Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Royal Wulff Murders by Keith McCafferty

First Sentence: The fishing guide known as Rainbow Sam found the body.

The body of a young man with a Royal Wulff trout fly through his lip is retrieved from a log jam, but that’s not what killed him. Sherriff Martha Ettinger, along with ex-PI, painter, fly-fisher Sean Stranahan, look to find the killer amid the very big-money fly-fishing business of Montana. 

From the very beginning, we are made aware of McCafferty’s humour—“The client, whose largest trout to date had been the size of a breakfast sausage.”—and given a strong sense of place—“Twilight was an amber smear on the horizon; the river glitters in the slanted light. In a few minutes the polish would fade from the surface, the current’s mercurial song would slide into bass notes, and the wild night would claim it against further human intrusion.”

While most of the characters, particularly Sean and Martha—“She’d been brought up in the tradition of self-reliance, but had the misfortune of being pretty and had allowed herself to be subjected to the wills of alpha makes ever since high school, losing, most of her self-esteem in the process.”--are interesting and work. These are not ordinary characters. Each is multi-dimensional and realistic in the sense of them being intelligent people who would want to personally know.“

The exception to this is Sean’s “relationship” and interaction, which never quite works. Even the dialogue between them always seems off-balance. The character of “Velvet,” really never comes across as real or dimensional. It’s almost as if McCafferty needed the character for the plot, but never really liked her or knew what do to with her.

Although most people think of fishing simply as simply a sport, we don’t often think of just how big a business it is, and how much revenue it generates from the offshoot business that support it. 

The Royal Wulff Murders” is very much a book for those who fish, but there is a decent mystery there and some very good, layered characters. I am happy to report that the next book shows marked improvement.

THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS (PI – Sean Stranahan – Montana – Contemp) – Okay
McCafferty, Keith – 1st in series
Penguin Books - January 201

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Impersonator by Mary Miley

First Sentence: I felt his eyes before I saw his face.

Orphaned Leah Randall has been doing vaudeville since she was a toddler. However, her career is on the wane and she’s not certain where her next job may be, until she’s approached by a stranger. Oliver Beckett thinks he’s found his niece who disappeared when she was only 14 years old.  Jessie Carr was the sole heiress to her family’s fortune. Now Oliver thinks he’s found a way for “Jessie” to return home, inherit and provide him with a life of comfort. Can Leah/Jessie pull it off amid the suspicion of the family, especially her two male cousins?

From the beginning, some with recognize the theme and predecessors to this book and, possibly, be a bit hesitant. Fear not; read on. Set in 1979 and in the United States allows for fascinating new elements to the plot. The details of a life in vaudeville, and the addition of famous people who began their careers there, truly brings the story to life. Yet, as with the period, Miley correctly uses the labels for different ethnic groups which are unacceptable today. 

Doesn’t one always love a good plot twist, and the introduction of a threat? Even the reader is momentarily left wondering what is true, and what is not.

A secondary plot adds another dimension to the story, and the opportunity to learn interesting information on the history of Oregon and its native Indian tribes. We are also given an interesting prospective in a period when the Democratic Party was the pro-segregation and anti-immigration party of conservatives.

The Impersonator” has a very effective plot, with excellent tension and suspense, including a highly effective twist at the end.  I'll admit that, as a fan of Josephine Tey and Mary Stewart, I started this book as a bit of a skeptic.  Instead, what I found was a wonderfully executed story.

THE IMPERSONATOR (Hist Mys–Leah Randall/Jessie Carr–U.S.–1917) – VG+
Miley, Mary – 1st book
Minotaur Books – 2013

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A Christmas Escape by Anne Perry

First Sentence: Charles Latterly stared across the untroubled sea at the shore they were fast approaching.

Hester Monk’s brother, widower Charles Latterly wishes to escape from the holidays in England and travels to a small hotel on the Italian island of Stromboli. However, with the exception of the innkeeper, an elderly man and his niece, neither his co-visitors, nor the island’s volcano, prove to be very restful. When the volcano starts to make its presence felt and one of the guests is found murdered, Charles realizes they must escape the hotel, and the killer among them.

