Sunday, August 30, 2015

Death in Brittany by Jean-Luc Bannalec

First Sentence: The seventh of July was a magnificent summer’s day, one of those majestic Atlantic days that always lifted Commissaire Dupin’s spirits.

Parisian transplant, Comm. Dupin’s morning coffee is ruined by learning of the murder of Pierre-Louis Pennac, owner of the Central Hotel in Pont-Aven. But who would murder a ninety-one-year-old man. Dupin needs to find out before the crimes also murders the town’s tourist season.

Dupin is a somewhat deceptive protagonist. At first meeting, one might not be that impressed; yet one’s impression quickly changes with the arrival of a murder. He has a slight “Columbo” style of “just one more thing…” that is delightful. LeBar, Dupin’s second, is interesting. He has come to know Dupin’s style, and to anticipate his needs. Nolween, the woman who holds things together at the police station, is wonderfully resourceful. It is through her that we learn the history of Brittany and the Breton.

Set in Pont-Avan, it is interesting to learn the history of the town and its link to the Paul Gaugain and the other artists of his time. Wonderful descriptions provide an evocative sense of place…” Inhale in Concarneau and you tasted sale, iodine, seaweed, mussels in every breath, like a distillation of the entire endless expanse of the Atlantic, brightness and light.” “As evening came on, the light became more and more bewitching. The colours of witchcraft: everything shone brightly, warm soft and golden.” One is tempted to pack their bags and book a flight.

Food features deliciously in the story. Sometimes there are those things which are not so appealing; others times things such as Dupin’s favorite entrecote and chips; aka rib-eye steak and fries. It’s interesting the diversions Bannalec takes in order to provide descriptions of locations. It’s not a bad thing, just an interesting style. It is also interesting the way Dupin will plan to, or say he is going somewhere immediately, but then doesn’t. Bannalec conveys both the satisfaction of solving a case, and the frustration that can come from the actions of the higher-ups afterward. Yet Dupin, as does the ancient town in which he lives, perseveres.

Death in Brittany” has a plot definitely keeps one involved and the motive, when finally revealed, was interesting. There are excellent, shocking twists; yet it is always a delight when one reaches the “ah ha!” moment.

DEATH IN BRITTANY (Pol Proc-Comm. Georges Dupin-Breton, France-Contemp) - VG
Bannalec, Jean-Luc – 1st in series
Minotaur Books – June 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Eastward in Eden by Terence Faherty

First Sentence: I took a walk to clear my head after the long flight and found that it wouldn’t clear.

Contemplating ending his life, former seminarian Own Keane, now a detective, comes to Kenya in response to the plea of a friend. In the process, he is staying with a local priest, befriended by a young local boy, and becomes involved in the investigation of the murder of a man claiming to be the reincarnation of a long-dead warrior hero.

Faherty does a very good job of introducing us to the protagonist, but we are still left with many questions unfilled, which may be due to this being the 8th books of the series. That does make it challenging for those new to the series, however. Still, Keane is an intriguing protagonist and one can appreciate his references to “Magnum PI” as well as an appropriate quote from Andrew Greeley. In some ways, the supporting characters are even more interesting; young Basil is a delight, and the mystic Mogu particularly stand out.

The dialogue is very well done, with just the right among of humor with references to “Magnum, P.I.” and an exchange relating to Sherlock Holmes…”And then I could have said, ‘But the dog didn’t bark in the night.’ To which you could have replied, ‘That was the curious behavior.’” “There’d have been copyright issues,” I said. One can also appreciate a very interesting conversation of a struggle between those of faith and those without. It is one of those valued elements of a story that makes you pause and consider.

Faherty is better at introducing readers into this new and unfamiliar setting, providing both geographic and political information. Although the story gets off to a rather slow start, he does have a wonderful author’s voice…”A man of my curiosity and spiritual bent. Or curiously bent spirituality.”… and with each page, the story then become more compelling.

Eastward in Eden” is a short book with slightly inconsistent pacing. However, it does have fascinating characters, excellent twists and is well worth reading.

EASTWARD IN EDEN (Myst-Owen Keane-Kenya-Contemp) – G+
Faherty, Terence – 8th in series
The Mystery Company – Oct 2013

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Nature of the Beast by Louie Penny

First Sentence: Running, running, stumbling, running.

