded nave of Westminster Abbey.   
Disgraced knight, Crispin Guest, is regarded as a traitor by King Richard II.   When the Stone of Destiny disappears, in a dramatic fashion, from under King Edward’s Chair, on which England’s monarch’s are crowned, Richard demands Crispin find the stone in three days, or his apprentice, Jack Tucker, will be executed.
Westerson establishes the premise, the characters, the threat and the risk, and then lets loose the story.  And what a wonderful, compelling story it is.  The story is truly brought to life with a combination of historical figures and vividly created fictional ones.  The balance of experience-hardened Crispin and Jack Tucker, the once street thief who inveigled his way into being Crispin’s apprentice, works so well.  While Crispin provides the preponderance of the action, Jack often makes us smile through his actions and dialogue—“My lady, if it pleases you to call me “Goat,” than whom am I to naysay you?  “Goat” it is.”, and they both account for the story’s suspense.  Yet it is the development of Crispin that provides some of the most moving scenes.  

Although the character of Rykener was introduced in an early book, he has a much greater role here and provide an excellent early twist and very good dialogue—“You canna make certain that the woman you abduct is a sarding woman?”—which has a flavor of the prior but makes no attempt to be of the period.  The inclusion of the Gaelic, which is, happily, translated, provides veracity to the story. 
The detail and amount of historical research is apparent while never overshadowing the story, which is clearly character-driven. One sees Jack maturing, as well as Crispin coming to realize just how much Jack means to him.  That Jack has adopted Crispin’s propensity for quoting Aristotle is delightful.  The Lady Katherine in the story, is not the “Katherine” of Anya Seaton—a book beloved by so many--but is a more honest representation of the figure, yet still one which can be recognized—“I am surrounded by men who cannot be commanded one way or the other…”
Westerson is good at providing those moments which give us pause—“but we have a habit, does Man, of taking that which we see every day with a certain amount of disdain in its monotony.  Only when there is chaos do we find it golden.  Only when it is lost do we feel the loss.”
The Silence of Stones” is a captivating, action-filled book with two mysteries solved from different sides, which also provides a lesson in honor.  Westerson is one of those authors who is always a pleasure to read.

THE SILENCE OF STONES:  A Crispin Guest medieval noir (Hist Myst-Crimpin/Jack Taylor-England-1338) – VG+
Westerson, Jeri – 7th in series
Severn House – Feb 2016

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins

First Sentence:  I spotted the girl even before she knocked on my door.
Tough, street-wise Mattie Sullivan hires Spenser to find her mother’s killer.  Even though a man was convicted, Mattie doesn’t believe he’s the killer.  Agreeing on a fee of doughnuts, literally, Spenser is intrigued enough to look into it.  When the trail leads to old advisories, drugs, and the FBI, Spenser, with the help of Hawk, know they need to keep Mattie safe and to find the answers.
Atkins does a very good job of capturing Parker.  All the elements that should be there; are there.  In addition to the standard cast of characters—it is nice that Atkins as made Susan rather more likable—Spenser’s client makes a definite impression as she’s a girl who’s had to grow up way too fast and is handling it.  An entire discussion could be held about Mattie in terms of our view of children growing up today, as opposed to how they grew up in the past and their different levels of responsibility.
One can also count on Spenser to trigger your hunger response—“I had envisioned a filet, medium rare, with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes.”  He is also the single greatest representative for the Boston Tourist Board possible.  You are in the city with him; everyplace from the roughest neighborhoods, to the best.  But it’s his inclusion of dining spots that is particularly fun; Locke-Ober, Legal Seafood and, a particularly favorite, Union Oyster House; the oldest restaurant in Boston—“A big steaming bowl of clam chowder arrived with a thick wedge of cornbread.  The heavens opened up.  The angels reappeared.”—down to Dunkin’ Donuts.
Another retained element is Spenser’s sartorial descriptions—“Vinnie wore a navy cashmere topcoat with a glen plain suit underneath.  His dress shirt was a blue-and-white stripe, and his tie a light purple.”  Rather than interrupt the flow of the story, or simply seem to be fill, these descriptions serve to tell one a bit about the personality of the character:  clothes make the man.
      A nice segue in the story is a comparison of Mattie and two other troubled people Spenser helped in the past; Paul and Z.  New readers won’t feel lost by these references as sufficient backstory is provided.  However, this reference does help to cement Spenser’s image as a knight errant.  But he’s no Don Quiote with Sancho Panza, in the form of Hawk, by his side.   Spenser’s advisories are very real, and very dangerous.  But so can be Spenser, Hawks, and their colleagues. As we move into the recognition that it is territory and drugs that are behind things—“Territory,” she said.  “How are men different than dogs.”—and when things turn bad, the tension is palpable and there’s no putting the book down.
Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby” is very, very good.  It’s not an homage or an imitation in any form.  Atkins truly captures that which made Parker’s books so successful.  