Perry creates such wonderful descriptions--”The mountain rose sharply, as symmetrical and uncomplicated as a child’s drawing.”--that places come to life under her deft hand. One can’t but smile at her analogy of the volcano…”…it’s mostly like a lot of old people: It complains and uses some harsh language, but it doesn’t really do anything.” Or, at least until it does.

Charles is a strong protagonist yet interesting in that he rather fades into the background, letting others, particularly Candice, the delightful 14-year-old, her uncle, and Stefano the innkeeper, take center stage. It’s a cleverly done balance and one that works extremely well. At the same time, Perry effectively introduces us to all of the characters through a conversation which also provides a sense of their personalities and relationships.

One doesn’t always think of Perry and food, but being set in Italy, how could food not be included—“fresh crusty bread, slightly salty butter, and think dollops of homemade apricot jam.” And that is just the start.

An author who causes one to stop and consider, is always worth reading. Charles description of a perfect speech might also be applied to a well-written book. Yet it is her analogy of Stefano and the volcano that one may find stays with them—“Stefano was frightened of the mountain. It was not love he felt for it but respect, awe, and that included a knowledge of its power….It gave life, but it also dealt death.”

A Christmas Escape,” set on a volcanic island, provides suspense and sense of grave danger which escalates at a breath-taking rate as the story progresses. Yet it is the vividness of Charles and Candice that leaves one hoping they will reappear in the future.

A CHRISTMAS ESCAPE (Hist Mys-Charles Latterly-Italy-Vict) – 13th Christmas Novella – VG+
Perry, Anne –Standalone
Ballantine Books - November 2015

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Siege Winter by Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman

First Sentence: It is a wood-paneled room of sumptuous size—the abbots of Perton have always done themselves well.

In 1141, England was engulfed in civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda over who would wear the crown. It is 1180 and a dying abbot has one last important task to accomplish. He summons a young scribe in order to document a much more personal story set during that backdrop and occurring during a long, brutal siege winter.

While readers were heartbroken by the death of Ariana Franklin and the incredible cliffhanger left in her last book in the “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, this does not resolve that series. However, for both prior and new readers, you are in for such a treat. This book was begun by Ms. Franklin (aka Diana Norman) prior to her death, and has been completed by her daughter, Samantha Norman. While that is wonderful in itself, what is truly remarkable is that the fusion is absolutely seamless.

There is no awkward transition between the two authors; it is all one voice. No, the language is not of the period. To that, there was the explanation given by Ms. Franklin at the end of “Grave Goods,” …”…in twelfth-century England the common people spoke a form of English even less comprehensive than Chaucer’s. In the fourteenth; the nobility spoke Normal French, and the clergy spoke Latin. Since people then sounded contemporary to one another, and since I hate the use of what I call “gadzooks” in historical novels to denote a past age, I insist on making those people sound modern to the reader.” One can’t argue with that.

For us readers, the story begins with the history given, the stage set, the players assembled and the curtain drawn on what, from the very start, we know will be a wonderful tale. The narrative is fascinating and, periodically through the story, moves the tale forward while providing historical context. The story provides wonderful details of castle life, and what it takes to run and defend a castle during this period.

What a wonderful assembly of characters. Each leaps off the page into full life and touches our emotions. Gwilherm de Vannes, a mercenary soldier, and his conversations with God are a true delight…”And what now, Lord? Eh? How can I protect her from herself?” “That’s a tricky one, Gwil. That’s the question. Even I can’t help you there I’m afraid.” Young Pen, whom he rescues, is a survivor who learns to cope with events in her own way. Maud, forced into marriage and now finds herself having to defend her castle with the help of Sir Rollo, commander of her troops and protect her son, William. There is a mystery to the story, and a villain which is as evil as a villain can be. This is the time of the Plantagenets, and the history is important, but the story is very much a human story. 

However, considering One really doesn’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling what is an absolutely wonderful read. It is a story one would love to see brought to the screen, but only if it included every single page filmed exactly as it is on the page. 