Armand Gamache, retired from being the former head of homicide for the Sûreté du Québec, and his wife Reine-Marie are now living in Three Pines. Armand befriends a young boy known to have an overwhelming imagination telling stories of beasts and monsters to the residents of the town. When he claims to have found something that others must see, no one takes him seriously. Until he disappears and it’s found the story was not fiction, but very real, and very dangerous; changing the lives of the residents and potentially impacting far more than the tiny village of Three Pines.

We begin with a situation that is tense and threatening—or is it. Such is the uncertainty to which we are introduced. Never was an author more adept at descriptions, painting verbal pictures that take us from the sublime to the comic. Penny conveys emotion so well. You feel the support of Reine-Marie, Armand’s wife, for her husband, yet her concern as well, the closeness and teasing of the circle of friends and their concern for one another.

Penny has created a cast of characters who become real to us. Even if one has not read previous books in the series, many seem to be as old friends, yet we learn more about some of them, and find some are not as we had previously perceived. Yet, the circle has expanded, as there are new members as well. As with life, all are imperfect people, some with very human phobias; they are, some with character weaknesses; some small, some very large and serious. Some characters accept the responsibilities and results of their weaknesses, while others have buried them away within themselves, and others simply refuse to acknowledge them at all.

The underlying theme of the story and an excellent discussion to all art in general, is whether we can, or should, separate art from its creator…”Do you think a work should be judged by its creator? Or should it stand on its own?” …”Would I want a painting by Jeffrey Dahmer, or to serve a meal from the Stalin family cookbook?...” There is a play within the story, and the point at which Penny anthropomorphizes it, is interesting indeed.

Penny takes the readers from light, to shadow, and into complete blackness; both real and conceptually. Her imagery can break your heart, and both the readers and the characters are thrust into the completely unexpected. The story is remarkable and frightening in that a central element is based on an actual person in history.

Yet not all is darkness. The dialogue is easy and natural. At times it is light and teasing, re-affirming the relationships between the characters. Mouth-watering descriptions of meals shared—also helps lighten the mood…”The scallops were large and succulent and grilled golden brown. They lay on a bed of grains and fresh herbs and roasted pine nuts and goat cheese next to a warm grilled apple.” Yet, Penny also understands the relationship of people to their surroundings…”If the topic of conversation was harsh, at least the atmosphere could be gentle.”

One cannot help but enjoy Ms. Penny’s literary and pop-culture references; from Yeats, to “Lord of the Rings,” to old Andy Hardy movies--such things bring us comfort, make us feel safe and add an air of normalcy to the darkness one senses is coming. And yes, darkness is a major theme; the darkness of absolutely grief, physical darkness and the fear it can inspire, the darkness of war, the darkness of men’s souls, and the darkness in our own minds that obscures our perception of what is right and wrong.

This book is no cozy, although it does not contain any graphic violence. Plot twists are used very effectively to cleverly and horribly complete a circle. This is a true traditional mystery with emotional depth demonstrating how something which happens locally can have a far-reaching impact.

Nature of the Beast” is wonderfully plotted; intricate and compelling. It makes you think and feel. It contains all the best elements of racing against time and against true evil. And finally, it is about having the awareness of having to face oneself, one’s past and one’s actions, and then having the strength to move forward.

THE NATURE OF THE BEAST (Trad/Pol Proc-Armand Gamache-Three Pines, Canada-Contemp) - Ex
Penny, Louise - 11th in series
Minotaur Books – Aug, 2015

Friday, August 21, 2015

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin

First Sentence: “Where are we going?”

John Rebus is out of retirement, demoted and now reporting to his protégée, Siobhan Clarke. A 30-year-old murder case has been reopened and Malcolm Fox, in his last case for Internal Affairs, is working it. A link is made in that that case brings into question the team with whom Rebus first worked, “Saints of the Shadow Bible.”

The opening scene reveals much of Rebus’ personality—he’s tenacious…”like a bloodhound with a scent…”; he never gives up on a case. He is described by a colleague as being “…a breed of cop that wasn’t supposed to exist anymore, are and endangered species.” For those who have followed the series, it is interesting to see how the character, and his life, has changed over time. Enough references to the past are made, however, that even new readers won’t feel lost. Set in the period just prior to vote on Scotland’s referendum for independence, it’s also interesting to see how that affects the case and the transitions it has made to policing in Scotland.

