Thursday, December 31, 2015

Robert B. Parker's Lullaby by Ace Atkins

First Sentence:  I spotted the girl even before she knocked on my door.
      
Tough, street-wise Mattie Sullivan hires Spenser to find her mother’s killer.  Even though a man was convicted, Mattie doesn’t believe he’s the killer.  Agreeing on a fee of doughnuts, literally, Spenser is intrigued enough to look into it.  When the trail leads to old advisories, drugs, and the FBI, Spenser, with the help of Hawk, know they need to keep Mattie safe and to find the answers.
      
Atkins does a very good job of capturing Parker.  All the elements that should be there; are there.  In addition to the standard cast of characters—it is nice that Atkins as made Susan rather more likable—Spenser’s client makes a definite impression as she’s a girl who’s had to grow up way too fast and is handling it.  An entire discussion could be held about Mattie in terms of our view of children growing up today, as opposed to how they grew up in the past and their different levels of responsibility.
      
One can also count on Spenser to trigger your hunger response—“I had envisioned a filet, medium rare, with creamed spinach and mashed potatoes.”  He is also the single greatest representative for the Boston Tourist Board possible.  You are in the city with him; everyplace from the roughest neighborhoods, to the best.  But it’s his inclusion of dining spots that is particularly fun; Locke-Ober, Legal Seafood and, a particularly favorite, Union Oyster House; the oldest restaurant in Boston—“A big steaming bowl of clam chowder arrived with a thick wedge of cornbread.  The heavens opened up.  The angels reappeared.”—down to Dunkin’ Donuts.
      
Another retained element is Spenser’s sartorial descriptions—“Vinnie wore a navy cashmere topcoat with a glen plain suit underneath.  His dress shirt was a blue-and-white stripe, and his tie a light purple.”  Rather than interrupt the flow of the story, or simply seem to be fill, these descriptions serve to tell one a bit about the personality of the character:  clothes make the man.
      A nice segue in the story is a comparison of Mattie and two other troubled people Spenser helped in the past; Paul and Z.  New readers won’t feel lost by these references as sufficient backstory is provided.  However, this reference does help to cement Spenser’s image as a knight errant.  But he’s no Don Quiote with Sancho Panza, in the form of Hawk, by his side.   Spenser’s advisories are very real, and very dangerous.  But so can be Spenser, Hawks, and their colleagues. As we move into the recognition that it is territory and drugs that are behind things—“Territory,” she said.  “How are men different than dogs.”—and when things turn bad, the tension is palpable and there’s no putting the book down.
   
Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby” is very, very good.  It’s not an homage or an imitation in any form.  Atkins truly captures that which made Parker’s books so successful.  

ROBERT B. PARKER’S LULLABY (PI-Spenser-Boston-Contemp) – VG+
Atkins, Ace – 1st in Parker series
G.P. Putnam’s Sons – May 2012

Monday, December 14, 2015

Bryant & May and the Burning Man by Christopher Fowler

First Sentence: “Before I start, can I ask you to look around at this beautiful building?”

It’s the week before Guy Fawkes, and London’s banks are under siege. Although started by the scandal of a corrupt financier, the violence is growing and now includes murder by fire. But the death doesn’t look accidental to the Bryant and May of the PUC, especially not when a second fire also kills.

NOTE: If you read an e-version, please ensure you start with “Excerpt from a Speech…” rather than just at Chapter 1.

Fowler is one author from whom I look forward to reading his prologues as they are always a treat. In this case, with the “Excerpt from a Speech,” we learn a great deal about the history of London and the PUC, and a wonderful internal memo from Raymond Land, who actually think he runs the PUC.

The ensemble cast of characters, led by Arthur Bryant and John May, is one of the most unusual and intriguing one will find. Although we meet them in short order from the beginning, Fowler doesn’t weigh the reader down with background information all at once. Rather, we come to know the characters throughout the story. The interplay amongst them, as well as their physical descriptions, makes them very alive and real to us, causing the reader to truly care about what happens to each of them, including the more secondary characters. 

Dialogue makes such a difference, and Fowler knows how to write dialogue—“Even after all these years, your every action remains a mystery to me….And why you had to follow him into a theatre of all places—“ “He was a junkie doing some speed-acquisition of tourists’ wallets, John. I took one look at him and knew he would test positive for stupidity.” And later—“Look at the state of you…” “Do you always boil a saucepan of sprouts for at least two hours?” Bryant asked. “What?” said May, thrown. “No.” “Good, then you’re not my mother.”

At the same time, there are many passages that cause one to stop and consider—“In every decade and generation,…one thing united us: obstinacy. We’re a paradoxical mix of conformity and rebellion, privacy and bravado. We will not do as we are told. That’s how it always was.”

The historic details and information are fascinating and add wonderful depth to the story. One can’t help but respect an author who doesn’t write down to their readers. Rather, there are times when one finds oneself in search of a dictionary; and that’s a nice thing.

