Monday, November 20, 2017

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  The woman could see the full sweep of the bay despite the dark and the absence of street lights where she stood.
      
An old enemy of Insp. Vera Stanhope, John Bruce asks that she visit him in prison where she helped put him.  He wants to cut a deal; information on the whereabouts of the body of Robbie Marshall, a long-missing hustler in exchange to Vera looking out for his daughter and grandchildren.  There is a very personal element to this case for Vera as Bruce, Marshall, and a man known only as “the Prof,” were close friends of her father, Hector Stanhope, bringing back memories Vera would prefer remain buried.
      
Cleeves creates such a strong sense of emotion—“Sometimes it felt as if her whole live had been spent in the half-light; in her dreams, she was moonlit, neon-lit, or she floated through the first gleam of dawn,”—and place—“The funfair at Spanish City was closed for the day, and quiet.  She could see the silhouettes of the rides, marked by string of coloured bulbs, gaudy in full sunlight, entrancing now.”
      
Those who follow the BBC television series “Vera” and may be disappointed by the departure of some characters, it’s nice to see that Holly and Joe are still here in the books.  The description of Vera’s team is done in terms of their relationships to Vera.  What is lovely is her understanding of what drives them, each member’s strength and what motivates them.  Vera and Joe’s visit to the mother of a missing man is a sad reminder of the pain through which families go without the closure of knowing what happened.
      
There is honest police work here.  The investigation is conducted by legwork as well as technology; getting out and talking with people.  The case is worked step-by-step, without flash.
      
Vera’s self-awareness is admirable—“then she thought she was making a drama of the situation.  She always did.” Yet, to her—“…the law matters.  All those little people you despise so much have to abide by it, and so do you.  So do I.”
      
The Seagull” is such a good book.  Beyond the excellent plot, what one really cares about is Vera and her team.

THE SEAGULL (Pol Proc-Inspector Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) – Ex
      Cleeves, Ann – 8th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017

Desert Remains by Steven Cooper


First Sentence:  Her name is Elizabeth Spears.
      
The caves in the mountains around Phoenix are known for their petroglyphs, but these are different.  A kill has been carving pictures of his actual murders in each of the caves where the body of a woman is found.  Because the city powers want the case solved immediately, even though there are no clues, Detective Alex Mills calls on the talents of Gus Parker, a psychic he has worked with in the past.  Yet even the images Gus sees don’t seem to relate to these murders.  Or do they?
      
What an interesting beginning with the gruesomeness of the murder scene, and the bluntness of those at the crime scene contrasted against the beauty of a desert sunset. In the midst of that is an introduction to Det. Alex Mills, which may actually make one smile.  We then meet Gus Parker, a somewhat reluctant medical image technician, and his friend and fellow psychic Beatrice Vossenheimer as the two seek to unmask a fake psychic.  The information involved in their so doing is quite interesting and makes perfect sense.  Cooper establishes credibility for Gus by establishing that he has worked with other law enforcement agencies in the past.  While it is true that they are known to use psychics on occasion, it would have been interesting to learn about the research Cooper undertook about psychics and their role in this milieu.  Unfortunately, that information isn’t provided, even in the author notes.
      
It is nice to have a protagonist who is married, loves his wife and is faithful, but it is also realistic in that Mills’ home life isn’t idealized.  The situation introduces another plot thread which may seem awkward, and not really necessary.  It is also nice that Mills is a by-the-book cop who not only doesn’t work around the law but doesn’t even bend it.  Gus, too, has issues in his personal life that need addressing.  These aren’t characters who have been prettied up for public consumption.   These are characters who are realistic, including a Sheriff Joe Arpaio-like character. 
      
Cooper throws in some excellent plot twists.  What’s even more impressive is that he truly takes us along with Gus, with the help of Beatrice, on his search for the suspect.  It’s not a pound-the-pavement search, but one utilizing his research and impressions.  We become as invested as does Gus in truly trying to work things out. 
      
Once the climax is reached, one realized breadcrumbs had been laid throughout the plot, had we really been paying attention.  Happily, the story is interesting enough that most of us won’t have been.  There are some weaknesses to the writing that may niggle at the back of one’s consciousness, but they are rather like floaters in one’s eye; they’re a bit distracting but don’t destroy the overall enjoyment of the story.
      
Desert Remains” is Coopers’ first mystery and a very enjoyable read. It will be interesting to watch the series develop.

DESERT REMAINS (Pol Proc-Gus Parker/Alex Mills-Phoenix-Contemp) – G+
      Cooper, Steven – 1st in series
      Seventh Street Books – Oct 2017) 


Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Deep Dark Descending by Allen Eskens

First Sentence:  I raise the ax handle for the third time and my arm disobeys me.
      
