Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Black Cage by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  The color had been sucked from everything, not just the dead.  This is not the first time the bodies of naked kids have been found by the water. The last time, known as the Stemec Henderson murders, were three boys. The position of the girls was the same.

Milo Rigg is a reporter who's lost his byline due to perceived inappropriate behavior while on his last story.  Still working in a city where police corruption is the norm, on a paper at the edge of going under, submitting his stories under his boss's name, and suffering nightmares about his late wife, the old case comes alive when new bodies are discovered.  Now, with a new boss, and new clues, Rigg is determined to follow the story to the killer and to regain his reputation.

If one has previously read Fredrickson, this is a book darker in tone and emotion than his previous works, and that's not a bad thing as it's always nice to see an author stretch. The introduction to Milo through his interaction with senior sheriff's deputy Jerome Glet is very effective. As a character, Milo stands out.  Fredrickson makes one feel the pain of his loss, both personally and professionally, his frustration with his job, the demise of print newspapers overall, and the corruption and ineptitude of the police.  Without words, one feels the turmoil of Milo's emotions--There was no 'before' to it, no past.  It was still all so damned present." 

Fredrickson's descriptions are evocative.  They perfectly reflect the tragedy of the scene--"Snow began to fall in big wet flakes, like tiny shrouds descending to cover the horror of what had been found there."  One is very effectively drawn into the story by hints, traces of things; by intriguing references to people, places, and events. 

The inclusion of the news articles, along with Milo having other small stories to write, adds realism to the story and provides details in a concise manner without filling space with exposition.  Fredrickson accurately, and sadly, conveys what has happened to print newspapers--"...the third floor, the reporters' floor, was now a ghost town. Half the cubicles were empty... People no longer read the ink of the news; ... they wanted that in tiny bits on screens that they could delete in an instant if it was too upsetting or demanded too much concentration..."

The increase in tension is subtle and very well done.  There is one point where one may think they understand what is happening and suspicions arise.  It's best, to trust Milo and follow along as he builds scenarios, setting out to prove, or disprove them.

Milo's recurring dream of the black cage is a constant theme.  However, the reveal of the association is both anti-climactic but strangely satisfying. There are a lot of characters, but Fredrickson is very good at reminding one of who each character is and their role.  The plot twists are well-timed and very effective.

"The Black Cage" has a startling climax, an excellent final twist, a nice tie-up, and a strangely bittersweet ending. It's important to note that, although dealing with the deaths of children, the story is not gruesome in that the murders happen off-page and are a fait accompli when one learns of them.  The beginning of a new series, Milo is a character one looks forward following into upcoming books.

THE BLACK CAGE (Journ-Milo Rigg-Illinois/Indiana-Contemp) - VG
Fredrickson, Jack - 1st of series
Severn House - Feb 2020

Friday, January 10, 2020

Peace by Garry Disher

First Sentence:  This close to Christmas, the mid-north sun had some heft to it, house bricks, roofing iron, asphalt and the red-dirt plains giving back all the heat of all the days.

It has been a year since Constable Paul Hirschhausen was branded a whistleblower and transferred to a rural territory covering hundreds of kilometers.  Except for his lover Wendy, and her daughter, Katie, he still doesn't feel welcome in Tiverton.  However, between Brenda Flann driving into the front of the local bar, a stolen ute containing stolen metal, a ranch tragedy, a woman clearly hiding from someone, and a discovery which brings in way too many outside cops, and results in Hirsch forming an unexpected alliance.                                                                                               

Disher has a real skill for descriptions--'He liked to walk every morning, the dawn a time to cherish with only the birds busy, the air quite still and everything sharply etched. 9 a.m. the mid-north would be lying limp and stunned beneath a molten sun and the overnight reports of villainy, idiocy and shitty luck would have landed on his desk." 