There are so many facets to this book: the history of Guy Fawkes, protests by “anonymous” against the 1 percent, a theory about Rembrandt’s painting “The Night Watch,” Jack the Ripper and the importance of honoring the victims, and so much more. Yet it all ties together with the base of a very human story.

Bryant & May and The Burning Man” includes excellent building of suspense, a dramatic climax, and well-executed twists right up to the resolution. In the end, though, it is a story of people, our present society, and relationships.

BRYANT & MAY AND THE BURNING MAN: A PECULIAR CRIMES UNIT MYSTERY (Pol Proc-Bryant and May- London-Contemp) – VG+
Fowler, Christopher – 12th in series
Bantam - December 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Thames River Murders by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: The letter, neatly folded at my plate, looked innocuous enough, but I had a sense of disquiet about it.

Someone is threatening Captain Gabriel Lacey by claiming he’s not who he says. When that threat includes an attempt to harm Lacey’s wife’s son, Lacey takes It very seriously. Yet he also has the matter of a decade-dead woman to identify, and a killer to find, and his daughter, Gabriella, who is coming out.

One can greatly appreciate the use of Ms. Gardner’s expressions appropriate to the social class of the period to describe Lacey’s wife—“Donata had been quite a diamond of the first water in her Season.” However, it is interesting to learn of the laws of the period and the control men had over their wives. While women of wealth and position could act and go out independent of their husbands, where women of lower classes could not, for them all, unless a woman inherited directly from her father, it was men who controlled the money, property and the lives of their children. Even further, in this particular book, Gardner addresses the laws with regard to Jews in England at the time.

Followers of the series will be pleased to see how the relationship between Lacey, his wife, daughter and stepson is progressing. However, new readers will not feel the lack of their history and will quickly understand just how unusual is their relationship, even for the time. However, this is by no means a book where the marital relationship overwhelms the story. Far from it.

In many ways, the most intriguing relationships are between Lacey; James Dennis a dangerous and powerful criminal; Brewster, the man charged by Denis to keep track of Lacey; and Lacey’s friend Lord Granville, a man of extreme wealth and position whose friendship with Granville helps stave off his own boredom.

Lacey is a former front-line soldier and is not without his flaws, the worst being his temper and penchant to hurl himself into potentially dangerous situations—“Captain, you could find trouble inside St. James’s Palace.” But it’s Lacey’s empathy for others, and his determination for justice that makes him a compelling and dimensional character; one who would attract such diverse range of associates.

That the victim and her family are Jewish introduces a new and interesting element. The wonderful scene of Lacey visiting a synagogue leads to a particularly poignant observation—“Any man I’d met of the Hebrew religion had been no different than I was, I’d observed—in fact, many came from circumstances far better than mine, and blended into London life more seamlessly than I did. True, I was able to vote for stand for Parliament…but how did that make me a superior man?” Shades of Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice.”

The Thames River Murders” is an excellent read, filled with twists, suspense, action, balanced by a touch of relationships and two threads which peak our curiosity of the next book.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Theft of Life by Imogen Robertson

First Sentence:  The body was staked out in the north-east corner of the churchyard.
   
The murder of a former West Indies planter causes suspicion to fall on a runaway slave now working as a bookseller in London.  It also has an emotional impact on Harriet Westerman’s senior footman, William Geddings.  As Harriet and her friend, anatomist Gabriel Crowther, become more involved in the murder, they become more aware of how much of Britain’s wealth is built on the shameful trade of human lives.
   
It is an excellent touch that the book opens from the perspective of a character rarely the focus of historical mysteries.  We also know we are in for a story that is difference, and possibly uncomfortable as Robertson gives us a perspective and insight into the English involvement in the slave trade.
   
The quality of an author’s dialogue makes such a difference to a story.  Robertson writes excellent dialogue with enough sense of the period to make it realistic.  But it also tells us a lot about the characters. …”You were doing better when you were praising my talents, Crowther, rather than taking the chance to insult my husband and my intelligence.  I told you, as a friend, what William said about my husband.  Please do not use it to try and play on me like a cheap fiddle!”  The repartee between Harriet and Crowther is always a delight.
   
As for characters, they are fully-developed and very memorable.  Harriet and Crowther come to life and each holds their own.  Theirs is a relationship of friendship and respect.  Jane Austin would definitely have approved, although she might have been a bit intimidated by Harriet.  She is very much in the style of Mrs. Croft from “Persuasion,” which Crowther has slight shades of Colonel Brandon, as played by Alan Rickman, from “Sense and Sensibility.”  One knows characters, and a series, truly speak to readers when one imagines who would be cast in their roles.  There is also a very good introduction to those who surround Harriet and how they all fit together.
   
Robertson has a wonderful voice and ability to convey emotions.  Through them you not only get to know the character, but you feel the pique of Harriet, the sorrow of a young boy, and the apprehension of a free black man.  You truly feel what the characters feel.  Yet Robertson also paints visual descriptions…”The hedgerows were thick with the stars of Queen Anne’s Lace, and the hawthorn bushes heavy with blossom—and the quiet cut through him.”
   