One does see how with maturity comes clarity and there is a nice balance of Rebus and Malcolm being opposite sides of a coin. Rebus’ actions, while in keeping with the character, are exasperating both to his colleagues, but also to the reader. It diminishes the story, rather than adding to it.  I stopped reading Rankin as I became tired of the Rebus' perpetual angst and alcohol.  Now, I rather with that Rebus were back.  The combination of Rebus, Siobhan, and Malcolm Fox is interesting but does, at times, feel a bit of a mash up.

Rankin is a very spare writer. He tells you what you need to know, but doesn’t waste much of his time on filler. This well suits worth the characters and the story. The fact that shootings are so rare in Scotland makes reading about the attention such an incident generates both interesting and very sad as compared to America.

Saints of the Shadow Bible” is a good read, but far from Rankin’s best. Instead, this book seemed rather flat and uninspired.

SAINTS OF THE SHADOW BIBLE (Pol Proc-Rebus/Fox/Clarke-Scotland-Contem) - Good
19th in series
Back Bay Books, Feb 2015

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

First Sentence: In the first place, I suppose, it was my parent’s fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.

Fashion model Gianetta follows the suggestion of her parents and heads to the Isle of Sky for a restful vacation. Those plans did not include finding her ex-husband, Nicholas Drury, at the same hotel. Nor did they include learning a local girl had recently been murdered and left in a way that suggests a ritual. But the killer isn’t done. Can Gianetta avoid becoming a victim?

Told in first person, past tense, Stewart’s character both provides us with comprehensive information as to her background, and makes the reader welcome into her story. Stewart makes her protagonist very approachable and rather self-deprecating; a lovely trait considering Gianetta’s profession.

With the same clarity of writing, we also know the other characters in the story through their descriptions, mannerisms and speech. It’s nice that she included both certain character’s dialects and Gaelic phrases. What is particularly clever is the use of one of the characters, actress Marcia, who, smoothly and naturally, introduces many of the other characters to both us and to Gianetta.

It’s the small touches that make the time and setting come to life, such as remembering that this was an age when most people smoked, or that some placed still used dip-pens. There were also delightfully British turns-of-phrase…”She wasn’t just hit or stabbed or choked in a fit of human passion. She was deliberately done to death…” At the same time, there are ideas from then that still hold true…”Don’t you know yet that there’s no room for pride in marriage? You have to choose between the two.”…and the age old question of the limits of loyalty. Her descriptions of place are evocative…”And, locked in the great arms of the mountains, the water lay quiet as a burnished shield, reflecting the deeper blue and deeper gold the pageantry of hill and sky.”

Although traditionally regarded as "romantic suspense"--I suspect by the men who ran publishing companies--the emphasis is much more on the mystery than on romance. While there is a touch of romance done in classic 50’s fashion of conversations not shared with the audience, and activities taking place behind closed doors, they story is, at its heart with excellent red herrings and plenty of suspense, an exciting climax and a wonderful ending.

Wildfire at Midnight” is one of those wonderful books that doesn’t grow old or passé.  A traditional suspense that is as wonderful a read today as it was when first published.  Ms. Stewart deserves to be considered among the classic authors.

WILDFIRE AT MIDNIGHT (Sups-Gianetta Brooke Drury-Scotland-Contemp) - VG
Stewart, Mary – Standalone
William Morrow and Company – 1956

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Third Sin by Aline Templeton

First Sentence: Julia was wild that night, her long blonde hair streaming as she danced like a maenad among the trees.

In 2012, a group of friends formed the Cyrenaics, and followed the philosophy of sensual hedonism, until one of their members died of an overdose, another disappeared, one moved to Canada, and another is believed to have committed suicide. When the last turns up, found in a submerged car two years later, Marjory and are team must find out what really happened.

We begin with wonderfully evocative descriptions…”There was an edge of frost tonight and above the angled branches of the trees the black bowl of night sky was studded with diamonds. Tonight you could almost hear the music of the spheres…interwoven with the restless muttering of the trees.” Templeton is a very literary author who uses language very well, and can reference both Baudelaire and the same paragraph, along with quotes from Robert Burns, courtesy of DI Fleming’s sergeant Tam MacNee.

The very effective prologue and first chapter lay the groundwork and compel us into the story. Templeton has an interesting style of creating the setting, introducing the characters and building the story without the reader being certain of where the path will lead. Yet one thing of which one is certain is that mystery lies ahead.