Even his style creates reflects the location as the story begins more as a series of vignettes rather than one straight-line mystery.  These are interesting and give a real sense of the types of things with which Hirsch has to deal, but one finds oneself waiting.  It's interesting because it's so real.  

Never fear, when the pieces start coming together, one realizes things aren't a tranquil as seemed and the level of involvement turns to high.  "Peace inside. That's all a cop wants at Christmas, he thought. Not a heavenly peace, just a general absence of mayhem."

Hirsch is such a well-done character.  Although assigned to this one-man territory, he has the instincts of a city cop---"...the house felt unoccupied rather than touched by junkie-offspring violence, so he left it at that.  It was a sense all cops developed, knowing when a situation behind closed doors was right or wrong."--but the compassion of a community policeman.  There is a nice balance between his former colleagues who dislike or dismiss him and those who know and respect his capabilities.  This establishes a basis for future relationship development.

The story has its share of dark elements, suspense, and unexpected twists, all of which are perfectly executed.  "Peace is the second book in this series, with "Bitter Wash Road" having been the first.  One need not have read that book to enjoy this one, but Disher is such a good writer, why not?

"Peace" is a thoroughly engrossing story shattering one's perceptions of a peaceful small town and of knowing who one can trust.  It builds slowly with a number of seemingly unrelated incidents, only to have the pieces coalesce to a well-done ending. 

PEACE (PolProc- Paul Hirschhausen-Australia-Contemp) – VG
      Disher, Garry – 2nd in series
      Text Publishing – 2019

Friday, January 3, 2020

Decade 2010-2020 Memorable Reads

The time has come to close out the decade 2010-2020 with some of my most memorable reads.  This is hardly an exhaustive list.  I'm happy to say there was a wealth of wonderful books by excellent authors.  However, these were both the first books of which I thought and the books whose stories made a lasting impression on me.  The link to my review of each book can be found in the column on the right under the section of the title above.  I can't wait to see what this new decade has in store.  ENJOY!

Burley, John - THE QUIET CHILD
Bolton, Sharon - LITTLE BLACK LIES
Cleeves, Ann - THE SEAGULL
de Giovanni, Maurizio - I WILL HAVE VENGEN CE
Fox, Candice - CRIMSON LAKE
Harper, Jordan - SHE RIDES SHOTGUN
Horan, Ellen - 31 BOND STREET
McPherson, Catriona - THE CHILD GARDEN
O'Connell,  Carol - THE CHALK GIRL
Penny, Louise - A TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Thursday, January 2, 2020

My Favorite Reads of 2019

I finally put it together. Here are my ten favorite reads from 2019 with "Flowers Over the Inferno" by Ilaria Tuti being my #1 book of the year. They were, in not quite alphabetic order:

Gerry Boyle - RANDOM ACT
Victor Methos - THE HALLOWS
Louise Penny - A BETTER MAN
S.J. Rozan - PAPER SON

There is also my group of "Honorable Mentions," since the unwritten rules say you should only have ten favorite reads. They are:

Wendy Hornsby - A BOUQUET OF RUE
Michael Robotham - GOOD GIRL, BAD GIRL
Gerry Spence - COURT OF LIES
Domingo Villar - WATER BLUE EYES
Jeri Westerson - TRAITOR'S CODEX

Happy Reading,

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Port City Crossfire (A Brandon Blake Mystery) by Gerry Boyle

First Sentence:  Mid-September, not quite fall but the Maine summer slipping away.

It's every policeman's nightmare.  Officer Brandon Blake becomes involved in a foot chase with a suspect known as Thrasher who is wearing a Go-Pro camera and holding a gun.  Blake is forced to shoot but forgot to turn on his camera and the suspect's Go-Pro memory stick gone.  Thatch's wealthy parents, his girlfriend Amanda, and the community are out for Blake's job and his freedom. But being suspended doesn't stop Brandon from following his instincts as he finds the high-school diary of Danni Moulton which leads him into danger from her boyfriend Clutch.

