Saturday, August 19, 2017

Betrayal in Iga by Susan Spann

First Sentence:  Hiro Hattori leaned into the wind that swept down the hill and across his face.
      
Master ninja Hiro Hatori and Jesuit Father Mateo have come to the house of Hattori Hanzō where a gathering of Koga emissaries have come for peace negotiations.  When one of the Koga clan dies an unnatural death at dinner, Hiro and Father Mateo are given three days to identify the murderer.
      
A quick note:  There is a very needed and useful Cast of Characters provided.  However, it is at the very end of the book, rather than the beginning where it would be most apparent and useful.
      
There is no waiting for someone to die.  Spann kills off the victim very shortly, and dramatically, into the story.  The three-day deadline to solve the crime immediately adds a sense of ticking-clock pressure.
      
Dialogue is so important to the enjoyment of a book.  It is that, more than anything, which brings characters to life.  From the first page, we are treated to wonderful dialogue which also tells one quite a bit about the relationship between the two protagonists. It also serves to tell us a bit about the relative heights of characters themselves—“we left our winter kimono in Kyoto.” … “What about you?” the Jesuit asked Hiro. “Mother left my old ones in the cabinet, but they’d barely reach your knees.”  The wry humor is so well done—“Your god never had a woman stab his thigh,” Hiro started up the hill toward Hanzō’s mansion. “True enough. But a spear did pierce his side.” No, this is not a religious book, but the comment is a reflection on the character of Mateo.
      
The seemingly small informational facts—“Hiro and Father Mateo followed Akiko down a narrow passage lined with paneled sliding doors and covered by a low, carved ceiling designed to prevent the use of swords.”--make such a difference in setting the time and place for the story.  At the same time, they feel as though they are bits one should store away just in case one has the opportunity to visit Japan.
      
As well as the protagonists, there are several really wonderful secondary characters; Hiro’s grandmother Akiko, the mute girl Tane, and Father Mateo’s housekeeper Ana amongst them.  Each of them serves to enrich the story.
     
"Betrayal in Iga" is very well done.  There are suspects and bodies aplenty and an excellent last line.
     
BETRAYAL IN IGA (Hist Mys-Hiro Hatori/Father Mateo-Japan-1565) – VG+
      Spann, Susan – 5th in series
      Seventh Street Books – July 2017 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Awkward Way to Die by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  The telephone set jangled on the corner of Cyrus Barker’s desk, and we both turned our head to stare at it.
      
The personal tobacconist to Private Inquiry Agent Cyrus Barker has died.  He was murdered in his shop.  His body found in his humidor.  It is up to Scotsman Barker, and his Welsh assistant Thomas Llewelyn, to find the killer.
      
If one has not previously read Will Thomas, this is an excellent introduction to his wonderful Barker and Llewelyn series.
      
Thomas’ dialogue and subtle wry humor are always a pleasure to read—“Someone had died,” I stated. “Aye,” the Guv answered, “It is Vasilos Dimitriadis.” “Your tobacconist?” “The same.” “Isn’t he the one who blends your tobacco for you but won’t say what is in it?” “Not ‘isn’t,’ Mr. Llewelyn.  ‘Wasn’t.’ Scotland Yard has required our presence immediately.  Come along.”
      
Thomas cleverly calls out the dismissiveness toward women and prejudice towards foreigners—“It was always easier to blame a foreigner, as if England had no criminal class of its own.”—demonstrating that little has changed over time. 
      
An Awkward Way to Die” is a clever story with the solution proving that it’s all about noticing the details.  It is a delight to read.


AN AWKWARD WAY TO DIE (Hist Mys/SS–Barker/Llewellyn–London-Victorian) – VG
      Thomas, Will – 13th in series (Novelette)
      Minotaur Books - July 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nothing Stays Buried (A Monkeywrench Novel) by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence:  Something horrible was going to happen to Marla.
      
Minneapolis police Detectives Magozzi and Rolseth are working to find a serial killer whose trademark is a playing card.  In a southwestern Minnesota farming community, Grace McBride and the Monkeywrench Software gang agree to work a missing-persons case.  Could the two cases be related?
      
There’s nothing quite like an evocative description—“There was no moon tonight, and the darkness seemed to swallow the beams of her headlights as if she were shining them down the throat of a monster.”—except an interesting cast of characters.  Although this is the eighth book in the series, one needn’t have read the previous books as Tracy does a wonderful job of introducing the characters and providing their backstories.  The introduction to Harley is particularly touching, and Walt Gustaufson, the father of the missing person, is very real—“Death is a part of life.  Always has been, always will be.”
      