Detective Max Rupert had believed his wife’s death was an accident.  Learning she was murdered sets him on a course of vengeance.  The question is:  How far will he go?
      
What a powerful and effective opening.  Eskins use of language and imagery is poetic—“After Jenni’s death, those occasions, even the lesser ones, remained my connection to her.  I found her thread woven through almost every part of my existence, a tapestry once vibrant and alive now in danger of fading away.”
      
The plot jumps back and forth between close-set time periods so one must pay attention.  There is a temptation to take the book apart and reassemble it in a straight timeline.  It’s hard to say whether anything would be lost by so doing.  Either way, one admires Eskens’ ability to pack a serious story with a strong emotional punch in less than 250 pages, following the style of many early masters of crime fiction. 
      
Even so, one may not find it as satisfying as Eskins’ other books, but it does raise an important question as to whether personal revenge can be justified.  It’s hard not to be reminded of Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In this instance, what does Max gain?  One interesting item was the mention of when Michael Dukakis ran for president and was asked about the death penalty, and of Max’s late-wife Jenni’s position on the issue.
      
The Deep DarkDescending" is a powerful and emotional book, albeit not necessarily a comfortable one to read.  And that’s not a bad thing. Eskens is a writer one will want to follow.

THE DEEP DARK DESCENDING (Pol Proc-Det. Max Rupert-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG    
      Eskens, Allen - Standalone
      Seventh Street Books – Oct 2017


Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  Red and blue police lights splash off the chipped chrome letters spelling ICE MACHINE.
      
Professor Theo Cray uses computational science and applies it to biology, including the study of DNA.  On a field trip, staying in a small town in northern Montana, he is taken in for police questioning related to recent deaths of women.  One set of photos stands out.  A young woman, one of Theo’s former students, had been involved.  Theo ends up with a vial of her blood that also contains a strand of hair, and even though the bear has been killed, something doesn’t seem right to Theo.    That instinct ends up putting him in extreme danger.
      
We begin with a very good, creepy, scary, and ultimately deadly opening.  Mayne is so good at setting the scene and making it dramatic.  He then adds a bit of irony to it, while completely capturing our attention.  He also provides an interesting assessment of grief—“The trouble is we expect the emote part of emotion.  Humans are social primates, and our experiences have to be externalized to be acknowledged by others.”
      
There is nothing better than an author who entertains and makes one think.  Mayne succeeds at both.  He both makes the science, such as the two types of DNA, comprehensible and interesting but raises other questions that make one stop and consider; did Christians steal the story of creation from the Greeks?
      
Detective Glenn is an interesting character.  The reversal of roles is nice, where Glenn is the understanding, sympathetic cop, and the woman Sheriff Tyson is hard-nosed, just wants answers.  But it’s Cray who is the focus; a seemingly stereotypical scientist who is brilliant at somethings and completely naïve about others.  Yet, one can’t help but enjoy the bits of humor—“I’m such an idiot.”  “Not everyone can be a rocket scientist.”  “CalTech’s program actually accepted me.  But I turned it down to study biology at M.I.T.”  There is a very good transition, with the help of a friend, that takes Cray beyond his role—“I’m done being the crazy guy showing up in police stations with a wild story about a killer who makes crimes look like animal attacks.”  All the characters are smart, capable, and strong in the best sense.
      
The story is well plotted.  There are some good twists one should have seen coming but didn’t, which is always good.  Mayne builds the suspense to an almost unbearable pitch, ensuring that one won’t stop reading until the final page.
      
The Naturalist” is one fascinating, intense, un-put-downable read.  Mayne really knows how to tell a gripping story.  Best of all, it appears to be the start of a new series.


THE NATURALIST (Ama. Sleuth-Prof. Theo Cray-Montana-Contemp) – VG+
      Mayne, Andrew – 1st in series
      Thomas & Mercer (Oct 2017)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

First Sentence:  The noise was the worst.
         
A raging fire has destroyed part of London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In the remains is found a body.  Not a victim of the fire, but someone who has been mutilated and with his thumbs tied together behind his back:  a sign of those who committed Regicide by signing the death warrant for Charles I.  Richard Marwood, a reluctant government informer and son of those who committed treason, is charged with finding the killer. Cat Lovett, whose missing father was also part of the treasonous group, desires to be an architect but instead is struggling to survive.
      
The author’s notes at the beginning of the book are not only important to understanding the background of the story but are also quite fascinating.  The story’s opening is evocative, visual and immediately captivating.  Into the midst of it all, we are introduced to our first surprise followed by a revelation about one of our two protagonists.
      
Taylor creates fascinating characters and intermingles them with actual historical figures, yet without ever allowing the fictional characters to be overshadowed.  As well as carrying the story, they facilitate the conveying of historical facts about which we may never have heard, such as the group known as the Fifth Monarchists.  Still, it is Richard, Cat, Mrs. Alderley, Master Hakesby who play critical roles.  Mrs. Alderly, in particular, is an interesting character.  There is much more to her than we first believe.
      
