Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A Dying Note by Ann Parker

First Sentence:  Not my hands!
Inez Stannert and her ward, Antonia have moved from Leadville, Colorado to San Francisco where they live above the music store owned by a renowned local violinist.   Inez works in the shop and teaches piano including to a young musician whose badly beaten body has been found on the banks of the Mission Creek canal.  Inez her life and the secrets she’s keeping may fall apart when a friend from Leadville shows up with Wolter Roeland de Bruijn, a man who knew Antonia’s late mother, and a man looking for his son.  When the link between the two young men is made, can Inez discover his killer without her reputation being destroyed?
The opening is violent and difficult to read.  It is clear there is an important link, but one wonders whether the first chapter truly adds to the story or could have been omitted.
What follows is the introduction of the protagonist, Inez, and many of the supporting characters.  One thing that makes Inez particularly interesting and admirable is her determination and her business acumen. She has found a way to help other women support themselves with small women-owned businesses while building security for herself and Antonia. There is information on Antonia’s past included in the story that explains her behavior and tendency toward self-reliance.  She knows what it is to be an outsider and recognizes it in others.  There is also a scene of great tenderness.
There are a number of other wonderful characters who enrich the plot.  Antonia’s friend Mick Lynch is a member of a large Irish family and son of the cop.  John Hue is a Chinese purveyor of curiosities and repairer of stringed instruments and woodwinds.  Patrick May, the young black man, loves music and just wants to play the piano.  Elizabeth O’Connell is a female Pinkerton agent.  These, among others, give flavor and dimension to the story.
One is given a good look at life in this time, but it is the life of ordinary people.  Yes, there are scenes at the still-fabulous Palace Hotel, but the bulk of the story involves the working class which is a rather refreshing change.  Parker also addresses the issues of attitudes toward the blacks and Chinese immigrants, and the events surrounding the attempts at unionizing musicians.  Even so, there is a nod to today—“Mark me,” he continued, “there will come a time when the oppression by the moneyed powers of this country will be so great it will no longer be endured.”  

There is so much wonderful historical information included that adds veracity to the story.  When reading historical mysteries, the Author’s Notes are always important and informative.  It’s fun to learn which things are real and which were invented or changed for the purpose of the story. 
A Dying Note” includes very good plot twists, a surprising ending, and a promise of continuing associations in the future.

A DYING NOTE (Hist Mys-Inez Stannert-San Francisco, CA- 1881) – G+
      Parker, Ann – 6th in series
      Poisoned Pen Press – April 2018

Monday, April 16, 2018

Twenty-One Days by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  They were alone in the small room where the accused was allowed to take visits with his lawyer.
Junior barrister Daniel Pitt has just won his first case defending Roman Blackwell, a private inquiry agent.  Now, he has been called to the Old Bailey to assist his fellow attorney, Toby Kitteridge, on a case.  With the trial lost, biographer Russell Graves has been found guilty of murdering his wife and is due to be hanged in 21 days.  Daniel, along with fellow barrister Kitteridge, has been instructed to have Graves’ sentence overturned.  While Kitteridge searches the law for a loophole, Daniel is determined to find the real killer.
Beginning in a prison interview room certainly sets the tone of what is to follow and creates an initial gravitas, especially when a trial is going badly.  In this instance, it also gives us some concern about the effectiveness of our protagonist as an attorney—“Daniel frankly found the law far more tedious than he had expected to.”       
With the start of a new series comes the creation of characters we hope will continue on.  Blackwell and his mother are true examples of friendship and understanding the importance of paying ones moral debts.  Daniel’s landlady, Mrs. Portescale, is delightful.  Kitteridge is an excellent foil to Daniel—“Kitteridge loved it; he loved the idea that the law was an elegant but imperfect servant of justice.”  Perry also establishes good conflict, both with the opposing counsel and later with his fellow barrister, Kitteridge—“Do you care about anything? Don’t you care about the law?”  Introduced later in the story is Miriam, who is analytical, observant, has studied medicine and chemistry and has passed her exams but is not recognized with a degree.  Such is the discrimination of the time.  It will be interesting to see which, if any, of these characters continue as the series carries forward.
On the chance that this book may be someone’s first entry into reading Perry, she does an excellent job of introducing all the members of the Pitt family.  For those well acquainted with the Pitt series, this book is a very good segue between the series of Thomas and Charlotte to Daniel.  There is, however, one large detail which is unexplained and would have been helpful to the series readers.  Still, it is interesting how the recounting of Daniel’s family leads to his awareness of the importance of connections—“My dear, a secret exposed is a secret you can no longer use.  It is an opportunity wasted, is it not?”
The analysis of the crime scene is well done and prompts Daniel to ask the questions some readers may have had.  The scene of Daniel having dinner in the servants’ quarters is particularly wonderful as it shows the dynamics of the staff and their relationship.  It also provides an opportunity to describe a meal which is relatively simple but enviable.  Mr. Falthorne, butler to the Graveses, is delightful and provides an interesting revelation.  There is nothing like hitting that “Aha!” moment when a significant link is made.  However, it is also an opportunity for Perry to present Daniel with a serious moral dilemma. 
Perry doesn’t take the easy way out.  She challenges both her readers and her characters. This is, in part, what makes her such an effective author.  Although set in the early 1900’s her observations are timely--“Most people, women included, judge according to their own experience.  We think what we need to think in order to hold on to our own worldview and validate what we must believe.  It is a matter of survival, although it may seem merely to be prejudice to someone else.  It takes a lot of courage to turn your world upside down and start again.”  She states truths; those things we intrinsically know but seldom say.
Twenty-One Days” is a very good start to this new series.  The plot has twists, turns, and surprising revelations.  The element of time running out is well used, and the final courtroom scene very effective.  Perry never disappoints.

