Friday, May 26, 2017

Dying on the Vine by Marla Cooper

First Sentence:  There was an air of excitement as brides-to-be and their entourages streamed through the front entrance of the Wine Country Wedding Faire.
The wedding event business is competitive, but so much so that one would murder a rival business owner?  After a young couple decided to switch vendors, Kelsey McKenna wants to ensure things are fine with the previous event organizer, Babs Norton.  What she doesn’t expect is to be the prime suspect after finding Babs murdered.
What a good opening where we are introduced to the characters and learn a bit of their backstory.  And the principal characters are delightful. Kelsey is supported by her best friend Brody, and her assistant Laurel. Brody is the friend for whom every woman wishes—“I returned with the cake and two forks and set them down on the table.  Brody just stared at me.  “What?”  Sighing, he got up and went to the kitchen, returning with two places and a knife.  “Let me show you how adult humans eat.”
The sense of place is very well done, especially for those who know this area, traveled those roads, and sampled at the wineries, even with their names being changed. For those who don't, it may make one think of planning a trip to the California wine country.  There are delightful injections of humor, but one of the best scenes is Kelsey’s very natural reaction to finding a dead body.
Kelsey’s awkwardness and ineptitude at trying to do her own investigation are completely believable and refreshing.  Even so, Kelsey comes across a bit less confident and/or capable than in the first book and does become involved in more than one TSTL (too stupid to live) situations.  There is a little romance which was fine and gave the book a Hallmark-movie feel. 
Dying on the Vine” is a light, airy cozy with a good plot twist.

DYING ON THE VINE (Cozy-Kelsey–Bay Area, CA- Contemp)-Good
      Cooper, Marla – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – April 2017

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ragdoll by Daniel Cole

First Sentence:  Samantha Boyd ducked under the wobbly police barrier and glanced up at the statue of Lady Justice perched atop London’s infamous Old Baily courtrooms.
In the apartment directly across from Det. “Wolf” Fawkes is found a hanged body made up from the body parts of six victims.  Wolf’s journalist ex-wife receives a list of names and the dates on which future victims will die.  The last name on the list is Wolf’s.  How many will die before the police can find and stop the killer?
Some of the most suspenseful scenes aren’t always in the dark of the night, but in a courtroom.  The opening of “Ragdoll” demonstrates this. Then we get to the crime, and things become very suspenseful, indeed.
Cole can write dialogue, sometimes tinged with a bit of dark humor—“Apparently he’s threatening to jump out of the window.”  “Constable Castagna or Ford?” “Ford.” “To escape or kill himself/” “Fourth Floor, so fifty-fifty.”  Some of his imagery is also well done…”After twenty solid minutes and alarms had ceased abruptly but survived as the ghosts of echoes reverberating endlessly around the Great Hall’s domed ceiling.”
There are some very good, interesting characters, particularly Edmunds.  Sadly, none are as developed as one might like, and one does get a rather tired of cops with “issues” such as drugs, drink, excessive violence, etc.
Although the timeline, according to the headings, indicates that the story is linear, there are flashes back to Wolf’s history which can make things very confusing.  Had one not known from the start that this is the first of a trilogy, and even if one does, the ending seems a bit of a cheat. 
Ragdoll” is a page turner.  There are numerous weaknesses, but it’s still a decent distraction read or airplane book.

RAGDOLL (Pol Proc-“Wolf” Fawkes/Baxter-London-Contemp) – Okay
      Cole, Daniel – 1st of trilogy
      Ecco – May 2017

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Earthly Remains by Donna Leon