There is always the sense that much is going on behind the scenes of which neither we, nor our protagonist, is aware.  Although the fire is not a major focus of the story, the destruction of whole areas, and the impact on people’s lives, as well as the planning of rebuilding does play, in part, an important role.   We are also reminded that some things haven’t really changed in 600 years; women are still held responsible for men’s indiscretions, and that environs of sanctuary are not a new concept.
      
Taylor moves seemlessly between the storylines of Richard and Cat.  He brings the two tantalizingly close, then separates them, then a bit closer still.  When the two threads do meet, it is tense and very dramatic. 
      
The Ashes of London” is a very good read filled with “ashes and blood,” history, excellent characters, startling revelations and a twist one doesn’t see coming.


THE ASHES OF LONDON (Hist. Mys-Richard Marwood – London – 1666) - VG
      Taylor, Andrew – 1st of trilogy
      Harper Collins – Jan 2017

Friday, October 20, 2017

Old Scores by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  I suppose it all began with the garden.
      
A delegation of Japanese diplomats is in London to discuss opening an embassy.  Enquiry Agent Cyrus Barker, who lived in Japan, is asked to show the gentlemen his garden.  When Ambassador Toda is murdered later that night, and Barker found across the street, he is arrested, interrogated, and finally released.  Scotland Yard isn’t convinced of his innocence, but the new Japanese ambassador implores Barker and Llewelyn to find the real killer.
      
One would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful story narrator than Thomas Llewelyn—“’Is there anything I can do?’ I asked, … ‘I could help with the penjing trees…’  ‘No, no, lad, you just go ahead and read.’  Very well, so I’m not an expert gardener.  Some wag, probably our butler, Max, expressed the belief that bonsai (to give them the Japanese name) Scream at the mention of my name.  England has been called a nation of gardeners, but no one said anything about Wales.”
      
The author is very good at providing background as one goes and throwing in very effective plot twists.  He also tosses in small bits of philosophy and/or perspective--
Berker gold me once that when someone criticizes you, you must take it to heart, and try to see yourself from his or her point of view.”
      
We are given a look at Japan’s politics during an interesting time in history, and politics between the traditionalists and the progressives.  As usual, it was the US which threw things into turmoil.
      
The dialogue is wonderfully done.  One looks forward to the humorous—“’How do we know anything without asking’ “Seen and ye shall find:  knock and the door will be opened unto you.’ Barker smiled. ‘Well, well,’ he said ‘So he can quote scripture.’ ‘As Shakespeare said, ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’”
      
There are a couple of characters those who follow the series will be pleased to see; Rebecca Cowan, Llewelyn’s intended, and Fu Yung, Barker’s ward.  The meeting between the two women is delightful.  Moreover, it’s a pleasant reminder of how well-developed are all of Thomas’ characters, include those who are female.  Barker’s story of his time in Japan is enlightening and tragic.  It explains quite a bit about the character.  Thomas is someone followers of the series have seen grow and change.  This is not a series where the characters stagnate.
      
Between Barker’s French-trained chef, and his Chinese friends and restaurant owner Ho, food always plays a role.  From eggs in truffle butter, to bacon sandwiches, noodles with prawns, and even fugu, the poisonous puffer fish, it is delectably described.
      
Just when one may think there is a lot of talk and not a lot of action, one is proven very wrong.  There is a nice twist in that the bad guys don’t always die.  Too, there is a wonderful reference to the Battle of Culloden. 
      
Old Scores” is a pleasurable balance of well-done characters, dialogue, and suspense along with fascinating lessons of history.

OLD SCORES (Hist Mys-Barker and Llewelyn – London – VG
      Thomas, Will – 9th in series
      Minotaur Books – October 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  Lieutenant Morrison died as dawn broke on the Friday morning, a casualty of war.
      
Field nurse Bess Crawford treats Captain Travis, a patient disoriented from a head wound.  He believes Lt. James Travis, a distant cousin and Englishman, deliberately shot him.  Released, he is brought back, wounded a second time and still insisting on the same story.  Upon Bess’ return to England, she finds the captain strapped to a hospital bed and being treated for a brain injury.  Bess enlists the help of Sgt. Major Simon Brandon to unravel Travis’ story and find the truth.
      
From the very start, Todd touches one’s emotions.  Although it’s coming to the end of the war, it is still very active and provides an interesting perspective on events and even the attitudes by some regarding providing medical treatment to captured German soldiers.
      
At first, one may believe one knows where the story is going.  As it progresses, things do change and a twist makes things all the more interesting.  As they say, the plot thickens even more.
      