This is a first chapter that really works.  You meet the principal characters, learn a bit about their life, and, true to the life of a cop, go from low intensity to very high intensity in the blink of an eye realizing just how a bad situation can happen and the reaction afterward. Boyle makes it real and painful.

One quickly becomes aware of why Boyle's writing is so good.  It's refreshing to have a police officer who isn't hardened and cynical, who feels the impact of their action, who doesn't shrug and walk away but has a very human reaction including self-doubt.  And the victim's parents: Boyle knows how to depict raw emotion. 

Brandon does get himself into situations.  An excellent description of him is given--"I know your type, my friend.  Once you get on to something, you don't let go.  You ride it into the ground even if you do down with it."  All of Boyle's characters are effective.  Kat, Brandon's partner is a good, strong character and an excellent balance to Brandon as she sees through him and doesn't pull any punches. His personal partner, Mia, is someone one may particularly come to like.  And then there's Matthew Estusa, the classic gotcha'-style reporter who'll do whatever it takes for a story is certainly someone who is recognizable.

Twists and threads:  the plot twists are very well done and effective; sometimes shocking. "Friggin' A, Blake, ... Is there anything you don't wind up in the middle of?"  The number of threads counts up to where one finds oneself thinking 'here is another thread to pull.'

As the threads begin to weave together, the danger and suspense increase.  The plot did seem over-complicated,  a twist that was a bit too convenient and a move that, especially for a cop, crept into the realm of being a bit TSTL (too stupid to live).  However, those were small things and were easily forgiven in light of there being a great climax and an excellent line toward the end.

Although the book is listed as A Brandon Black Mystery, Book 1, that's not strictly accurate as this is the third book in the series following "Port City Shakedown" and "Port City Black and White," both published by Down East Books. It's worth going back to the beginning.

"Port City Crossfire" is a well-done police procedural.  It has a tone different from others one might read, and a protagonist who is both complex and compelling.  Boyle walks more on the noir side of the street, but in a very restrained way.  There is something rather addictive about his writing.  

PORT CITY CROSSFIRE (PolProc-Officer Brandon Blake-Portland, Maine-Contemp) – G+
      Boyle, Gerry - 3rd in series
      ePublishing Works - Aug 2019

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Sidewalk Saint by Phillip DePoy

First Sentence:  It doesn't take long to wake up when there's a gun in your face.

Nelson Roan demands that Child Protective Services agent Foggy Moscowitz find his 11-year-old daughter Etta.  He's not the only one looking for her.  It seems Etta has perfect memory and knows something she shouldn't.  How do you convince a bunch of bad guys that not even Etta doesn't know what that is?  It's up to Foggy to find her, and keep her safe until he can figure out how to neutralize the danger to Etta permanently.

Talk about an effective hook.  This is not a book where you read a paragraph for a quick try, planning to sit down with it later.  This is a book where you read the first sentence and keep reading.  The case is intriguing.  One wants to know where it's going, and the plot twists start very early on.

DePoy not only captures your attention, but his unique descriptions bring the characters to life--"His skin was grey, and his eyes were the saddest song you ever heard, times ten."  His use of language is wonderful--"The camp seemed to have a life of its own.  It wasn't just the leftover smells, cook fires, swamp herbs and tobacco. It was like an eerie echo was still reverberating around the concrete walls. Like old conversations were still hanging in the air.  Like ghosts were wandering free." 

As for Foggy, DePoy informs readers of who he is, his background, and how he got where he is and eventually, the meaning if the book's title.  Foggy's philosophy may make one think--"I was always a big believer in is. Not should be, or ought to. Is.  That's very powerful, because it is the only reality.  Whatever it is you were doing, that was the only thing that truly existed. Everything else was a fantasy." Foggy also makes an insightful self-observation--"To me that was the weird thing about having a reputation as a good guy.  Too many people expected me to be good.  Which I wasn't especially.  I was just a guy trying to make up for what he'd done wrong." A nice explanation of the title helps one to understand Foggy better.  

