Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Next to Last Stand by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  Years ago, on one particularly beautiful, high plains afternoon when I was a deputy with the Absaroka County Sheriff's Department, I propped my young daughter, Cady, on my hip and introduced her to Charlie Lee Stillwater.  

Walt receives a call from Carol Williams, the caretaker and administrator of the Veteran's Home of Wyoming, once Fort McKinney.  Resident Charlie Lee Stillwater has died. Going through his effects, Carol and Walt find a box containing two items of particular note; one million dollars in cash and a painted canvas which was clearly part of a larger painting. Walt investigates the source of both, and whether the painting, thought to have been long destroyed, was stolen.   

The best characters are ones who grow and change over the course of a series.  So too has Johnson done that with Longmire.  This book is more the Walt we love; the events of the prior two books have understandably changed him as he questions his future.  

Dog is here!  Those who are series readers have come to love Dog.  Henry is also here.  A joke that runs between him and Walt in this story makes one smile. Vic, Walt's second and girlfriend, is a character who, for some of us, has become tiring.  It is nice to see Lonnie Littlebird, Chief of the Cheyenne Nation and Tribal Elder—"Um humm, yes it is so." But it's the "Wavers" who are the stars; four elderly veterans in souped-up wheelchairs who wave to passing traffic in front of the Veterans' Home of Wyoming.

Walt in evening dress and chasing bad guys through a museum is new, but so are the bad guys.  No cowboy hats and boots here—"Do you ever get the feeling that there are people out there who are living lives that we know absolutely nothing about?"

The plot is interesting and filled with historical information.  Unfortunately, it was almost too much information and it slows down the first half of the book.  Fortunately, once past that, the pace picks up noticeably.  One does wonder where the series is going.  Were some of Walt's comments foreshadowing or merely a frustrating tease? 

Worth the price of the book is the Epilogue.

"Next to Last Stand" is a return to that which fans most love about Johnson's books.  It is interesting, exciting, and filled with excellent characters.  However, this is a book one might want to wait to read until the next book is released.

NEXT TO LAST STAND (PolProc-Walt Longmire-Wyoming/Montana-Contemp) – G+
Johnson, Craig – 16th in series
Viking – Sept 2020

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

When She Was Good by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  Late Spring.  Morning cold. A small wooden boat emerges from the mist, sliding forward with each pull on the oars.

 In this follow-up to "Good Girl, Bad Girl" the mystery of Evie Cormac continues.  Found hidden away in the hidden room off the bedroom where a man was tortured and killed, the question remains as to whether he was her kidnapper or her protector.  Although the press are still curious, someone more sinister is after the information, and Evie, while psychologist Cyrus Haven, plagued with monsters of his own past, teams up with Sacha Hopewell, the former Constable, who found Evie, to try to protect her.

 There are several elements needed for a memorable book and description/sense of place is one.  Robatham has that well in hand—"The air outside smells of drying seaweed and wood smoke, and the distant hills are edged in orange where God has opened the furnace door and stoked the coals for a new day."

 It is useful to have already read the prior book. However, Robotham not only fills in the backstory of Evie, but includes now information.  The way in which Cyrus' background is conveyed is brilliantly understated yet establishes an important link.  We also learn much more about Terry Boland, the man whose body was found in the house where Evie was hiding.  

This is a dark book.  Robotham has written a clear and strong example of the impact of abandonment.  Then he changes the pace with a surprising plot twist and an example of Edie's ability as a truth wizard—one who can tell when others are lying.

There are observations that cause one to pause and are relevant to today—"The real power belongs to the people who control information… Individuals who can suppress stories, fix problems, spin news, and plant false information."—and make us think of current situations—"…is a classic sociopath, who seeks power and influence rather than fame.  Where others notice the beauty in the world, he sees only how it could benefit him.  Relationships are designed to further his own interest.  It's not about loving or hating but about duplicity and deception and his own corrupt lust."  Intended or not, and although the author is an Australian living in England, the story cannot help but make one think of current events.

 "When She Was Good" is a complicated story with unique characters and a satisfactory ending.  Slow in places, it picks up with well-done twists. 