First Sentence:  After an exchange of courtesies, the session had gone on for another half-hour, and Brunetti was beginning to feel the strain of it.
After acting rashly in order to save a young policeman, Brunetti takes some time off and goes away to an island villa owned by a wealthy relative. There he becomes reacquainted with Davide Casati with whom Brunetti spends his days rowing.  After a sudden, violent storm, Casati has gone missing.  A search is begun and Brunetti is there when Casati’s body is found.  But was it an accident?  It’s time for Brunetti to get back to work.
Even is one hasn’t read previous books in the series, one will acquire an immediate respect and affection for him, for his wife Paola, from the very opening.  It is lovely to have a protagonist with a solid home life who loves his wife—“ʿStay another weekʾ Paola said, laughing. …ʽWill I still recognize you?ʾ ʿIt would break my heart if you didn’t,’ he said, unaware until he said it how true it was.”
Leon is such an intelligent writer and one who assumes the same of her readers, which is lovely, or at least a desire by her readers to do research and learn.  Yet she also has a sense of humor—“He couldn’t jump up and pretend to be Lazarus…” …”He was just coming to the end of the fawning dedication to the Emperor Vespasian, embarrassed that a writer he so admired could be such a lickspittle…” 
A strong sense of place can so enhance a reader’s experience.  We see what Brunetti sees, hears, and smells.  And for anyone who has rowed a watercraft, one can almost feel the flow of water beneath the boat, and the rhythm of the oars.  One may also chuckle at the comparison—“Brunetti…untied the boat,…and bent again to his oar, wondering if this was what it was like to be a galley slave.  But slaves had no leather gloves and certainly did not stop for coffee in the afternoon.”
The story contains a very relevant and timely ecological focus on the condition of bees and the damage man hath wrought on our environment.  But there is also a small element of hope. Leon does make on think, and question, on several different levels and topics, including a sad commentary on the state of the economy in Venice.
Murders and their resolutions are often intended to be shocking.  So are the revelations here.  All the more so as it is based on the reality of what is happening in this country, and the world, today.
Earthly Remains” is a story of awareness and choices; guilt and conscience, and the awareness of cause and effect; the consequences of one’s behavior.  But still, in the end, it is a mystery and a fine one.

 EARTHLY REMAINS (Pol Proc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Venice-Contemp) – VG+
      Leon, Donna – 26th in series
      Grove Atlantic – April 2017

Monday, May 15, 2017

Speakers of the Dead by J. Aaron Sanders

First Sentence:  In the dream, Elizabeth Blackwell sits opposite Jane Avery’s deathbed.
Reporter Walt Whitman tries to defend his friend Lena Stowe against murder charges of her husband Abraham.  After he fails, Lea is hanged, but Whitman is determined to clear both her, and her husband’s, name.  With the help of Henry Saunders, the two men enter the world of resurrection men who steal bodies for medical colleges to expose the real criminals.

The opening certainly captures one’s attention, both in the fact of women training to be doctors in 1943 and the events of the story themselves.
Most know Whitman as a poet.  However, it is fascinating to learn more of his history, life, sexuality, and faith.  He ends up being an interesting protagonist, with a wonderful mixture of fact and fiction, along with Elizabeth Blackwell, the first women in America to earn an M.D.  However, it is the young Azariah Smith who nearly steals the story—“I let you teach me how to build a fire,” Azariah says,” now you got to let me teach you how to stay alive.”.
Sanders provides excellent descriptions.  While many can be very graphic, he also creates a strong sense of place—“The cemetery surrounds the cathedral—headstones jut like crooked teeth out of the gray, unyielding ground.” Fortunately, there are also occasional flashes of humor—“The short March day has already lost its light, flickered away, hurtled toward darkness.  Now that is a titch melodramatic, he thinks.” 
Sander’s New York is one of poverty, corruption, cruelty, and death.  It is a hard place where some, a few, are trying to bring knowledge and enlightenment.        
Speakers of the Dead” is not an easy book to read due to its content.  It is, however, well done.  Do read the author’s notes at the end.

SPEAKERS OF THE DEAD (Hist Mys-Walt Whitman-NYC-1843) – G+
      J. Aaron Sanders – 1st Book
      Penguin Group – March 2016

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Graves by Pamela Wechsler

First Sentence:  Ten years in the district attorney’s office has taught me to never let down my guard, even here on Beacon Hill.
A serial killer targeting college-aged girls is loose in Boston.   While Abby Endicott, chief of the DA’s homicide unit, is working with the police on the investigation, she also has personal pressure from her parents to leave her job, from her boss to run for his job, and from her personal relationship.  But bringing a killer to justice that is Abby’s first priority.
Wechsler provides us with an opening that begins frightening but has a great twist to it.  A hazard of the job?  The first chapter is an excellent catch-up for new readers and/or reminder for those who read the first book.  She portrays Boston well.  Not only does she mention landmarks, but often cites a bit of their history.  She also provides a look at the sad reality of today’s cities—“Winding along the Charles River, we pass a series of iconic landmarks: the Hatch Shell where every Fourth of July, the Boston Pops perform Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous 1812 Overture, and where last March, a jogger was sexually assaulted and beaten.”
It is not often one sees the legal process from the perspective of the prosecution.  Learning now indictments are done is fascinating.  We also get a look at the political and financial horse trading that goes on behind the scenes.  It is also interesting watching Abby develop in her personal life.
There is a very good balance of the professional and personal.  However, considering the author’s background, one might wish more focus on the former than the latter.  The legal and courtroom information really do provide focus and veracity to a story that has a compelling, and occasionally suspenseful, mystery element.
 “The Graves” is thoroughly engrossing.  It is a very good step forward in the series.