TWENTY-ONE DAYS: A Daniel Pitt Novel (Hist Mys-Daniel Pitt-London-1910) – VG+
      Perry, Anne – 1st book in series
      Ballentine Books – April 2018

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Serve and Protect by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The Honorable Elizabeth McDaniel tapped her microphone, and her overflowing courtroom went silent.
Rookie cop Johnny Bacigalupi pulls over a car on a routine traffic stop.  The driver flees, the cop calls for backup, and the driver is shot and killed.  A gun is found under the perp.  The cops declare it a justified shooting.  But is it?  Mike Daley is currently head of the Felony Division of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.  When the DA decides to prosecute Johnny on murder charges, Mike takes a leave of absence in order to defend his godson.
No one writes a courtroom scene better than Siegal.  It is also a wonderful introduction to Mike Daley.  However, no matter how serious the theme, Spiegel uses humor as a perfect balance—“If Luther’s case appeared in a Grisham  novel, nobody would have believed it.” He also uses Mike’s internal narrative as a tool to provide interesting and informative information on various topics such as how California law works.  
Every major city has its families with generations of cops, firemen, and lawyers, and in Mike’s case, a private investigator brother, his wife who is his boss, and a niece, a court deputy.  And then, there’s Terrence “The Terminator” Love.  In some ways, San Francisco is a much a character as are the people. 
Seigel relates some of the City’s painful history related to Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple cult, as well as the issue of immigration—“I’ve been here since I was a kid.  I’m a U.S. citizen.”  He shows how quickly situations can escalate from anger to violence, to death.  The debate as to whether to take a plea bargain for a lesser offense is strongly prevented, especially with a client who insists they are innocent—“So you think morality has a sliding scale?”
Serve and Protect” has strong characters, interesting information about the law, excellent plot twists, and a very well-done ending that wasn’t one which could have been predicted.  

SERVE AND PROTECT (Legal Thriller-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-San Francisco, CA-Contemp) – VG+
      Siegel, Sheldon – 9th in series
      Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – February 2018