WHEN SHE WAS GOOD (PsySusp-Cyrus Haven/Evie Cormac/England-Contemp) – G+
Robotham, Michael – 2nd in series
Scribner – Jul 2020  

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

THE DREAMER by Sheldon M. Siegel

First Sentence:  The Honorable Elizabeth McDaniel glanced at her watch, rested her chin in her palm, and spoke to me in a world-weary tone still bearing a trace of her native Alabama.

Mercedes "Mercy" Tejada is a Dreamer who was brought to the United States as a baby.  Now she's accused of murdering her boss, James Beard Award recipient, Carlos Cruz. Carlos was known for sexually harassing his female staff, particularly Mercy.  Now, he is dead in an alley, Mercy kneeling over him, and her prints on the knife next to him.  San Francisco Public Defenders Rosie and Mike are against the clock to prove Mercy innocent, and to keep her, and her family, from being deported.    
Siegel begins with an amusing vignette that pleases and establishes Mike Daley as a sharp, clever, and well-established lawyer.  The way in which we meet the others in Mike's life, especially his ex-wife and boss, Rosie Fernandez, is handled succinctly, but with clarity.

A murder case is always the perfect base for a legal mystery.  Add the element of a Dreamer with an undocumented mother, and the level of suspense immediately escalates.  The decision of Rose to be the lead attorney, with Mike as second chair, makes one smile.

Siegel excels at throwing back the cover on the legal system.  He shows just how unjust justice can be, especially if one is a woman, a person of color, and undocumented.  Siegel takes on the issue of undocumented workers.  What is nice is that the story addresses the issue from a moral perspective, rather than a political one.

Reading about a city one knows well always adds a personal touch.  However, even when it is a city unknown to the reader, some things have become sadly universal in urban areas—"A homeless man asked me for change.  A man in a Warriors jersey offered me a fentanyl.  A woman in a halter top asked me if I was looking for a date."

There is an excellent twist and good questions are raised during the investigation.  One doesn't normally think of the initial, information-gathering phase of a case as being suspenseful.  Under Siegel's deft hand, it is.

It may be a classic trope, but it is always interesting to have a victim everyone wants to kill. But watching Rosie and Mike prepare a case with no other suspects, and no witnesses, based on a defense of SODDI (“some other dude did it”), and with the prosecution not meeting the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt makes things all the more engrossing.  

"The Dreamer" is a very well-done legal mystery with a satisfying affirmation at the end.  Siegel is an under-appreciated author who writes excellent legal procedurals. 

THE DREAMER (LegalProc-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-San Francisco-Contemp) – VG
Siegel, Sheldon M. – 11th in series
Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – Mar 2020

Thursday, September 3, 2020


First Sentence:  The express from Dover was still coming to a stop when Hillary Drummond leapt onto the platform.

 A man is found murdered on a train newly arrived at Charing Cross Station.  In his shoe is the key to a railway locker containing a satchel.  It is 1892; the threat of war is in the air. Enquiry agents Barker and Llewelyn are tasked by the Prime Minister to deliver the satchel to Calais as it contains a document, an unnamed first-century gospel.   With the satchel sought by secret societies, political groups, and the German government, Llewelyn is perplexed by Barker's delay in fulfilling their assignment considering it places them under repeated attack.

 Rarely are prologues necessary.  However, Thomas' prologue captures and captivates one immediately with suspense, danger, intrigue, and yes, death.  With the receipt of an old brass key, stamped with the letter "Q," the characters go—"Down the rabbit hole." One cannot help but smile at their destination, and Llewellyn's admiration of what he sees there is understandable. 

Thomas' voice is enviable.  Even during a serious scene, he makes one smile with the simplest line even when in a serious situation. It is only a part of what makes reading him such a pleasure.  His dialogue is a pleasure to read—"The things you know, Thomas!"  "Yes, well, the more I know, the more I know how little I know."

 Characters are Thomas' strength.  It is nice to have a series with characters who have developed over time. Still, for those who have not read the previous books, one won't feel lost as Thomas provides well-presented introductions to the characters. Llewelyn's wife, Rebecca, deals with the conflict of being shunned by her family for being married to a gentile.  Their marriage and commitment adds a nice touch and humanness to the story—"There was still something strange about being separated from Rebecca for more than a few hours.  It was like slow asphyxiation."  A scene between Llewelyn and his father-in-law is particularly well done. 