Tracy is very good at conveying the understanding cops have for the families of the victims and how hard working homicide can be—“There were too many goddamned idioms in the English language with the word “dead” in them.  Dead end. Dead ringer. Dead reckoning. …”  She also has a deft touch at injecting wry humor and analogies into a scene—“Five miles off the freeway, Harley turned his Hummer onto a washboard dirt road and rattled their teeth for ten minutes before easing into a driveway with potholes slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon.”
      
The plot consists of multiple threads, increasing one-by-one.  The suspense and tension are ratcheted up at an increasing pace to where even the weather plays a critical role.  The ending may be a bit improbable, but it’s very gratifying.
     
Nothing Stays Buried” is exciting, and dramatic, but it also touches one's emotions.

NOTHING STAYS BURIED (Pol Proc/Lic Invest-Dets Magozzi & Rolseth/The Monkeywrench Gang-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG
      Tracy, P.J. – 8th in series
      G.P.  Putnam’s Sons – Aug 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin

First Sentence:  Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining.
      
Los Angeles.  1962.  Tony Eberle, a boy from upstate New York, is about to appear in his first Hollywood film and small-town reporter, Ellie Stone, has been sent West to do a story on Tony.  One problem; Tony is missing, the director is desperate, and the producer has been murdered.  Can Ellie solve the murder and find a hopefully innocent Tony?
      
Ziskin has truly captured the time and details of the early 1960s.  How refreshing to not have cell phones, GPS, the internet, and all the rest of today’s technology.  Instead, there are pay phones, telegrams, Thomas Bros. Guide maps, and good, old legwork.  While the twenty-five cent tips is an element that is overworked, there are excellent cultural references to the music, actors, and locations of the time, as well as emerging stories of the homosexuality of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins, and others.
      
Ellie is a really well-drawn character; she’s smart, clever, independent, and resourceful.  As she is also the author’s narrator, she is also the voice of some great lines—“”The same waitress from the day before asked me how my fairy tale had worked out.  I shook my head and said it had turned grim.”
      
Cast the First Stone” has a very good plot with unexpected twists, including a killer one doesn’t predict.  What was particularly nice was that there was never an obvious suspect, and the ending was delightful.

CAST THE FIRST STONE (Lic Invest/Jour-Ellie Stone-Los Angeles-1962) – VG
      Ziskin, James W. – 5th in series
      Seventh Street Books – July, 2017

Monday, August 7, 2017

Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott

First Sentence:  Once my wife asked me:  if you knew this was our final day together, what would you say to me?
     
CIA agent Sam Capra deeply loves and believes in his pregnant wife.  However, his life turns into a nightmare when his office is blown up killing everyone but him due to a call from Lucy telling him to leave the building, and she then disappears.  The CIA accuses Sam of treason and murder, yet he remains determined to prove both his, and Lucy’s innocence.  But first, he needs to find her and their child.
      
It is sometimes hard to start a book with a rather sad opening.  It requires the author to have a strong voice and the making of an interesting character.  Abbott has both.
      
To have a protagonist who does Parkour; aka extreme running, is not something we’ve seen before.  What is even better is that the author truly gives one a sense of it, of the movement.  But then, Abbott is a very visceral writer. He doesn’t just make one see, he makes on feel. While this is a very good trait, it can also be painful for the reader.  The descriptions of the interrogation are real, uncomfortable, and disturbing as you know they are utilized. 
      
The information on nanotechnology—the study of the control of matter on atoms at the molecular level—is fascinating and frightening.  The inclusion of Patty Hearst and the techniques of the Symbionese Liberation Army brings one back to a terrible period in time.
      
Abbott has a very good voice and uses humor in a subtle, wry manner to offset the darkness of the plot—“Then he flicked open a switchblade.  A switchblade? The eighties want their weapon back.”—and shades of the television show Sherlock Holmes—“She’s not a traitor.”  “I should get you a T-shirt with that on it,” Mila said. “And then my Christmas Shopping is done.”  The sense of place is always apparent—“The Grijs Gander wasn’t just a dump bar.  It was a karaoke bar.  That made it about a thousand times more evil.”
     
 Sam Capra is an interesting character whose background is very neatly provided to us as he finds himself in various situations.   He is neither an amateur nor a professional at dealing with his situation.  Although he has some actual experience in what he must do, he is not a fully-trained field agent.  This heightens the suspense.
      