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Disappeared by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  Wylie Frye was used to smelling of smoke and that was long before he became a criminal of sorts.
Wyoming’s new governor wants Game Warder Joe Pickett to find a wealthy CEO and Englishwoman who disappeared after staying at the dude ranch where Joe’s daughter, Sheridan, works.  Joe’s friend, master falconer Nate Romanowski, want Joe to find out why the falconers can no longer hunt with eagles in spite of having valid permits.  Joe wants to know why the Game Warden seems to have disappeared from the area where the ranch is located.  And who is working hard to make Joe go away?
Box is very good at creating a sense of place, and a sense of cold—“Twilight in the mountains brought a special kind of cold.  It crept out from the darkness of the lodgepole pine forest where it had spent the daylight hours and it slithered across the top of the snow to sting every inch of exposed human skin.  Sounds became sharper and the snow itself became a different texture that squeaked like nails on a chalkboard with every footfall.”   His description of what it’s like to drive during the winter in the mountains conveys some of the dangers involved.   And most of us don’t think about the risks inherent with snowmobiling. There is fascinating information about the use of predator birds for protecting flocks and endangered birds, as well as killing animal predators, and all the political machinations involved.  The relationship of falconry to Shakespeare is a nice touch.
The perspective Joe has on how his relationship has changed with his now-grown daughter is one with which most can identify in some way.  For those who have followed the series, it is particularly poignant.  The contrast of Joe and Nate is always interesting.  They truly are light and dark.  Lance, Sheridan’s boyfriend, is someone of whom I hope we see more. 
There’s a lot in this book, almost too much.  The threads do come together but awkwardly.  There isn’t the cohesion one finds in Box’ previous books, and even the humor and suspense are less apparent.  The motive is rather weak and far-fetched, particularly when we learn who is behind everything, and the ending rather abrupt.  One dearly hopes Box isn’t getting tired of his series. 
The Disappeared” is not the strongest book by Box, but it’s still better than a very good book by other authors.   There is an excellent twist and a good “Western” ending.  

THE DISAPPEARED (Lic Invest-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) - Good
      Box, C.J. – 18th in series
      G.P. Putnam’s Sons – Mar 2018

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Killing in C Sharp by Alexia Gordon

First Sentence:  Gethsemane Brown frowned at her landlord across her kitchen table.
Violinist, conductor, and music conductor Gethsemane Brown has saved her cottage from developers, but now her landlord has now granted permission for a team of ghost hunters to investigate for the all-too-present spirit of composer Eamon McCarthy.  To deflect the investigators, she points them to the opera house where composer Aed Devlin plans to premiere his work about Maja Zoltán who died placing a curse to occur each year on the anniversary of her death. With the smell of grease and pepper and excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” in her head, Gethsemane and her friends have to get rid of the specter of Maja, prevent Eamon from being exposed, save lives, and find the killer of a crooked journalist.
The important thing when reading Gordon is to just go with the premise, which is delightful and not at all twee.  The other thing is what a good job Gordon does of providing all the backstory.  It catches up both those who’ve read previous books, and new readers so there’s never a feeling of having missed something, but neither does it slow down the plot.
Gordon’s characters are all fully-developed and very interesting.  Gethsemane, with her love of good whiskey, is no mild-mannered Miss Marple.  In fact, she describes herself as being—“Competent, confident, intelligent, and driven, but not ‘nice.’  She is the type of person with whom one would like to be friends.  Father Tom with his older brother’s collection of books on the occult, Neill of the Gardaí, Saoirse the 12-year-old genius, and more are all interesting and very real.
The subject of reviews for pay; i.e., when a reviewer offers to write a positive review in exchange for money and is different from being a publication- or syndication-paid reviewer, is an interesting one.  It is a path down which no reputable or ethical reviewer would tread.
There are a number of laugh-out-loud moments which provide lightness.  One will also enjoy the reference to—“You’re both grown and neither of you are related to me, so it’s none of my business.”  Southern code for “but if you want to talk about it…”.  The paranormal elements of the story are very intriguing and well done.  Not all authors use the paranormal well.  Gordon really does.
It is quite remarkable the way in which Gordon creates a rather illogical scenario and not only makes it both logical and believable but makes one care.  There is also a very nice plot twist which is well done.   
Killing in C Sharp” is a wonderful traditional/paranormal mystery.  In fact, this is the best book in the series, so far.
KILLING IN C SHARP (Trad Mys-Gethsemane Brown-Ireland-Contemporary) - Ex    
      Gordon, Alexia – 3rd in series
      The Henery Press – March 2018

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Into the Thinnest of Air by Simon R. Green