ROBERT B. PARKER’S LULLABY (PI-Spenser-Boston-Contemp) – VG+
Atkins, Ace – 1st in Parker series
G.P. Putnam’s Sons – May 2012

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: “Before I start, can I ask you to look around at this beautiful building?”

It’s the week before Guy Fawkes, and London’s banks are under siege. Although started by the scandal of a corrupt financier, the violence is growing and now includes murder by fire. But the death doesn’t look accidental to the Bryant and May of the PUC, especially not when a second fire also kills.

NOTE: If you read an e-version, please ensure you start with “Excerpt from a Speech…” rather than just at Chapter 1.

Fowler is one author from whom I look forward to reading his prologues as they are always a treat. In this case, with the “Excerpt from a Speech,” we learn a great deal about the history of London and the PUC, and a wonderful internal memo from Raymond Land, who actually think he runs the PUC.

The ensemble cast of characters, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is one of the most unusual and intriguing one will find. Although we meet them in short order from the beginning, Fowler doesn’t weigh the reader down with background information all at once. Rather, we come to know the characters throughout the story. The interplay amongst them, as well as their physical descriptions, makes them very alive and real to us, causing the reader to truly care about what happens to each of them, including the more secondary characters. 

Dialogue makes such a difference, and Fowler knows how to write dialogue—“Even after all these years, your every action remains a mystery to me….And why you had to follow him into a theatre of all places—“ “He was a junkie doing some speed-acquisition of tourists’ wallets, John. I took one look at him and knew he would test positive for stupidity.” And later—“Look at the state of you…” “Do you always boil a saucepan of sprouts for at least two hours?” Bryant asked. “What?” said May, thrown. “No.” “Good, then you’re not my mother.”

At the same time, there are many passages that cause one to stop and consider—“In every decade and generation,…one thing united us: obstinacy. We’re a paradoxical mix of conformity and rebellion, privacy and bravado. We will not do as we are told. That’s how it always was.”

The historic details and information are fascinating and add wonderful depth to the story. One can’t help but respect an author who doesn’t write down to their readers. Rather, there are times when one finds oneself in search of a dictionary; and that’s a nice thing.

There are so many facets to this book: the history of Guy Fawkes, protests by “anonymous” against the 1 percent, a theory about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch,” Jack the Ripper and the importance of honoring the victims, and so much more. Yet it all ties together with the base of a very human story.

Bryant & May and The Burning Man” includes excellent building of suspense, a dramatic climax, and well-executed twists right up to the resolution. In the end, though, it is a story of people, our present society, and relationships.

Fowler, Christopher – 12th in series
Bantam - December 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Thames River Murders by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: The letter, neatly folded at my plate, looked innocuous enough, but I had a sense of disquiet about it.

Someone is threatening Captain Gabriel Lacey by claiming he’s not who he says. When that threat includes an attempt to harm Lacey’s wife’s son, Lacey takes It very seriously. Yet he also has the matter of a decade-dead woman to identify, and a killer to find, and his daughter, Gabriella, who is coming out.