The plot is definitely one of high action and suspense.  However, it is unfortunate that there needs be the stereotypical bad guy.  The story is filled with very effective plot twists, yet it is still fairly predictable.  Even so, Abbott statement about mankind is true and quite pitiable--“God or nature of biological accident gives us these awesome brains and this is what we do with them.  We think of better ways to kill.  Ways that make murder as easy as taking a breath.”
      
Adrenaline” is an exciting, sometimes painful, read with an ending that leaves one anxious to read  the next book.


ADRENALINE (Thriller-Sam Capra-London-Contemp) – G+
      Abbott, Jeff – 1st in series
      Grand Central Publishing – July 2011

Friday, August 4, 2017

Paradise Valley by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  “The trap is set and he’s on his way,” Cassie Dewell said to Sheriff Jon Kirkbride.
     
Inspector Cassie Dewell has been hunting the Lizard King, a serial killer whose victims have included truck-stop prostitutes, runaways, and her former boss. Now, she hopes she has set up the perfect lure to get him to come to her.  Yet she is also concerned about the disappearance of Kyle Westergaard, a young man with mild fetal-alcohol syndrome, and his friend Raheem.
      
Box does a very good job of explaining the details of things; lot lizards, the way in which independent truckers work, etc.  The details are important, but at the same time, he does it without disrupting the flow or making one feel as though he has dumbed-down the information.
      
The characters are very well drawn and developed.  They are people one would like to know, one has been unfortunate enough to know, and those one hopes never to know.  Cassie and Wyatt, in particular, are wonderful characters.

There are villains, and then there are villains!  From the very first book in which the Lizard King appeared, “The Highway,” it was clear Box had created one of the most frightening villains there is, partly because the type of crimes he commits are actually happening across our interstate highways.  That said, one needn’t have read the first three books, as Box also does a good job of catching up new readers.
      
Box is always such a pleasure to read. He is a wonderful wordsmith with a very visual style who creates excellent analogies—“…driving an 18-wheeler was like piloting a ship on the ocean.  The captain of that ship had an entire blue-water sea in front of him and he could go anywhere on it.”  In spite of this being his 24th book, plus some short stories, there’s no sign of them being formulaic or getting stale. Each is informative and very exciting, so much so that I often forget to make review notes while reading his books.  They are that absorbing.  
      
Paradise Valley” is another great book by C.J. Box that is filled with excellent suspense, yet comes to a complete and satisfying ending.

PARADISE VALLEY (Pol Proc-Cassie Dewell, North Dakota, Contemp) – VG
      Box, C.J. – 3rd in series
      Minotaur Books – July 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Death in D Minor by Alexia Gordon

 First Sentence:  He showed up two days after Christmas.
      
Conductor and violinist Gethsemane Brown loves the cottage in which she lives, and is determined to save it from the hotel developer working hard to buy it.  Were that not enough, her museum curator brother-in-law is coming for a visit hoping to buy a unique American cross-stitch sampler and dealing with the world of fake and stolen antiques.  Instead, he ends up accused of theft, and possibly of murder.  Hoping for help from her favorite ghost, she accidentally calls up the spirit of an 18th-century sea captain who once knew the girl who stitched the famous sampler.
     
 Gordon’s style and voice are such a pleasure to read.  She doesn’t take one’s time up with an unnecessary prologue, but starts the story at the start.  She doesn’t fill space with pages of background exposition, but provides the information as part much of the information as part of an early conversation, and as the story progresses.  Her introduction of characters makes them come to life—“Gethsemane recognized the baritone and greeted An Garda Síochána Inspector Iollan O’Reilly.  His trademark stingy-brimmed fedora pulled low against the wind, obscured his salt-and-pepper hair.”  Her introduction of Gethsemane’s brother-in-law also leads to a conversation about a letter providing background of the crime.
      
The dialogue is sharp, natural—“Being out here’s not so bad.  Fresh air, beautiful view.  And it could be worse.  I could be playing flunky to a megalomaniacal narcissist with the aesthetic sensibility of a toddler beauty pageant coordinator.”--and immediately informs one that this is not, in fact, a cozy, but a traditional mystery. 
      
For those who do any type of needlework, the story will bring joy to the heart—“Textiles belong in the fine art realm as much as paintings do, even if they don’t get nearly the same respect….People don’t appreciate the quality because the stitching was often done on utilitarian items.”  There is also an interesting comparison of Irish history to black history.  These are only small pieces of things one learns through Gordon.  One might wish Gordon to be more specific as to which movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Gethsemane hears in her head as a warning of trouble, but that’s being very picky.
      