First Sentence:  Back in Victorian times a certain Elliot Tyrone ran a very popular inn, the Castle.
Penny Belcourt has been invited to the reopening of Tyrone’s Castle in Cornwell.  Penny askes her partner Ishmael Jones, to accompany so that they might have a “perfectly normal weekend” together.  However, it seems that one of the inn’s legends may be more than a story as one-by-one, people disappear without a trace.  Is there something supernatural at work?  It’s up to Ishmael to find out before the night is over and everyone is gone.
A more intriguing opening or character I doubt you’ll find.  From the first pages, Green gives us both the history and the setting, and a completely unique character.  Unfortunately, he doesn't expand on it as the story progresses.
Green’s pays great attention to the details, both in terms of places—“Old-fashioned street lights were just coming on, their honey-yellow illumination shedding a pleasant glow across the scene.  It was like driving through the picture on the lid of a box containing a childhood jigsaw puzzle.”—and people—“He was smartly, if casually dressed, well into his forties, and almost entirely bald.  His face was smooth and shiny, his eyes were a faded blue, and his innkeeper’s smile didn’t waver once.  Perhaps only I would have noticed that it didn’t even come close to touching his eyes.”  He puts us into the story and makes it real.  His subtle humor lightens tense situations—“I gestured at the nearest open door. ‘Do you want to go in first, Penny?’  ‘After you,’ said Penny.  ‘And don’t be afraid to hit anything that moves.’  ‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ I said.”  
Starting a series with the newest book, rather than the first, puts pressure on the author to ensure new readers still have a sense of continuity with the primary characters.  In spite of the information at the beginning, one is left with the knowledge that there are a lot of details one is missing. Another issue is that if the characters are at risk, one should care about them.  Other than the protagonists, most of the characters here were so unpleasant, one doesn’t really care if they disappear, although that does change as the story progresses.  Another issue was that although there was the mystery of what was happening, there was also always the sense that there would be a perfectly logical explanation. 
The positives, however, where the clever method by which the disappearances were enacted and learning what, unpleasantly, happened to those who went missing.
Into the Thinnest of Air” is, by far, not Green’s best book.  For that, one should go to the “Nightside” series, instead.  While some of his strengths were there, the “well, maybe” aspect of his storytelling was missing.  Even so, it was an enjoyable, quick read.

INTO THE THINNEST OF AIR (Susp-Ishmael Jones-England-Contemp) - Okay
      Green, Simon R. – 5th in series
      Severn House – March 2018

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Darkness Sing Me a Song by David Housewright

First Sentence:  She was tall, slender, impeccably tanned; strawberry hair fell in waves to her shoulders.
Wealthy and socially important Eleanor Barrington has been arrested for the murder of her son Joel’s fiancée, Emily Denys.  PI Holland Taylor has been hired to help the defense law firm by investigating Emily’s background, only to find she doesn’t have one.  That’s not the only mystery.  Bigger questions revolve around the relationship between the mother and son, and where, if at all, does Joel’s sister Devon fit into things, and whether a controversial business deal is involved.  This case is much more than Taylor, still recovering from the death of his wife and daughter, and the breakup of a recent relationship, expected.
The best story is one which starts on page one, although I was amused by the typo on page six in the hardcover copy, and dives right it.  It is a classic story for a reason.  What also works is the reader being set up with one expectation and then story taking a twist within the first two paragraphs.
Housewright weaves the backstory of the characters into the text and dialogue in a manner where it is intriguing rather than disruptive.   While some of the characters are quite disturbing, Ogilvy the rabbit, Mandy Wedermeyer, the 14-year-old neighbor, her mom Claire, and Taylor’s parents add balance and made Taylor more real. 
Taylor is a great character and one that is fully developed.  He has a past impacts which present.  He is a person one would want to know, and there are some nice moments of realization—“I don’t think she was interested in me so much as she craved human contact, which seemed to prove that it isn’t how many people you meet, it’s how many you connect with that matters.”
There is a very well-done inclusion of environmental issues related to fracking, water, and land usage which bring contemporary relevance to the story.  One minor criticism is that there are times when following a conversation can become confusing as to whom is speaking.
 “Darkness Sing me a Song” includes relationships which are uncomfortable, has very effective plot twists, and a powerful, rather sad, ending.

DARKNESS SING ME A SONG (PI-Holland Taylor-Twin Cities-Contemp) – G+
      Housewright, David – 4th in series
      Minotaur Books – January 2018 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Paris Librarian by Mark Pryor

