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

Monday, April 20, 2020

No Fixed Line by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  Anna was a warm, heavy weight against his side, her eyes closed, her breathing deep, her tears drying in faint silvery streaks on her cheeks

Matt Grosdidier and Laurel Meganack are spending New Year’s' Eve at Kate Shugak's cabin bolt hole at Canyon Hot Springs. Their romantic interlude is interrupted by the sound of an engine, and the crash of a plane. What they didn't expect to find was two young children, buried in the snow, and a whole lot of drugs.  Meanwhile, Erland Bannister, who had tried to have Kate killed more than once, has died. But why did he made her the trustee of his estate and the head of his foundation?

Stabenow captures one's interest from the very first sentence. Her writing is evocative and visual.  It captivates, involves, and becomes real.  And it moves, no long narratives here; just writing which keeps one turning the page.  One also realizes just how timely are the themes of her story.   But it's the details of dealing with Alaska that make one’s eyes widen.  For those who follow the series, this is an Alaska very different from the state as it was in the beginning, which only adds to the interest.

The story is perfectly balanced between the action, the pastoral, and the wonderfully normal, human moments.  The transition between these elements segues perfectly, one to the next.  It's fascinating to see how Kate's mind works; how she walks through the possible scenarios of traps Bannister may have set for her. Her comparison of a modern minimalist office lobby, using the term "dead perfection" from a Tennyson poem and comparing it to a columbarium is identifiable.

One can't but love the references to other writers: Dick Francis, Ellis Peters, Damien Boyd, Adrian McGinty, John Sandford, and even Tennyson.  Such things make the character seem real--"To quote the late, great Dick Francis, life keeps getting steadily weirder."—along with references to food--"...caribou steak with loaded baked potatoes and canned green beans fried with bacon and onions."

Stabenow weaves the issues of poverty, drugs and government cutbacks seamlessly into the story through the conversations of the characters. She offsets that by observing the way people in the park care for one another.  The plot meanders a bit between the characters and the mystery involving the children, but doesn't life?  There is romance and a bit of erotic heat, but it then stops before becoming too graphic.  Quite satisfying is Kate's justifiable anger at law enforcement not having gone after someone they knew was a criminal.  Valid and significant points are made about the status of things without being preachy, and the suggestion of a future threat is intriguing without being an end-destroying cliffhanger.

"No Fixed Line” is a great pleasure to read.  It has everything a really good book should: well-developed characters, a compelling plot that keeps one turning the pages, excellent dialogue, a touch of humor, well-done suspense, well-placed twists, and a perfectly-executed ending.  Thank you, Dana Stabenow.

NO FIXED LINE (PI/Susp-Kate Shugak/Jim Chopin-Alaska-Contemp) - Ex
Stabenow, Dana – 22nd in series
Head of Zeus. Jan 2020

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Last Passenger by Charles Finch

First Sentence:  On or about the first day of October 1855, the City of London, England decided it was time once and for all that Charles Lenox be married.
In this third, and final, prequel Charles Lenox is still working to establish himself as an enquiry agent.  Asked to visit the scene of a gruesome murder, he finds someone has gone to extraordinary lengths to remove anything which might lead to the victim being identified.  Although Inspector Dunn blames the murder on gangs, Lenox convinces Sir Richard Mayne, now Commissioner of the Police, to let him assist with the investigation.  On a personal front, Charles is having to fend off his female relatives and friends who are determined to find him a suitable wife.
It's lovely to have an opening which makes one smile, as this one does. It's also nice that, even for those of us who follow the series, Finch provides an introduction of Lenox, his situation, appearance, and ambition, as well as other major characters, including Lady Jane and her husband, Lord Deere.  Neither does Fitch overlook the secondary characters.  The way in which Finch introduces them, including the members of Lenox's household, is seamless.  No long explanations, yet we have a sense of each character's personality.  In fact, some of them are among the most interesting, particularly freed slave Josiah Hollis from Atlanta, and a young newsboy. 
One appreciates Finch's voice and that it has something of the formality of the period in which the book is set--"Hemstock strolled in without a care in the world.  You had to hand him that much:  He had insouciance."
The plot is nicely divided between the investigation and Lenox's personal life.  The repartee between him and his older brother Edmund is delightful. His courtship of Miss Catherine Ashbrook provides a delightful excuse for quoting Pride and Prejudice and a lesson in the history of the idiom "mind your p's and q's." 
Finch perfects the balance of providing information on the slave trade, including discussion of the treatment of slaves, but keeping it a part of the plot, rather than the focus of it. It is interesting to see our history through British eyes. Yet an encounter which makes one cringe is Lenox taking Hollis to a doctor who proclaimed--"He was not expert in their kind."
This is the transitional book for Lenox showing his passing into maturity both in his life and his business.  A conversation between Lenox and Hollis is thoughtful, enlightening, and causes one to reflect.  Another conversation with Jane illuminates the reason why marriage for love often wasn't the priority for women of the period. Both are examples of excellent writing.
 "The Last Passenger" is a wonderful book.  There are well-timed, well-done plot twists.  The logic behind Lenox's deductions is clever, yet not overly contrived. Rather than being focused on suspense, although that is there, it is a book that speaks to injustice, maturing, and friendship; true friendship.  The end, particularly, stays with one long after closing the book.      
THE LAST PASSENGER (HistMys-Charles Lenox-England-1855) - Ex
Finch, Charles - 3rd prequel
      Minotaur Books - Feb 2020

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Death at Brighton Pavilion by Ashley Gardner (aka Jennifer Ashley)

First Sentence:  I woke, or seemed to.