Bess is such a strong character.  Her nature is well-explained, as is her dedication. One can’t help being attracted to Sgt. Major Simon Brandon.  He is steady, supportive, and never dismisses or talks down to Bess.  With the war ending, will we finally see something happen between the two of them?
      
The story does read a bit like a melodrama at times.  However, it turns out there is a very clever, and well-hidden, motive.
      
A Casualty of War” takes one from the battles of France to London and to a small English town, all in search for truth.  With the war coming to an end, it is going to be interesting to see where the series will go from here.


A CASUALTY OF WAR (Hist Mys – Bess Crawford-France/England-WWI) – G+
      Todd, Charles – 9th in series
      William Morrow – Sept 2017

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

First Sentence:  ‘This woman – Jessica Lane – should have died. …”
      
Jessica Lane surprises her sister, a Carmelite nun, with a hot air balloon ride for her birthday.  While looking down, the balloon passengers see a man commit murder. Unfortunately, he also sees them, and a woman taking pictures with her cell phone and causes the balloon to crash killing all but one.  Alone and on the run, she is just trying to survive and find help.
      
This is going to be a short-ish review.  Not because the book isn’t good, but because it is so good one doesn’t want to say too much, but would rather other people read it for themselves. 

When Bolton is on mark, she is such a pleasure to read, and she is truly there with this book. 
      
What begins with lovely descriptions quickly turns into a horrific experience.  Bolton is very good at conveying terror and the emotions of the events, but she is equally at offsetting the grim with some excellent humor. 
      
Knowing the villain from the start adds to the sense of menace.  That the danger builds continually throughout the entire book keeps one glued to the story.  Yes, there are scenes that are difficult to read.  However, the story is so fast-paced, one isn’t about to stop. 
      
The protagonist is a fascinating character.  She’s strong and resourceful.  One of the best characters is Sister Belinda.  Who doesn’t love a nun who addicted to police dramas?
      
Bolton’s plotting is what truly wins the day.  Talk about a book full of twists and turns.  With each chapter or so, one learns more, yet still isn’t quite certain where the story is going. What one finds is that it is well worth going along for the ride as the story takes one places that can’t be anticipated.
      
Dead Woman Walking” is a remarkable, “WOW!” of a book.  It is non-stop action filled with suspense, twists, and surprises to the very last page.

DEAD WOMAN WALKING (Susp-Jessica-Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Bolton, Sharon – Standalone
      Minotaur Books – Aug 2017

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

First Sentence:  They charged from the cover of the elephant grass toward the LZ, five of them swarming the slick on both sides, one among them yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”—as if each man needed to be prodded and reminded that these were the most dangerous seconds of their lives.”
      
Harry Bosch is on leave from the LAPD but has been taken on as a volunteer reserve officer investigating the cold case of a serial rapist for the San Fernando PD.  However, working as a private investigator, Bosch has been hired by an elderly billionaire to find any heirs he may have from when he was a college student.  The man’s company very much wants Harry to fail.
      
It is interesting that we open with a reminder of the terrible cost of war.  Any war.  All wars. 
      
Connelly has such a clear and distinctive voice, part of which is the ever-present sarcastic humour—“You can come back now.” “Good. Any longer and I was going to jump.” She didn’t smile. …”It’s impact-resistant glass,” she said. “It can take the force of a category-five hurricane.” “Good to know,” Bosch said. “And I was only joking.”
     
It’s good that we learn the backstory of Bosch’s situation with the LAPD. One thing one never needs worry about is learning the history and/or backstory of people and places.  Connelly is very good and providing those, often with an interesting perspective—“Working cold cases had made Bosch proficient in time travel.”  However, one does rather wonder what is the normal rate of an officer clearing murder cases.
      
Another of Connelly’s many skills is outlining police procedures, and describing the impact budget reductions has on solving crimes.  This is not only informative but adds a strong element of realism.  Even so, Bosch is a character who likes to do things very much his own way.
      
It is nice to have Bosch’s half-brother, Mickey Haller, brought into the story.  However, there are a lot of coincidences, and the interactions with Bosch’s daughter seemed random and didn’t really add anything to the story.  Another rather irritating factor is the constant relating of driving directions. It is rather as if listing to a GPS.  It doesn't really provide a true sense of place and feels like filler. 
      
The plot is well done.  Connelly balances the two story threads very well.  There are good twists, red herrings, and “ah-ha!” moments.  The buildup of suspense nicely done, as is the exposure of the killer.
      
The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is classic Connelly.  It’s a satisfying read Connelly fans will enjoy.

THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE (Pol Proc-Bosch/Haller-LA-Contemp) – Good
      Connelly, Michael – 19th in series
      Little, Brown and Company – Nov, 2016