 DePoy's characters, on both sides of the law, are far from ordinary, which is a large part of the appeal.  They are quirky, interesting, capable and surprising.  His children are refreshingly smart, capable, and astute--"You know you're too smart for your own good, right?' I suggested.  'Oh, yes,' she said.  That's my main problem."  He really does write some of the best dialogue. 

There is a nice element of mysticism.  It doesn't overwhelm the plot, but instead, it adds another interesting layer too it.  In a way, it balances the bad stuff.  The turns this story takes are more dizzying than a state fair teacup ride.  Not just any author can come up with a plot point to destroy a mobster and his business via a phone call

"Sidewalk Saint" is a fun, twisty book filled with quirky, unique characters.  There's violence, but minimal on-page death, but the story also gives one plenty of ideas to consider.

      CPS officer-Foggy Moscowitz-Florida-Contemp
      DePoy, Phillip – 4th in series
      Severn House – Dec 2019

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens

First Sentence:  I was fifteen the day I learned that Ms. Lida Poe had gone missing.

Set in the 1970s, Eskens gifts his readers with a story that deals with a mystery, bigotry, and a young man growing up in an environment that makes him decide who and what he believes and for what he stands

It is so nice to read a book whose story starts on the first page and continues straight on through; no prologue and a single Point of View.  Beginning with relating a memory, Eskins' voice as a true storyteller is apparent—"I knew that President Ford has his hands full trying to beat out an actor named Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, but what any of that had to do with the price of a turnip down at the IGA--I couldn't tell you."

Eskens creates a sense of time without giving you a specific date and he creates a sense of place through some of the most evocative descriptions one will find—"…Soon I found myself sitting in the crux of my favorite oak tree, watching the afternoon sun ripple across the surface of Dixon's pond, the smell of mud and water in my nose, the feel of tree bark under my bare feet." His humor is subtle; it slides in without one really noticing—"Personally, I didn't find it hard to believe that someone had up and left Jessup; what baffled me was why more people didn't do it.

The characters, both good and bad, are real and recognizable—"Hoke wore his sixty plus years like an old book. ... Sitting close to him, you could see the loose ends of a past that Hoke never talked about."

The descriptions of Brodie's life as a teen are wonderfully representative of life in a rural area have a timelessness about them, yet we are also reminded of the bigotry that is pervasive in many such areas--"I mean, there's no reason there ain't no black quarterbacks playing pro football.  They can run as fast and block and stuff, but they ain't as smart as whites.  That don't make 'em bad people.  They're just different. ... I think that if a black man sets his mind to it, he can be just as good as a white man."   There is also the pressure to conform and the way hatred and racism spreads--"You put enough like-minded idiots in a room, and pretty soon their backward way of thinking starts to take on an air of legitimacy."  

One wants the book to be perfect, and it nearly is.  But not quite.  There are a couple of unfortunate and completely unnecessary portents.  There are coincidences which make one shake one's head believing the author could have done better.  There is a rather predictable wounding of our hero that feels as though the author watched one too many detective shows.  Fortunately, one can forgive those weaknesses in contrast to the story of Hoke, his pain, and how he met Brodie, and how impactful is the story overall.

"Nothing More Dangerous" is a story of friendship, bigotry, violence, fate, and redemption.  It is also a beautiful story which touches one's heart.  

      Mystery-Brodie Sanden-Missouri-1976/Contemp
      Eskens, Allen - Standalone
      Mulholland Books - Nov 2019

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Christmas Gathering by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  It was not the Christmas Vespasia had planned.

Vespasia and Narraway had hoped for a quiet Christmas at home.  Instead, they are obligated to attend the country estate gathering of Max and Lady Amelia Cavendish.  More than a holiday celebration for Narraway, former head of Special Branch, he is there to uncover a traitor.