Captain Gabriel Lacey's old enemy Colonel Hamilton Isherwood has been murdered.  Isherwood's blood is on Lacey's clothes and cavalry saber in Lacey's hand, and there is a gap in his memory as to what happened. The one person who might know is Clement, a footman, and Isherwood's son asks for Lacey's help in identifying his father's killer.  While trying put the pieces together, Gabriel learns of two Quakers who are missing and promises to make inquiries as to their whereabouts. 

There's nothing like a good hook; an opening that captures your attention from the very beginning. Having the protagonist come to consciousness in the company of a dead body, a saber in this hand, and the victim's blood on his clothes accomplishes that goal. It's also nice that new readers need not worry about coming into the series with this 14th book.  Gardner does a very good job of introducing each of the characters and establishing their relationships. She also incorporates the intimacy between Lacey and his wife Donata in a way that is lovely romantic and a bit sexy, but never detailed. 

Gardner creates an excellent sense of place, inviting the reader into the environment in which the characters find themselves. Often, too, she provides bits of history and general information, such as about Quakers, never overwhelming the story, but enhancing it.

One likes to read of protagonists who have a strong moral and ethical base, who believe in doing what is just.  Lacey is just such a character in spite of the urgings of others. At the same time, he is not perfect and does have a past, yet one of the best traits of Lacey is his humanity; his sense of responsibility. In other words, he is believable.

Gardner creates an assumption and immediately dispels it carrying one along in the investigation.  Another aspect of Gardner's writing which draws one back to her books, is her voice; her dialogue and the subtle humor incorporated which is offset by an excellent accounting of grieving--"That was the trouble with death.  I too had been brought up to believe we should rejoice that the one we loved was with the lord, but somehow I never could.  I could feel only emptiness, the lessening of myself for the absence of that person."

"Death at Brighton Pavilion" is a thoroughly enjoyable period mystery with plenty of twists, action, wonderful period details, and an ending that moves the series forward. As the author says--"Captain Lacey's adventures continue..."

DEATH AT BRIGHTON PAVILION: (HistMys-Cpt. Gabriel Lacey-Brighton, England) – G+
      Gardner, Ashley - 14th in series
      JA/AG Publishing - Dec 2019

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Black Cage by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  The color had been sucked from everything, not just the dead.  This is not the first time the bodies of naked kids have been found by the water. The last time, known as the Stemec Henderson murders, were three boys. The position of the girls was the same.

Milo Rigg is a reporter who's lost his byline due to perceived inappropriate behavior while on his last story.  Still working in a city where police corruption is the norm, on a paper at the edge of going under, submitting his stories under his boss's name, and suffering nightmares about his late wife, the old case comes alive when new bodies are discovered.  Now, with a new boss, and new clues, Rigg is determined to follow the story to the killer and to regain his reputation.

If one has previously read Fredrickson, this is a book darker in tone and emotion than his previous works, and that's not a bad thing as it's always nice to see an author stretch. The introduction to Milo through his interaction with senior sheriff's deputy Jerome Glet is very effective. As a character, Milo stands out.  Fredrickson makes one feel the pain of his loss, both personally and professionally, his frustration with his job, the demise of print newspapers overall, and the corruption and ineptitude of the police.  Without words, one feels the turmoil of Milo's emotions--There was no 'before' to it, no past.  It was still all so damned present." 

Fredrickson's descriptions are evocative.  They perfectly reflect the tragedy of the scene--"Snow began to fall in big wet flakes, like tiny shrouds descending to cover the horror of what had been found there."  One is very effectively drawn into the story by hints, traces of things; by intriguing references to people, places, and events. 

The inclusion of the news articles, along with Milo having other small stories to write, adds realism to the story and provides details in a concise manner without filling space with exposition.  Fredrickson accurately, and sadly, conveys what has happened to print newspapers--"...the third floor, the reporters' floor, was now a ghost town. Half the cubicles were empty... People no longer read the ink of the news; ... they wanted that in tiny bits on screens that they could delete in an instant if it was too upsetting or demanded too much concentration..."

The increase in tension is subtle and very well done.  There is one point where one may think they understand what is happening and suspicions arise.  It's best, to trust Milo and follow along as he builds scenarios, setting out to prove, or disprove them.