THE GRAVES (Legal Thriller-Abby Endicott-Boston, MA-Contemp) – G+
      Wechsler, Pamela – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – May 2017

Monday, May 8, 2017

Vicious Circle

First Sentence:  Wyoming Game Warden Joe Pickett Flicked his eyes between the screen of the iPad mounted in front of him and the side window, as the vast dark pine forest spooled below the Cessna Turbo 206.

Game Warden Joe Pickett knew he’d have to deal with the Cates family someday after his first confrontation with them when they’d endangered his daughter April.  Although the mother is still in prison, the son is free and wants payback.

Everyone is afraid of something.  For Joe Pickett its small planes which is delightfully ironic for a man who has dealt with more than his share of danger.  It does, however, provide a setup for Box to tell readers about flight searches and the equipment involved without interrupting the flow of the story.  It is also a nice way to provide plot threads and set up the action.

The difficulty with finishing a story that had begun several books ago is that a great deal of background information is needed.  Although this can feel as though it’s filler for those who follow the series, it is necessary for new readers in order for the story to make sense.  Box does do a fairly good job of striking a difficult balance.  However, because of the amount of explanation needed, it did detract for Box’s usual fast-action, high tension storytelling and the ending seemed abrupt.   

Creating fully-developed characters is essential, and Box does just that.  As well as providing backstory on the characters and their relationships, these are characters one can see and hear.  And he does create truly evil and terrifying villains. 

One small note; don’t ignore the chapter headings.  They are very well done.  And “Outlander” fans will appreciate the slight nod—“He approached the Plexiglas window at the end of the hall and startled a heavyset woman who was reading a thick novel by Diana Gabaldon.”

Box does include politics in his book, but in a straight-forward manner that related to the impact of political decisions rather than on the parties themselves.

Vicious Circle” is a story that needed to be told in order to bring the Cates’ story, which began in "Endangered," to an end.  So doing caused a few weaknesses in the book, but it is still very worth reading and anticipating the next book in the series.

VICIOUS CIRCLE (Lic Invest-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) – G+
      Box, C.J. – 17th in series
      G.P. Putnam’s Sons – March, 2017

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Devil Walks in Mattingly by Billy Coffey

First Sentence:  I sat on the edge of Zach’s bed and stared at the small town of LEGOs and Matchbox cars that covered the floor.
 Mattingly is a very small town set in the mountains—old mountains filled with secrets--of Western Virginia. A boy died there 20 years ago.  Although ruled a suicide, three people’s lives are still haunted by that death; the sheriff, his wife, and a hermit.  Still, the events of the past also impact the life of a younger generation; Lucy Seekins.  Can they find redemption at last? 
 From the very start, one is captivated by Coffey’s voice—“I come to this place of darkness because it is where the light of heaven once touched.  I come here for the ones who were saved on a night long ago and for the ones lost.  I come because heaven is not without the past.”  There is so much here that causes one to stop and consider—“I come into this world pure and unblemished, but I will leave it bearing all of my scars.  My comfort rests in a grace that will mold those scars into the jewels of my crown.”
There is a hint of the paranormal, which adds an intriguing element and would make for a fascinating topic of discussion as to what it is; what it represents, of what is real and what is not.
Coffey’s powers of description create a sense of place which places the reader directly into the story—“Frogs sang along a prattling creek beyond the open window.  Far away a train whistled as it lumbered through the center of town.”  Coffey is one of those authors whose words can strike such a cord, one may feel the need to record and preserve them—“Because to those great watching eyes, the world is always neither bright nor dim.  Because there is darkness in man and also a light, and by their mingling the world lies at eventide.” 
In the midst of everything we, the readers, are trying to understand, comes a classic, ordinary plot twist.  One can become taken with the imagery, yet still be reminded that there is a good, often suspenseful, story being told.  At the same time, there is a strong spiritual theme and a reminder of the good that can come with simple beliefs—“Despite what Kate and Taylor and I always thought, it was choice rather than fate that governed our lives.”  And who doesn’t love a book that includes a quote from poem “A Dream Within a Dream” by Edgar Allan Poe.
The Devil Walks in Mattingly” is a wonderful read with a bit of everything, spirituality, suspense, and just a very small touch of the paranormal. But it is mainly about the price of sins and pride, followed by redemption.   