One can greatly appreciate the use of Ms. Gardner’s expressions appropriate to the social class of the period to describe Lacey’s wife—“Donata had been quite a diamond of the first water in her Season.” However, it is interesting to learn of the laws of the period and the control men had over their wives. While women of wealth and position could act and go out independent of their husbands, where women of lower classes could not, for them all, unless a woman inherited directly from her father, it was men who controlled the money, property and the lives of their children. Even further, in this particular book, Gardner addresses the laws with regard to Jews in England at the time.

Followers of the series will be pleased to see how the relationship between Lacey, his wife, daughter and stepson is progressing. However, new readers will not feel the lack of their history and will quickly understand just how unusual is their relationship, even for the time. However, this is by no means a book where the marital relationship overwhelms the story. Far from it.

In many ways, the most intriguing relationships are between Lacey; James Dennis a dangerous and powerful criminal; Brewster, the man charged by Denis to keep track of Lacey; and Lacey’s friend Lord Granville, a man of extreme wealth and position whose friendship with Granville helps stave off his own boredom.

Lacey is a former front-line soldier and is not without his flaws, the worst being his temper and penchant to hurl himself into potentially dangerous situations—“Captain, you could find trouble inside St. James’s Palace.” But it’s Lacey’s empathy for others, and his determination for justice that makes him a compelling and dimensional character; one who would attract such diverse range of associates.

That the victim and her family are Jewish introduces a new and interesting element. The wonderful scene of Lacey visiting a synagogue leads to a particularly poignant observation—“Any man I’d met of the Hebrew religion had been no different than I was, I’d observed—in fact, many came from circumstances far better than mine, and blended into London life more seamlessly than I did. True, I was able to vote for stand for Parliament…but how did that make me a superior man?” Shades of Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”

The Thames River Murders” is an excellent read, filled with twists, suspense, action, balanced by a touch of relationships and two threads which peak our curiosity of the next book.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Theft of Life by Imogen Robertson

First Sentence:  The body was staked out in the north-east corner of the churchyard.
The murder of a former West Indies planter causes suspicion to fall on a runaway slave now working as a bookseller in London.  It also has an emotional impact on Harriet Westerman’s senior footman, William Geddings.  As Harriet and her friend, anatomist Gabriel Crowther, become more involved in the murder, they become more aware of how much of Britain’s wealth is built on the shameful trade of human lives.
It is an excellent touch that the book opens from the perspective of a character rarely the focus of historical mysteries.  We also know we are in for a story that is difference, and possibly uncomfortable as Robertson gives us a perspective and insight into the English involvement in the slave trade.
The quality of an author’s dialogue makes such a difference to a story.  Robertson writes excellent dialogue with enough sense of the period to make it realistic.  But it also tells us a lot about the characters. …”You were doing better when you were praising my talents, Crowther, rather than taking the chance to insult my husband and my intelligence.  I told you, as a friend, what William said about my husband.  Please do not use it to try and play on me like a cheap fiddle!”  The repartee between Harriet and Crowther is always a delight.
As for characters, they are fully-developed and very memorable.  Harriet and Crowther come to life and each holds their own.  Theirs is a relationship of friendship and respect.  Jane Austin would definitely have approved, although she might have been a bit intimidated by Harriet.  She is very much in the style of Mrs. Croft from “Persuasion,” which Crowther has slight shades of Colonel Brandon, as played by Alan Rickman, from “Sense and Sensibility.”  One knows characters, and a series, truly speak to readers when one imagines who would be cast in their roles.  There is also a very good introduction to those who surround Harriet and how they all fit together.
Robertson has a wonderful voice and ability to convey emotions.  Through them you not only get to know the character, but you feel the pique of Harriet, the sorrow of a young boy, and the apprehension of a free black man.  You truly feel what the characters feel.  Yet Robertson also paints visual descriptions…”The hedgerows were thick with the stars of Queen Anne’s Lace, and the hawthorn bushes heavy with blossom—and the quiet cut through him.”
Theft of Life” is wonderful in so many aspects; not the least of which is an excellent mystery with well-done twists and a suspenseful climax.  It is a remarkable book and one which should be read.

THEFT OF LIFE (Hist mys-Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crother-England-1785/Georgian) – Ex
Robertson, Imogen – 5th in series
Headline – 2014