“The Siege Winter” is exciting, stirring, filled of tension and can bring one to tears but has a conclusion which makes one smile and touches the heart. Do you know how hard it is to write review notes when one is crying? It is a story which stays with you long after the last page. At the bottom of my review notes, I wrote Ex+++++++. Were it possible to rate a book 10 out of 5 stars, this would be it. I loved every page; every word. It doesn’t get better than that. However, the best news is that this may only be the first in a series. 

THE SIEGE WINTER (Hist Novel – Gwil / Pendra – England – 1100s) – EX
Franklin, Ariana and Samantha Norman – 1st book
Harper Collins – February 2015
Paperback - William Morrow - November 2015

Friday, November 13, 2015

A Kind of Grief of A.D. Scott

First Sentence: Joanne Ross remembered the morning she’d first encountered the name Alice Ramsay.

Newspaper journalist Joanne Ross comes across the story of a woman who’d recently been tried for witchcraft in a small Scottish town, the first since 1728. Intrigued the contacts the young reporter who wrote the story there, Joanne makes the trip north. Alice Ramsey is less than hospitable, but Joanne finds herself drawn to the woman, and so is shocked to soon learn Alice is dead and pronounced a suicide. Not believing it, Joanne investigates but runs into more layers, and threats, than she could have imagined.

Scott starts off by creating an evocative sense of place with both the description and the language—“March was still winter in these parts—with snow on the hills, and the burns and rivers veins of rolling liquid peat, it was beyond dreary, it was dreich.” While Scottish words and phrases are a bit of a challenge for an American reader, their meaning is easily understood by the context and add context to the story. However, just so you know, dreich is a combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least four of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich. But nothing solidifies the knowledge that we are not in the U.S., than the description of a house—“Not that it was old, only a hundred years or so since it was built...”

While the book does not include a prologue, it is important to read the passage at the beginning of each chapter as they allow us to know a bit about Alice, and confirm there is more to the events than meet the eye.

It’s an interesting group of characters that Scott has created; Joanna who wants to progress as a writer; her husband, the publisher of the local paper; Colum MacKenzie, the young constable completely cowed by his mother; and his much more independent fiancée. Most fascinating of all, however, is Alice Ramsey, even though she is only physically present in the story for small periods. In many ways, she fits the classic definition of a wise woman, or a crone; attuned to nature and knowledgeable as to the purpose of herbs; and having experienced enough in life to pass wisdom on to others—“The more you search for your place in the world, the more elusive it becomes,” She stood. “My advice is, be content with the little things, and you will make progress.” “We women are always putting off our dreams.” “Just listen to the wind, is my advice.”

Scott conveys emotion very well. You feel Joanna’s frustration at allowing herself to be used and, thus, committing an act of betrayal violating her own principal of “Do as you would be done by.” She also writes very good dialogue, with occasional humor—“But I have to warn you, this is the last time I buy you lemonade. Any self-respecting writer knows it’s the hard stuff you need to be a novelist, ladies included.”

The injection of new players, partway through, considerably and significantly alters the sense of the story and leads a plot twist that is more emotional than shocking. The final revelation, is a wonderful “ah-ha!” moment.

A Kind of Grief” is a book with a long simmer that takes time to reach its boil, but it is a very compelling pot to watch along the way.

A KIND OF GRIEF (Unl. Invest/Journalist-Joanne Ross-Scotland–beginning of 1960) – G+
Scott, A.D. – 6th in series
Atria Books – October 2015

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Home by Nightfall by Charles Finch

First Sentence: It was a blustery London morning in the autumn of 1876, wind and rain heavy in the trees lining Chancery land, and here, damn it all, stood before Charles Lenox something that nobody should have to tolerate before breakfast

A famous foreign pianist disappears from his dressing room, and Lenox’ detective agency is called in to find him. The pressure is on as a former partner of his firm seems to be hijacking clients and trying to solve this case before him. However, Lenox must leave the case to his partners and spend time with his brother in their childhood home. Things become interesting when a local insurance agent’s home is broken into, odd items in the town start disappearing, and a mysterious, rather disquieting, chalk figure appears in several places.