First Sentence:  The note sat beside his coffeemaker, the elegant handwriting unmistakable.
Hugo Marston's friend asks him for a favour.  Her friend, a journalist, wants to write a book about a famous actress who was allegedly a spy during WWI.  Her collection of papers has been donated to the American Library in Paris.  When Hugo goes to meet his friend in charge of the collection, he finds the friend’s dead body inside a locked room in the basement.  Although ruled natural causes, Hugo is suspicious, and all the more so when another person dies.  Who is really behind these deaths and what is the motive?
Coming late into a series, one appreciates an author who quickly, and naturally, provides details about the protagonist, their job, and their relationships.  Pryor does that very well and in an economical fashion.  However, the best thing we discover about Marston is his passion for rare first editions.  Pryor captures perfectly the feeling book lovers have—“Hugo had often thought libraries were akin to places of worship, his version of church, where reverence and peace enveloped him like a blanket.”
The diversity of the characters is refreshing, as is the matter-of-fact way in which they are handled.  Hugo’s observations and deductions are fun and remind us how much is evident if we take the time to observe—“Hugo winked. “Elementary, my dear Tom.  Those pictures of him online, he’s wearing nice clothes, expensive ones.  And three different watches, all more than I can afford.  But for a journalist his work is sparse and not very high-profile, so he has disposable income but isn’t married and isn’t a big shot.”  “Hence, family.” 
There is an excellent insight about war—“In a real war, in that real war, the truth was more complicated.  People did what they had to do to survive.  People did things they were later ashamed of, but at the time maybe they had no choice.”  We are given several small truths such as—“A colleague of his at the FBI had once told Hugo that if all you had were questions and no answers, you were looking in the wrong direction, seeding the wrong thing.”--and—“Anytime an accident turns out to be murder, well, you wonder if you’ve discovered a moment of evil.”--which provide insight both to the character and to the author himself.  For those who have not read previous books in the series, there is a nice summary of Hugo’s history with the FBI that explains some of his skills.
There is also humor, delightfully wry humour and very good dialogue—“…when Hugo slipped into the front seat he was surprised to hear the man introduce himself in English. “Paul Jameson.  Nice to meet you, sir.”  Hugo shook his hand. “You’re English?” “God no,” Jameson said with a wink. “Scotsman.” “Hugo laughed. “Sorry for the offense.” “Just don’t let it happen again,” Jameson said.” 
Pryor incorporates French phrases with their English translations throughout the story.  Doing so, along with the mention of famous streets and landmarks, establishes the sense of place and adds veracity to the book.  The phrases also provide a bit of a French language lesson, n'est-ce pas?  Being in Paris, there is also food, tantalizing food such as puff pastry filled with fois gras.  There is a delightful inside joke which some may catch.  Authors published by Seventh Street often include references to fellow Seventh Street authors. In this case, it's Terry Shames and James Ziskin.  

Hugo is a very interesting and appealing character.  However, it's his girlfriend, Camille, one may wish had been more present.  She is a wonderful character.
 “The Paris Librarian” is a very well-done mystery with skillful red herrings and one of the best rescue scenes ever.

      Pryor, Mark – 6th in series
      Seventh Street Books – Aug 2016

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Fade to Black by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  Social workers asked him for his name when they gave him a meal, or if he checked in for a cot on a particularly cold night, but they wrote it down without paying much attention.
Officer Doug Brock suffered retrograde amnesia after being shot in the line of duty.  He’s back at work, even with gaps in his memory, but has the help of his partner, Nate Alvarez, and girlfriend Jessie, a state police lieutenant with the cyber division.  To aid in his recovery, he attends an amnesia support group.  Fellow member Sean Connor approaches Doug asking him to look at what seems to be the scrapbook of a murder victim he’d found in his attic.  Doug receives permission to reopen a cold case, discovering a connection to his own past.
It’s interesting when an author makes you take not and consider from the very beginning.  In this case, it’s about people who work in any type of social services.  The shock of that which follows fully captivates one’s attention.
Rosenfelt’s uses language well—“Even though I’ve been spending so much time here, I still enter warily.  That’s because Jessie’s dog, Bobo, doesn’t seem thrilled by my being around.  “He’s never been aggressive toward me; he just stares at me with a barely concealed disdain.” 
He writes in short, quick chapters that flow well from one to the next.  The premise of the story is fascinating.  One keeps running into twists and small “wow” moments, although the direction the plot takes seems a bit cliché.  Still, it is very well done.
The characters are real and relatable.  It’s nice to have a team of people who all work together, both internally, cross-departmentally, and even across state lines.  Some of the details are a bit questionable, but it all works, even though the actual climax seems a bit anti-climatic.  
Fade to Black” has a very good escalation of suspense.  One is caught off guard when the link is made between the two segments of the plot.

FADE TO BLACK (Pol Proc-Officer Doug Brock-New Jersey-Contemp) – Good
      Rosenfelt, David – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – March 2018