Rather than the police acting as a cohesive team, Templeton places us within an oft-found group of people with their own ambitions and jealousies, making getting things done all the harder. The characters include Marjory who tends to be brusque, are not altogether likable and there seems to be a lot of in-fighting, but give them time. Relationships change and cohesion prevails. Even so, it’s nice to see the personal lives that support many of the characters, including the development of one a new relationship.

The story is a little hard to get into as there are so many pieces to the puzzle.
But stay with it, as things do come together and the investigation is interesting to watch.Unfortunately, there is one thread that was, rather frustratingly, dropped.

Templeton does write good dialogue, sometimes with a bit of wry, Scottish humor…”Never trust those one—“grave, tideless-blooded, calm and cool”,’ MacNee said. “And school teachers—I’ve never been overfond of them either, except my old English teacher—I’d never have heard of Rabbie Burns if it wasn’t for him.” ‘I wondered whose fault it was,’ Fleming said…

The Third Sin” is a well-done mystery that is realistic in that mistakes are made, people aren’t all likable, and not all endings are completely satisfactory, yet there is still hope.

THE THIRD SIN (Pol Proc-DI Marjory Fleming-Scotland-Contemp) – G+
Templeton, Aline – 9th in series
Allison and Busby – April 2015

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Pattern of Lies by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  I didn’t know much about the little town of Cranbourne on the Swale in northwestern Kent, only that its abbey had been destroyed by a very angry Henry VIII when the abbot of the day refused to take the King’s side in certain matters.
      
 On leave from France and trying to get to her parents home, field nurse Bess Crawford runs into a former patient, Mark Ashton.  Due to a train delay, Bess, is pleased to visit his family.  On the way, Bess learns about mill tragedy that killed over a hundred men, and a town that blames Mark’s father who is arrested while Bess is there.  Being unable to travel on, Bess stays to comfort Mark’s family and do whatever she can to unravel the lies and learn the truth.
       
Bess Crawford is a very interesting character.  She comes from wealth and position, which means she is well connected.  Yes as true of many young women of her time in similar positions, she also answered the need of her country and is a WWI field hospital nurse, serving in France and often transporting seriously-wounded soldiers back to England.  Because of this, she is independent, intelligent and self-reliant.  As the daughter of a military man who served in India, she has learned to adapt to all types of people and situations. 
       
Not only is Bess appealing, but there is Sgt. Major Simon Brandon, who originally served as her father’s batman and now serves in intelligence, and someone with whom one would like to see a relationship develop with Bess.  Additionally, there is Sgt. Lassiter, the Aussie with the kookaburra greeting call and indomitable spirit.  It is interesting how easily one can imagine the Aussie accent in his voice, just form the dialogue.
       
While the mysteries always tie into the war, they also stand on their own.  Todd ensures you sense the emotional banishment of the family involved by the townspeople.  They also provide an excellent example of the way in which rumors start and grow, eventually being thought to be the truth.  And yet…”…its Man who caused such pain and loss.  You can rage at man.”  The clues are well established with some good suspense that even puts Bess in danger.
      
 A Pattern of Lies” is a well-done, traditional mystery with strong characters, a very good plot twist and a dramatic conclusion effectively set against the backdrop of life during WWI.

A PATTERN OF LIES (Hist Mys-Bess Crawford-England/France-1918) – G+
Todd, Charles – 7th in series
Wm. Morrow – Aug 2015
 

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Blood Foam by Brendan DuBois

First Sentence:  On a Sunday in the third week of November outside my half-burnt home on Tyler Beach, N.H., while attempting to nail a heavy blue tarp on a gaping hole above the shutters front door, I learned quite the important lesson:  The bright decal on folding stepladders that warns you not to step on the very top is there for a reason.
     
Ex-State Department employee turned journalist is asked to do a favor for his friend, and former lover, reporter Paula Quinn.  Her new fiancée has gone missing.  Considering the man is a lawyer and member of the town council, when Cole starts asking question, no one seems very concerned.  What is odd is that a man who supposedly being raised in Vermont has a Wyoming social security number.  With the help of his friend Felix Tinios, he starts following a trail which becomes more dangerous every step of the way, all the while worrying about the fate of his badly fire-damaged house from an impending hurricane heading its way.
     
It is a good bet that more than a few readers will be able to empathize with the opening, in one way or another.  It is also an effective hook.  DuBois has a very good first-person voice… “A couple of weeks ago, however, the routine had been disrupted—which is like saying the Civil War was a bar brawl that got out of hand--…”  He also creates a nice, impending sense of dread with the hurricane moving up the coast.
     