Death in D Minor” is a delightful read.  But then, how can one go wrong with music, murder, art, and a ghost.

DEATH IN D MINOR (Trad/Para Mys-Gethsemane Brown-Ireland-Contemp) – G+
      Gordon, Alexia – 2nd in series
      Henery Press – July 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

First Sentence:  “Matt said you find things. For a living,” the woman said on the phone.
      
Roxane—one ‘n’—has a reputation for being good at finding things.  Danielle Stockton’s brother, Bradford, is two months away from his execution date after being convicted for murdering the parents of a girl no one has seen since the crime.  Danielle believes she saw her recently and wants Roxane to find her and prove her brother’s innocence. 
      
What a pleasure to have a book whose story starts at the beginning and goes straight through to the end.  What a pleasure to have a book you definitely don’t want to put down until the last page is done. 
      
Lepionka has created a fascinating character in Roxane.  She is a wonderful study in contrasts with a complicated personal life.  A fair amount of time is spent focusing on her family and relationships which lays the foundation for our getting to know this well-drawn, fully-developed character.  It creates a strong enough interest that one really wants to know what will happen to her both in this book and in the future.  Yet, while Roxane takes center stage, those around her hold their own as well.
      
With every setting, a strong sense of place is created—“The previous tenant had painted spirited colors in every room:  a dark, shiny teal in the office, burnt orange in the bathroom, chocolate-brown walls and red cabinets in the kitchen, cornflower blue in the long hallway that ran the length of the apartment.”—which orients one to the character.  Even better is the author’s well-done, unforced dialogue—“He slid one of the shot glasses to me and held his up.  “Friends don’t let friends order cocktails invented by social-media interns.”
      
The suspense starts quietly, subtly, and builds at a good pace with red herrings along with way.  The body count also increases and includes a good twist.  The author is very good at having you follow the character down a path only to discover it’s the wrong path.
      
The Last Place You Look” is a great debut book with an excellent protagonist and a breath-catching climax.  It’s a book one wants to read in one sitting, and an author one may wish to follow.


THE LAST PLACE YOU LOOK (PI-Roxane Weary–Ohio-Contemp) – VG+
      Lepionka, Kristen – 1st book
      Minotaur Books – June 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Some Bitter Taste by Magdeline Nabb

First Sentence:  The young man, Gjergj, just disappeared.
      
An elderly woman believes a stranger has been in her apartment and asks Marshal Guarnaccia to visit her.  Another case of a wealthy expatriate interferes.  When he does, he discovers she has been murdered.  The two cases involving the past, as well as Albanian and Jewish refugees, causes Guarnaccia to question his own judgment.
      
For places we’ve not been, one tends to think of the idealized version of them.  Nabb quickly dispels that image of Florence—“There were no words to describe Florence in July.  … Breathing the same soup of evaporating river, car fumes, sweat, and drains day after day made you long to stay indoors where it was cool and clean.”
      
Nabb gives one a real sense of the marshal.  Without going into specific details, we know how he looks, as well as how he deals with, and is regarded by others.  The types of complaints handled by the marshal seem universal. One also gets a look at his home life—“She held his head and looked down into his big, mournful eyes. ‘What is it, Salva?...’ As long as she kept hold of him and he could feel the vibrations of her voice it was all right.’.  It’s nice to have him referenced as Salva—one assumes short for Salvatore—by his wife, rather than always by his rank. That he is so self-deprecating—‘He’s too clever for me.’  The captain sat back in his chair and looked hard at the marshal.  ‘The prosecutor doesn’t think so, as I said.’  The marshal wanted to say, ‘You shouldn’t give the wrong idea about me, get up people’s hopes. It’s not right’--, while everyone else sees his skill and worth, is both interesting and rather unique.
      
Although it appears there are two separate cases, the commonalities and the way in which Nabb finally weaves them together is so well done.  While his superiors deal with the procedural aspects of the cases, Guarnaccia follows the actual clues. More than that, however, is his ability to what lies behind the images people present.
      
Some Bitter Taste” is a true mystery, rather than a book of high action.  It’s a story of flawed people.  The ending is a bit sad, but it’s real.

 SOME BITTER TASTE (Pol Proc- Marshal Guarnaccia-Florence, Italy-Contemp) – Good
      Nabb, Magdeline – 12th in series
      Soho Press – October 2002