Perry does an excellent job of introducing one to the characters, as well as providing background on Vespasia's history and relationship with Narraway.

Perry's observations often cause one to pause—"But this visit was duty, and he learned long ago that no happiness was untarnished for long if you had shirked duty in order to take it."  A nicely done recounting of Narraway's history reveals the significance of this visit.  Most authors would be inclined to depict Narraway as a classic strong male.  Perry skillfully avoids that trope and gives us a man with faults and insecurities, and we like him all the more for it.

The relationship between the two principal characters is an interesting one and Perry captures the nuances of it perfectly.  The sharpness repartee between Vespasia and Amelia is perfect and reflects Perry's skill with dialogue.  She also captures the audacity of status; how those who are "higher" believe it gives them privileges simply because of their rank.

One can't help but love Vespasia as she begins to conduct her own investigation and demands that Victor let her help, and for snapping at him when he dismisses her idea—"But with a woman, it is not the words, it is the message that matters."  For those readers who have followed Perry's series for years, this Vespasia seems much sharper in tone.  It is rather gratifying.

"A Christmas Gathering" is a good addition to the series of novellas.  It's always nice to see her normally secondary characters move into the limelight.  The story has a subtle building of tension and while the suspense is well done, it is truly the characters who bring make this book work.

Hist Novella-Vespasia/Narraway-England-early 1900s
Perry, Anne – 17th in series
Ballentine Books – Nov 2019

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dachshund Through the Snow by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  It has been almost fourteen years since Kristen McNeil's body was discovered.

A tag on a Christmas charity wish tree leads attorney Andy Carpenter and his wife Laurie to a young boy wanting his father Noah Traynor to be brought home. The murder, for which Noah has been arrested, was a cold case until his DNA is identified on the victim's body. In the meantime, K-9 officer Sergeant Corey Douglas is about to retire, but his dog, Simon, still has time left to work.  Corey wants Andy to help him get Simon released to retire with him. Andy agrees to represent Simon on the basis of species discrimination.

How refreshing when characters defy stereotype.  Laurie, Andy's wife, is the type of person one aspires to be; kind, generous, compassionate toward people. She is an ex-cop, and very capable of taking care of herself and Andy.  Andy, on the other hand, is a lawyer who keeps trying to retire from the law and is passionate about dogs.  As a self-described weakling, he depends upon Laurie and the indomitable Marcus to protect him. There are interludes of Andy at home with his family and friends, yet they avoid the over-sentimentality such interaction can bring about.

Rosenfelt's courtroom scenes are a pleasure to read.  They are well presented and honest, even when the client is decidedly unusual.  He creates an excellent analogy likening a court case to a mountain climb such as Mt. Everest, and through it introduces the rest of Andy's quirky and memorable team.

It is always tragic when someone young dies. It is appreciated when Rosenfelt acknowledges one of the great sorrows of such a death--'It also once again highlights the terrible loss that occurred when her best friend died; Kristen might have gone on to bring other people into the world or cure some disease or just do kind things for people that needed kindness."

The story includes alternative POVs but only when needed to move the plot forward by characters other than the protagonist.  Rosenfelt creates a plot which seems simple but grows into something more complicated and more dangerous as it progresses. Be aware; despite the cute dog on the cover, this is not a cozy.  Rosenfelt does like his body count, but the scenes aren't particularly gory. He is also very good at the unexpected, and very effective, plot twist, and a fun mention which lightens the situation.

The dialogue is so well written, the courtroom exchanges come alive. Along with the on-going outside investigation, in which there is a very nice escalation of suspense, plot twist, and an excellent red herring, one feels the anticipation of awaiting the jury's decision.

"Dachshund Through the Snow" is a well-done legal mystery with plenty of twists and suspense.  A very nice aftermath hints at the future of the series. 

      Legal Mys-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey-Contemp
      Rosenfelt, David – 20th in series
      Minotaur Books - Oct 2019