Although there are references to a previous book, new readers will be more intrigued than frustrated by the references.  If they are moved to read the previous book or books, it’s all to the better.
     
DuBois does create an interesting mix of characters.  Cole has an interesting past which makes it clear he wasn’t just pushing papers for the State Department, but he is a man of strong commitment and loyalty.  He believes in doing what is right and not taking shortcuts.  He is definitely someone you’d want to know.  A nice balance is his friend Felix…”originally from the North End of Boston and now residing in North Tyler as a security consultant—which he always manages to say with a straight face—…”  Well dressed and a lover of the finer things, it is clear Felix has less than legal connections.  Add in his friend and injured policewoman Diane, and you have a strong circle of personalities.  In some ways, the least dynamic character is Paula, the friend for whose fiancée Cole searches.  There are times when she seems remarkably naïve for a journalist.
     
In addition to Felix being a particularly interesting character, which he is, he also makes us wish to join him at the table…”Felix placed an order for a filet mignon—medium rare—with a side of two lobster tails, risotto, and house salad.” … “Felix had a veal dish with a side of pasta, while I had lobster fettuccini…”  These, and other instances, provide a nice pause in the action. 
     
For those who live in, or know the area of the book, it is very much as though you are along for the ride.  However, even those who do not can appreciate the observations regarding how the Bush recession impacted small towns…”Lots of powerful things were being closed or being threatened.  It must have been nice to live in a time when powerful things were being built and opened.”
     
Blood Foam” is filled with excellent twists, very good suspense from several sources, and a well-done ending.  One does appreciate a noble protagonist.

BLOOD FOAM (Mys/Jour – Louis Cole – New Hampshire – Contemp) – VG+
DuBois, Brendan – 9th in series
Pegasus Books – June, 2015

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Badlands by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  Twelve-year-old Kyle Westergaard was halfway through his route delivering the Grimstad Tribune when he heard the high whine of car engines on the highway in the dark.
      
Det. Cassie Dewell, working with the FBI, thinks they may finally have caught the Lizard King, an independent long-haul trucker, a serial killer of prostitutes, and the man partially responsible for the murder of her boss.  But do the they enough to hold him.  Leaving her former post behind, Cassie has transferred to be the new deputy sheriff in Grimstad, ND, a town filled with oil money and drugs.  The sheriff suspects the town is about to be flooded with a shipment of meth that came into town is went missing.  A very vicious motorcycle gang is in town looking for them.  Can Cassie find them first?  And what is the role of a young boy on a bicycle?

C.J. Box writes a series with the protagonist of Joe Pickett, a Wyoming game warden.  This book is not part of that series.  "Badlands" is a continuation of a story which started with "Back of Beyond" and continued in "The Highway."  These are decidedly darker and more violent, yet with the same excellence of writing.  
      
The Lizard King is a through thread, and an excellent, unsettling one.  One need not have read previous books in order to catch the thread, although one may be enticed so do to.  That’s not a bad thing.  One thing that was interesting was to learn the difference between independent truckers and company drivers.  At the same time, the focus of this story is criminals cold enough to freeze your blood.  
      
Box is very good at creating a sense of place by painting mental pictures…”December in North Carolina was brown and gray but not white.  Light rain fell from a close granite sky.  The hardwood trees were tall and skeletal and a thick brown carpet of leaves covered the forest floor.”
      
Box presents an interesting and balanced picture of the positive impact from the economic impact of oil companies on previously small, struggling communities, while also focusing on the negative secondary results of money, drugs, guns and crime.  In this instance, those negatives are very dark, and very violent. 
      
Cassie is an excellent protagonist; smart, strong, intelligent yet not without her own issues.  You become involved with her and her life, and sense her frustration at a case gone awry.  What is particularly nice, is that in Sheriff Jon Kirkbride she has a supportive boss.  Kyle proves that no child should be underestimated or disregarded.
      
Badlands” is exciting and gripping with an explosive plot twist.  One becomes completely involved in a story which provides a satisfying conclusion; yet with a continuing thread to the next book.

BADLANDS (Pol. Proc – Det. Cassie Dewell – North Dakota – Contemp) – Ex
Box, C.J. – 3rd in series
Minotaur Books – July 2015