Milo's recurring dream of the black cage is a constant theme.  However, the reveal of the association is both anti-climactic but strangely satisfying. There are a lot of characters, but Fredrickson is very good at reminding one of who each character is and their role.  The plot twists are well-timed and very effective.

"The Black Cage" has a startling climax, an excellent final twist, a nice tie-up, and a strangely bittersweet ending. It's important to note that, although dealing with the deaths of children, the story is not gruesome in that the murders happen off-page and are a fait accompli when one learns of them.  The beginning of a new series, Milo is a character one looks forward following into upcoming books.

THE BLACK CAGE (Journ-Milo Rigg-Illinois/Indiana-Contemp) - VG
Fredrickson, Jack - 1st of series
Severn House - Feb 2020

Friday, January 10, 2020

Peace by Garry Disher

First Sentence:  This close to Christmas, the mid-north sun had some heft to it, house bricks, roofing iron, asphalt and the red-dirt plains giving back all the heat of all the days.

It has been a year since Constable Paul Hirschhausen was branded a whistleblower and transferred to a rural territory covering hundreds of kilometers.  Except for his lover Wendy, and her daughter, Katie, he still doesn't feel welcome in Tiverton.  However, between Brenda Flann driving into the front of the local bar, a stolen ute containing stolen metal, a ranch tragedy, a woman clearly hiding from someone, and a discovery which brings in way too many outside cops, and results in Hirsch forming an unexpected alliance.                                                                                               

Disher has a real skill for descriptions--'He liked to walk every morning, the dawn a time to cherish with only the birds busy, the air quite still and everything sharply etched. 9 a.m. the mid-north would be lying limp and stunned beneath a molten sun and the overnight reports of villainy, idiocy and shitty luck would have landed on his desk." 

Even his style creates reflects the location as the story begins more as a series of vignettes rather than one straight-line mystery.  These are interesting and give a real sense of the types of things with which Hirsch has to deal, but one finds oneself waiting.  It's interesting because it's so real.  

Never fear, when the pieces start coming together, one realizes things aren't a tranquil as seemed and the level of involvement turns to high.  "Peace inside. That's all a cop wants at Christmas, he thought. Not a heavenly peace, just a general absence of mayhem."

Hirsch is such a well-done character.  Although assigned to this one-man territory, he has the instincts of a city cop---"...the house felt unoccupied rather than touched by junkie-offspring violence, so he left it at that.  It was a sense all cops developed, knowing when a situation behind closed doors was right or wrong."--but the compassion of a community policeman.  There is a nice balance between his former colleagues who dislike or dismiss him and those who know and respect his capabilities.  This establishes a basis for future relationship development.

The story has its share of dark elements, suspense, and unexpected twists, all of which are perfectly executed.  "Peace is the second book in this series, with "Bitter Wash Road" having been the first.  One need not have read that book to enjoy this one, but Disher is such a good writer, why not?

"Peace" is a thoroughly engrossing story shattering one's perceptions of a peaceful small town and of knowing who one can trust.  It builds slowly with a number of seemingly unrelated incidents, only to have the pieces coalesce to a well-done ending. 

PEACE (PolProc- Paul Hirschhausen-Australia-Contemp) – VG
      Disher, Garry – 2nd in series
      Text Publishing – 2019

Friday, January 3, 2020

Decade 2010-2020 Memorable Reads

The time has come to close out the decade 2010-2020 with some of my most memorable reads.  This is hardly an exhaustive list.  I'm happy to say there was a wealth of wonderful books by excellent authors.  However, these were both the first books of which I thought and the books whose stories made a lasting impression on me.  The link to my review of each book can be found in the column on the right under the section of the title above.  I can't wait to see what this new decade has in store.  ENJOY!

Burley, John - THE QUIET CHILD
Bolton, Sharon - LITTLE BLACK LIES
Cleeves, Ann - THE SEAGULL
de Giovanni, Maurizio - I WILL HAVE VENGEN CE
Fox, Candice - CRIMSON LAKE
Harper, Jordan - SHE RIDES SHOTGUN
Horan, Ellen - 31 BOND STREET
McPherson, Catriona - THE CHILD GARDEN
O'Connell,  Carol - THE CHALK GIRL
Penny, Louise - A TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Thursday, January 2, 2020

My Favorite Reads of 2019

I finally put it together. Here are my ten favorite reads from 2019 with "Flowers Over the Inferno" by Ilaria Tuti being my #1 book of the year. They were, in not quite alphabetic order:

Gerry Boyle - RANDOM ACT
Victor Methos - THE HALLOWS
Louise Penny - A BETTER MAN
S.J. Rozan - PAPER SON

There is also my group of "Honorable Mentions," since the unwritten rules say you should only have ten favorite reads. They are:

Wendy Hornsby - A BOUQUET OF RUE
Michael Robotham - GOOD GIRL, BAD GIRL
Gerry Spence - COURT OF LIES
Domingo Villar - WATER BLUE EYES
Jeri Westerson - TRAITOR'S CODEX

Happy Reading,