Thomas conveys mood well, in this case, it is that of a man adrift.  A significant change is made in the roles and responsibilities of Barker, Llewelyn, and others ensure a shift in future books.

The backdrop of Victorian England makes the plot particularly effective.  The drums of war are beating in the distance, the underlying anti-Semitism, and the inclusion of an Evangelical preacher from the United States advocating eugenics. There is action and suspense, but also serious subjects which require consideration.

"Lethal Pursuit" maintains one's interest from the beginning to an ending that is clever in so many ways, including the ultimate question—"Why do evil men prosper?"  This is more than an average historical mystery. Thomas is an author to add to one's list.

LETHAL PURSUIT (HistMys-Baker/Llewelyn-England-1892) – VG
Thomas, Will – 11th book in series
Minotaur Books – Nov 2019


Sunday, August 30, 2020

All the Devils are Here by Louise Penny

First Sentence:  “Hell is empty, Armand,” said Stephen Horowitz.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife Raine-Marie have come from Canada to Paris for the birth of a new grandchild.   After a celebratory dinner with their two children, spouses, and Armand’s billionaire godfather, Stephen Horowitz, Stephen is deliberately struck by a vehicle and now lies in a coma.  A grim discovery at his apartment prompts an investigation and the uncovering of family secrets leaving Armand to determine just who can be trusted.

Paris is not a city about which one can be objective.  It is a city that enthralls from the moment one arrives and, even if one never has the chance to return, it lives within one forever.  Penny has captured perfectly that sense of having found the city of one's soul and portrays it perfectly.  Even the hardcover book’s glorious end sheets, designed by MaryAnna Coleman, draw one into the beauty of Paris. Opening with lines from Shakespeare's "Tempest" is the perfect balance to the City of Light with a history of darkness.

Although not an issue for new readers, series readers may have a sense of being a stranger in a strange land having the story set outside the usual environs of Canada and Three Pines.  This was an effective decision as it is echoed by Gamache having the same sense of not knowing who to believe, who to trust.  It illustrates the duplicity of people and is effective in heightening the suspense and tension. The connections made back to Three Pines and the Sûreté du Québec are nicely done.

The mystery is well-plotted as it grows upon itself and is delightfully complex taking one down unexpected roads.  Yet, more than a mystery, this is a story of relationships, and with that comes wisdom.  

Penny employs her characters wisely.  Involving family members as part of an investigation can be risky.   However, in this case, no one is superfluous; neither are any of their roles forced or out of character.  Each has skills that contribute, and each is humanly imperfect with weaknesses and foibles.  In other words, they are real.  Even the use of an unseen, yet critical, character is wonderfully done. The theme of abandonment, which appears in various ways through Penny’s books, is heartfelt and recognizable to so many.

Penny's ability to place the reader within the story is second to none.  Sitting in the hospital, awaiting news of a loved one, you feel, hear, and smell the starkness and desperation of those who are there, and the unwillingness to give up hope.  Her use of dialogue is evocative.  The banter between Jean-Guy and Armand is always something one anticipates and enjoys, but this was lovely as well--"Please, Dad," Daniel now said. "Tell me you were a commando." "Better." His father leaned closer and dropping his voice further. "I taught commandos."

When reading Penny, there are always lines that make one stop and consider, small lessons to be learned--"It had taken Beauvoir years to see the power of pausing. And of patience. Of taking a breath to consider all options, all angles, and not simply acting on the most obvious."  She teaches one the value of seeing not only what is there, but what is not; what is real, and what is facade, and that--"People believe what they want to believe.  Beginning with their own lies."  "Hell is the truth seen too late," said Reine-Marie."

“All the Devils are Here” is Penny’s best book to date.  It is complex, suspenseful, and emotional with a small touch of the paranormal.  It has a cracking good, twisty plot--you don't see where it is going--and an excellent ending. Most of all, it demonstrates Penny’s continuing growth as an author and, I suspect, as a person. And isn’t that the goal of us all?

ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE (PolProc-C.I. Armand Gamache-Paris-Contemp) - Ex
Penny, Louise – 16th in series
Minotaur Books, Sept 2020

Friday, August 7, 2020

A Killer's Wife by Victor Methos

First Sentence:  Jordan Russo swung the passenger door open and leapt from the moving car.