What a wonderful opening when the author immediately places you into the environment, and introduces you to the primary character with whose emotions one can empathize. The inclusion of the story of the Brontë sisters, is delightful as well as it establishes the time and place.

Finch as created such a fine ensemble of characters, particularly with Lenox’ detective agency, that one becomes involved with them even if one has not read previous books. They are fully dimensional with backstories that are both brief, yet complete.

Yet it’s Finch’s voice that brings you into the story with descriptions, facts, information, emotion and just the right touch of humor. It is style of language—“Lenox had known him for forty years, since he was a swottish, pedantic boy at the village school, and more or less the same look of circumspection had been on hi fact the whole time. He had never in that time evinced any vivacity…”—and the details of the period which make it fascinating. Small details such as one being able to read a newspaper were one not able to afford to buy it, an interesting note on the importance of hats for men, buying a ‘fish slice’ as a wedding gift, and the history of “the Riot Act,” that bring the period to life.

The dialogue has a very natural flow with the language appropriate to the social rank and education of the character with that between Charles and his brother, showing the closeness and east of their relationship—“Edmund, you know my days here are yours.” Edmund nearly smiled. “In that case, I happily transfer ownership of them to Mr. Hadley, at least temporarily—and hope that he will accept mine as well, for I am exceedingly curious about what on earth all of this can mean.” One can also enjoy Lenox’ time with his young daughter.

Lest you are concerned that here is not much mystery to the books, rest assured. Yet Finch’s approach is gentler and encompasses far more than just the crimes, including a wonderful passage of Charles’ musings on those who have passed.

Home by Nightfall” has a very good plot with more than one case being handled, plenty of questions, twists, and revelations that change the course of the investigations. Each of the cases is brought to very satisfactory conclusions and leaves the reader anxious for the next book.

HOME BY NIGHTFALL (Hist Mys-Charles Lenox-England-Victorian/1876) – VG
Finch, Charles – 9th in series
Minotaur Books – Nov 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Resistance Man by Martin Walker

First Sentence: It as shortly after dawn on a day in the late spring that carried all the promise after summer to come.

When an old French Resistance fighter dies, he is found in possession of old banknotes thought to the robbery of the Neuvic Train during the War thought to be the greatest train robbery of all time. Bruno meets Jacqueline, who is researching a story claiming the US gave clandestine support France’s nuclear program, a fact that would not go over well with upcoming elections. A burglary, committed by thieves who target only items of value, including furniture, art and fine wines, has occurred at the vacation home of British citizen, Jack Crimson. However, this burglary includes murder when the victim’s lover body is found.

While one can appreciate Bruno realistically having more than one case on which to work as it makes it much more realistic and interesting. However, Bruno having a profusion of women in his life can become confusing for him, and for us. Walker is very good about connecting various threads in a rational way. He also maintains the human element by including the personal lives of some of the secondary characters, as well as displays of Bruno’s own empathy and generosity toward others.

Food and wine is a theme throughout the book, and the series. It is France, after all. Once you’ve read even one of the books, you’ll join the legions asking Walker for a cookbook as the descriptions, detailed as they may be, just aren’t enough to satisfy—Pamela had brought a Monbazillac from Clos L’Envège, which would go perfectly with the strawberries…He’d put the marinated duck into the oven, sliced some ham…and put a place of ham and his fresh radishes at each setting on his dining room table. Ah added some unsalted butter to each plate and sliced a big round loaf of bread from the Moulin bakery.”

There is an increasing depth to the case, and that it becomes one with a far-reaching impact. The information on the structure of French law and the manner of conducting investigations is interesting, as is the history of the Resistance fighters. It is also interesting to come across a scene where a Frenchman has never heard of Paul Revere and must have an explanation given. However, it is the point regarding the importance of a free press and fair elections that truly causes one to pause and consider.

There is a very painful scene that might upset animal lovers, yet it is appropriately and humanely done. This is later followed by a scene of a very personal, painful revelation presented Bruno followed by an interesting contemplation of the options. Walker knows how to reach the readers’ heart and has imbued Bruno with depth and dimension with makes him real and appealing. In describing a funeral, one may find it is not only the fictitious mourner’s eyes that well-up with emotion.