THE DEVIL WALKS IN MATTINGLY (Novel-Jake/Kate/Taylor-Virginia-Contemp) – VG+
      Coffey, Billy – Standalone
      Thomas Nelson – March 2014

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Viper: No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence:  So tell me: do you know what love is?
Viper, the most famous prostitute in Naples, is found dead in her room at the Paradiso, a high-class brothel.  Commissario Ricciardi, with Brigadier Mairone and the outspoken Dr. Bruno Modo, is charged with finding the killer in this crime of so many emotions, during a time when Mussolini and the Brown Shirts are in power.
One definitely can’t complain about having to wait for the murder to happen.  From the very start, we know who dies and how, but not the why or by whom.
de Giovanni’s style is interesting in that he sets in books in successive seasons and relates the season to the actions of humanity—“Ricciardi didn’t trust the spring.  There was nothing worse than the mild breeze.  After a winter of silence of icy streets swept by winds out of the north…people’s brooding passions have built up so much of that destructive energy that they can hardly wait to erupt, to sow chaos.” He also enables us to feel Ricciardi’s pain of having to live with the curse/ability he has been given—“Maybe I’m just imaging it all…Maybe it’s just an illusion produced by my sick mind. … Maybe it’s just a way to escape reality, maybe there’s really nothing in front of me.”
It is the wonderful characters who captivate readers and draws them into the story, and into the series as a whole.  It’s not Riccardi’s ability that draws us, but the impact it has on his life and relationships.  It is the loyalty of Brigadier Mairone, and his wife and family, and his relationship with a man/lady of the streets.  It is Dr. Modo, who usually brings a bit of lightness with his teasing of Riccardi, yet adds an element of suspense here, as well as a note on the value of friendship and loyalty.  It is Riccardi’s housekeeper, the woman who has been with him his whole life, and the two very different women who love him.
In a very real sense, Riccardi’s sightings of the dead serve to remind one that death is an ever-present part of life, and often a cruel price that must be paid.  Yet even with death, there is the celebration of Fat Tuesday and Easter, and food.  It is Italy, after all.  The panoply of dishes described leaves one salivating—“…his majesty the lasagna…the ragù and meatballs, sausages and rapni, the fegatini nella rezza, …and most important of all, the sanguinaccio.

We are also reminded, in a very real, way of the time in which the story is set; the power of fascism, the building of fear, and the consequences of defying them.  There is an element of prophesy—“They call it “undermining the image of the head of state,” and they behave as if it’s a serious crime because they claim that it harms the image of Italy as a whole.”
Viper” is so much more than a police procedural, although it is that at its heart.  Understanding the victim’s last words brings a smile to one’s lips, and a tear to one’s heart.  What an excellent series.

VIPER:  No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi (Pol Proc-Ricciardi-Naples-1932) – Ex
      de Giovanni, Maurizio – 6th in series
      Europa Editions – March, 2015

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Mystery at Carlton House by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence:  “Sir.” A hand shook me as I dozed fitfully in a chair.
Captain Lacey’s friend Lord Grenville is asked by the Prince Regent to investigate the disappearance of valuable small art items from Carlton.  A Bow Street Runner has arrested someone and wants Captain Lacey to help him prove his case, or he’ll arrest Lacey.  Lacey doesn’t believe they’ve arrested the right man and suspects crime lord James Denis is somehow involved.  Can Lacey and Grenville find the real culprit?
There is a wonderful juxtaposition at the opening which informs us of the protagonist’s past and present.  It also provides readers with a look at the mettle of the man.
The details on the proprietaries involved in Regency daily life are fascinating and a true indication of the period.  The focus on attire, down to the type of knot in a man’s cravat, is a study in the outward indications of one’s position and status.  But this is no book of etiquette.  The contrast to life in the slums of St. Giles gives the story depth as one is quickly moved into danger and action. 
Gardner has created a wonderful ensemble of characters, each of which is fully developed and important in their own right.  They are characters with whom we become involved, and about whom we want to know more.
The story is fast moving and compelling, to the point where this reviewer was so involved, no more notes were made; a bit embarrassing to admit, but a higher compliment to the author I can't imagine. 
 “A Mystery at Carlton House” is a really good read.  Gardner captures the period, and the diversity of characters keeps readers coming back for more.

A MYSTERY AT CARLTON HOUSE (Hist Mys-Captain Lacey-London-1818-19/Regency) – G+
      Gardner, Ashley – 12th in series
      JA/AG Publishing – March, 2017