Some time ago, I gave up writing negative reviews of books as it was just too frustrating.  But now and then, there is a book that really needs to be addressed.

I have read two of Victor Methos' standalone legal mysteries and loved them.  In fact, I started to bore people by talking about and recommending them.  Therefore, writing this is painful in the extreme.

My first issue was the constant referral of the protagonist by her surname.  I recognize there are some professions where that is common, regardless of gender.  However, a friend and I, who share the same first name, are the only ones I've known to do this is real life. Even Donna Leon makes the distinction of referring to her character as "Brunetti" when he is at work, and "Guido" when he's at home.  

Second, the troubled, incredibly bright teenaged daughter.  What kind of mother would hold her child back from being able to realize her full potential?  Red flags immediately were raised as to the purpose of this. 

Third, when the police, who were comically incompetent, and who had already withheld information from her, came and asked for her help with her serial-killer ex-husband, any sane, reasonable person who had been through such an experience, would have told them to do their own damn jobs and get out.  Instead--I know it was the basis for the plot--she agrees.  Then, when they tell her not to enter the crime scene, she does the classic TSTL move and enters the crime scene. Jessica, for someone who was supposed to be so incredibly successful prosecutor, was painfully dumb.

Fourth, the too-good-to-be-true boyfriend.  Red flags screamed at that.  

About one-quarter into the book, there was no question where the plot was going, and it isn't that long of a book.  The end was so clearly broadcast that I broke my cardinal rule and went to the end of the book, only to find I was 100%, bang-on correct.  

The only parts of the book that were well done and rang true were the courtroom scenes.  Due to Methos' experience as a lawyer, the courtroom scenes are interesting, engrossing, and suspenseful on their own merit.  Too bad the rest of the book didn't hold up as well.

"A Killer's Wife" was an absolute wall-banger for me.  Even more frustrating was that I couldn't actually, physically throw it across the room because it was an e-galley and I wasn't willing to sacrifice my Kindle.  I'm not completely giving up on Mr. Methos.  I'd be happy to read another of his standalone legal thrillers which, I repeat, I found to be excellent, but I shall stay away from his dysfunctional female protagonists.

Methos, Victor – First of series
Thomas & Mercer – Mar 2020

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

Recently I was asked to recommend a book dealing with the Salam Witch Trials and remembered "The Heretic's Daughter." Having lived in Boston and spending many a weekend in Salam, I was honored to meet Kathleen Kent, a tenth generation descendant of Martha Carrier, the protagonist of this book. Although I first read this book in 2009, I feel it's worth adding to my review site today.

First Sentence: The distance by wagon from Billerica to neighboring Andover is but nine miles.

The story begins with a letter, written in 1752, from Sarah Carrier Chapman to her grand-daughter. With it, she has sent a book detailing the history of her life in Andover and the events of the Salem Village witch trials.

Sarah is the daughter of Thomas and Martha Carrier. Her father is a tall (7’4”), quiet, hardworking man; her mother is hard, domineering, and distant to the children. Due to neighborhood disputes, and family jealousies, Sarah is accused of being a witch.

The Salem witch trials were a shameful incident in our history.  Kathleen Kent has taken those events and made them real and personal. The extent of her research is evident. In the first part of the story, she describes in detail the hardships of life in that time, and the subjugation of women to men and families to the selectmen of the town and the Puritan pastors. She showed how actions and events can be interpreted by the superstitious, particularly when there is jealousy or an opportunity for power involved.

In the later part of the book, Kent included actual testimony from the trials. Doing so illustrated the absurdity of the trials by showing the fact of them. Kent is a wonderful writer. The story’s voice has the tone of the period.

The characters are well crafted and fully developed giving the events even greater impact. I shall admit my favorite character was Thomas, the father, again remembering all the characters were real.

"The Heretic's Daughter" is a very powerful, painful story and one well worth reading.

THE HERETIC’S DAUGHTER (Hist. Fic-Sarah Carrier-Mass-1600s) - VG
Kent, Kathleen – 1st book
Little, Brown and Company, 2008

Friday, June 19, 2020

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

I was saddened to learn today of the passing of Carlos Ruiz Zafon but was fortunate to read this wonderful book in 2004 when it was first published.  What a stunning book it is!  I so loved it, I also listened to the audiobook.  However, in 2004 I was writing comments, mostly as a way for me to track which authors and books I liked.  It was prior to my writing in-depth reviews.  Even so, I've decided to add those notes here, on my review site.