The Resistance Man” is a story with many layers and multiple crimes, with complex, dimensional characters. It’s not so much the crimes, as the people who are the focus and cause this to be a really good read in a wonderful series

THE RESISTANCE MAN (Pol Proc – Comm. Bruno Courrèges – G+
Walker, Martin – 6th in series
Knopf – February 2014

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The White Ghost by James R. Benn

First sentence: I turned away from the hot wind gusting against my face, gave up watching for incoming aircraft, and went inside.

Lieutenant Billy Boyle, along with this friend and colleague Lieutenant Piotr Augustus Kazimierz; aka Kaz, has been sent to the South Pacific island of Tuligai where a native coast watcher—those who track the movements of the Japanese—has been murdered. The suspect is one Lieutenant Jack Kennedy whose PT boat was just sunk. Is Kennedy a hero, or is he a murderer?

This is a case where the prologue works, even if one has not read the books which include the events referenced by the characters, which would be a shame. The prologue creates a sense of being let in on something secret. Who isn’t intrigued by that?

Within the first several pages, Benn introduces us to several of the primary characters, provides their background, establishes the relationships between them and hits s with a major surprise. That is good writing.

It is remarkable what one learns when one reads Benn, such as the connection between the manufacture of soap, which contains glycerin, and the manufacture of nitroglycerine for explosives. It’s a tough line between the information being necessary for the reader to fully understand the events, yet there are times when the depth of information overshadows the plot.

Benn incorporates actual people into the story; in this instance as a primary character of the story, blending facts seamlessly with fiction. The depth of research is apparent but, again, not intrusive or presented in a way meant to impress the reader with the author’s knowledge. It is all done to provide veracity and richness to the story. The diverse nationalities of the characters is definitely adds to the story, as well.

The vernacular of the natives comes through; however, the dialogue for Kennedy doesn’t always quite ring quite true. One might question, with the period and Kennedy’s background, whether he would use a phrase such as “…it was no big deal.” But one could be wrong. It is a very interesting look at John F. Kennedy. On one hand he appears as an arrogant, entitled, womanizer--which he was—while that is balanced by acknowledging that is was a product of the expectations and pressures of his family. In the end, he is a more appealing character than he first appeared and one can’t help but wonder who’d he have been had he not been a Kennedy.

The White Ghost” has plenty of tension, suspense, appropriate violence and an extremely well-done ending.

THE WHITE GHOST (Hist Mys-Lt. Billy Boyle-South Pacific- 1943/WWII) – VG
Benn, James R. – 10th in series
Soho Crime – Sept 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Shadowed Evil by Alys Claire

First Sentence: He lay in his lonely little bed, curled up into the smallest shape he could contrive.

Sir Josse d’Acquin and Helewise travel to the home of Josse’s elderly uncle, a place where Josse always felt the house welcome and sheltered the family. However, his uncle Hugh appears to be dying, Hugh’s heir has married a woman who has disrupted the spirit of the house and who, in spite of the heir planning to adopt her son, she virtually ignores the boy. The unpleasant feelings only increase with the appearance of a badly injured stranger.

There is actually a wonderful prologue that perfectly describes a child’s fear, yet comfort derived by sensing the spirit of one’s surroundings. This provides a wonderful touch of mysticism to the story…or not…depending upon whether one believes that a structure can take on the energy of those who have lived there. This is followed by a very good introduction of Josse, the members of his family, and their--and his--history.

Claire is a very descriptive writer. One feels as though one is traveling with the characters, both out in the land or throughout the house. Yet, one does wish there were drawings and diagrams of the manor house. She also brings the characters to life. There are times where one may feel a bit frustrated with Helewise, but it is important to not judge her by our time, and to remember her past, which we learn, but the family never fully does. Again, this is in keeping with both the character and the time as pride and vanity would be out of her keeping.

A Shadowed Evil” is filled with an appropriately nasty character just the right creepiness, lots of very good twists, and a satisfactory resolution.

A SHADOWED EVIL (Hist Mys/Para-Josse/Helewise-England-1212) – G+
Claire, Alys – 16th in series
Severn House – Sept 2015