Ten-year-old Daniel Sempere is taken to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he is to adopt a single book and promise to keep it alive always. He is drawn to "The Shadow of the Wind." When he finds out that all other copies of the author's books have been burned, it becomes a quest for Daniel to find out about the mysterious author, Julian Carax. Over time, Daniel's and Carax's lives become linked in frightening, and sometimes dangerous, ways.

I loved this book! There is humor, sorrow, love, suspense, friendship, tragedy, brutality, revenge, fabulous sense of time and place, and a fountain pen that connects the story together through time. The language is flowery, and the pace sometimes slow but I never wanted to put it down. There was a twist I didn't expect yet all the ends are neatly tied into a perfect circle at the end. It's not a traditional mystery, but it is a wonderful book.

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND (Mystery/Novel-Barcelona-1945-1966)-Ex
Zafon, Carlow Ruiz – 1st adult novel
The Penguin Press, 2004 - Hardcover

Friday, April 24, 2020

Trace Elements by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  A man and a woman deep in conversation approached the steps of Pone dei Lustraferi, both looking hot and uncomfortable on this late July afternoon.

Benedetta Toso, a dying hospice patient who asks to speak with the police, claims her husband, Vittorio Fadalto, was murdered over “bad money.” Commissario Brunetti and his colleague, Claudia Griffoni, promise to investigate the matter, but was it murder or an accident? Suspicions mount as they learn more about Vittorio's job collecting samples of water to be tested for contamination. Piecing together the tangled threads, Brunetti comes to realize the perilous meaning in the woman’s accusation and the threat it reveals to the health of the entire region.

With an excellent beginning, one learns that being a Neapolitan in Venice is a "far greater handicap than being a woman."—and that one may not want to visit Venice during the summer.  Leon's voice is always a pleasure. When talking about the heat, she conveys the sense of it without referencing it directly --"Brunetti realized only then how hot he was.  He tried to lift his right leg, but it was glued to the chair by sweat." It is these touches that bring Venice to life by allowing us to see the city as those who live there do.

There is a second plot thread of two Romany pickpockets.  It is interesting to learn the differences between how crimes are handled in Italy versus the United States. The secondary plot does raise interesting points.

Leon's descriptions, from the route to an address Brunetti takes that only a resident would know, to his description of a room badly decorated, to food, are a delight and bring the city to life. Even a plate of sandwiches at a bar sound good--"From the sides of the sandwiches spilled ham, egg tomato, tuna salad, radicchio, rucola, shrimp, artichokes, asparagus, and olives."   

Leon is wonderful at injecting verbal exchanges to make one chuckle. When called into his boss's office, Signorina Elettra remarks--"If you aren't out in fifteen minutes, I'll call the police." However, she is also very good at making one pause and consider, as with Bruno's conversation with a nurse--"But if you work with death, you have to become spiritual, or you can't do it any more. ... when they get close to the end, you can sense their spirit, or you sense that it's there.  They do, too.  And it helps them.  And us." She knows how to touch one's emotions-- "Griffoni…raised a hand and threw open her palm, as if to release the dead woman's spirit into the air. The three of them remained silent for enough time to allow that spirit to escape the room..."   

 There is something wonderful about a policeman who reads Lysistrata for pleasure and describes Agamemnon as a "windbag commander." The relationship between Brunetti and his wife Paoli adds normality. It is one of a couple who has been married a long time and still loves one another. An interesting characteristic of Leon is that when her characters are in a professional setting, she references them by their surnames, yet when in a personal setting, or amongst one another as friends, she uses their first names.

Leon is incredibly good at building a story. She takes one along with her through the steps with an amazing subtlety to the clues.

"Trace Elements" is a police procedural without car chases or gunplay, but with a somewhat political theme. It is a very contemporary mystery with a contemporary crime. It reflects on the degradation of true justice in our time and on compromise. For some, the ending may not seem satisfactory, but upon reflection, there is some small justice amidst justice that cannot be achieved.

TRACE ELEMENTS (PolProc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) - VG
      Leon, Donna – 29th in series
      Atlantic Monthly - Mar 2020