Theft of Life” is wonderful in so many aspects; not the least of which is an excellent mystery with well-done twists and a suspenseful climax.  It is a remarkable book and one which should be read.

THEFT OF LIFE (Hist mys-Harriet Westerman/Gabriel Crother-England-1785/Georgian) – Ex
Robertson, Imogen – 5th in series
Headline – 2014

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Zig-Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence: “Looks as if someone’s sliced her into three,” said Solomon Carter, the police surgeon, chattily.

Two thirds of a female body have been found; the head and the legs. Having been a member of “The Magic Men,” a Secret Service team of which he had been part during WWII, leads Edgar to reconnect with fellow member, Max Mephisto, especially after the shocking identify of the victim has been learned. A letter delivered to Edgar with the name of another magic trick, and another death, focuses him, with Max’s help, to find the rest of their old team…and the killer.

It is always interesting to learn the “how” behind magic tricks. And to consider the existence of a team of magicians, each with their own special skill, is particularly intriguing. In addition to Edgar, Griffith’s employs an effective segue to the past, informing us of the significant player, their skills and how they fit together. It is interesting that she chooses to insert this later in the story, but no less effective for so doing. 

Griffiths has truly captured the feeling of stagecraft and the world behind the theater curtain. Although it is universal of all cultures, books set in the UK seem often to utilize the theme of a suspicion of forgiveness and hope of the perpetrator of violent crime being a foreigner. This is quite understandable being this soon after the War, but it need also be remembered that this was a time when people doubted television would ever succeed, thus limiting the exposure to those beyond their shores.

On the other hand, the Brits seem to have an ongoing regard for the old beliefs, including an acceptance of ghosts.”Naturally, the police station had its resident ghosts. The site was once a medieval monastery…and it was said that sometimes a monk could be seen moving casually through the thick stone walls of the basement.” But fear not, although this is anything but a paranormal mystery. Such injections do add to the sense of theatrically.

One can appreciate Griffith’s wry humour—“Max had a sudden vision of the Titanic tilting into the sea while the orchestra (hopefully in better tune than this one) played on.”—and her very visual descriptions—“He strolled through the picnicking families like Moses crossing the Red Sea. Moses in Italian shoes.”
The Zig Zag Girl” very effectively and steadily builds the suspense and tension, throwing in an excellent twist, with another twist upon that, and another upon that. Well done, Ms. Griffiths on a very good start to a new series.

THE ZIG-ZAG GIRL (Pol Proc-Det. Edgar Stephens- England – early 1950s) – VG
Griffiths, Elly – 1st in series 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt - Sept 2015

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Goldy's Kitchen Cookbook by Diane Mott Davidson

First Sentence: In the early 1980s, I started to write about a character named Goldy.

Ms. Davidson is the author of 17 books whose protagonist is Goldy Schulz, a caterer with a troubled son. She is also a domestic abuse survivor, and a solver of mysteries. Ms. Davidson didn’t grow up in a “food” household, but she was exposed to a woman who cooked from scratch, and she was fascinated.

This is a delightful book. It truly is an amalgamation of Ms. Davidson’s memories, personal philosophies, and of delightful recopies. Each section begins with a personal story, and each recipe has a small tip or personal notation at the top.

The recipes are a blend of those perhaps not seen in other places and/or a twist on a recipe one knows. Dessert lovers should be particularly attracted by this book as nearly the last third of it is desserts, both chocolate and non-chocolate.

What’s nice, however, is that none of the recipes is overly complex or beyond the level of a basic cook. In fact, although there are no illustrations, the recipes are so well written, one does not feel for the lack of them.

Goldy’s Kitchen Cookbook” is a delight for fans of Ms. Davidson, Goldy fans, cooks, and those who simply enjoy reading cookbooks.

GOLDY’S KITCHEN COOKBOOK (Cookbook/Autobiography) – VG
Davidson, Diane Mott
Wlm. Morrow – Sept 2015

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Day of the Dead: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurzio de Giovanni

First Sentence: As the dawn was beginning to extract the outlines of things from the night and the rain, if someone had happened to pass by the foot of the monumental staircase leading up to Capodimonte, they’d have seen a dog and a child.

When the body of a young boy is found, it is assumed he is another tragic victim or poverty and hunger. Commissario Riccardi believes differently, but even he is confused as his usual “gift” is not providing the usual indication of it being a violent death. With the impending visit of Mussolini, his superiors want there to be no investigations of serious crimes on the books, so Riccardi decides to go on his own and find the answers during this week of the dead celebration.

Commissario Riccardi is one of those rare characters who stays with you long after you finish the book. Not because of his gift/curse, but because one can’t imagine what it would be like living with it. But also because of the supporting characters; Brigadier Maione, his second who doesn’t always understand him but always supports him; Dr. Bruno Modo, the pathologist and the one person who brings humor to the taciturn Riccardi; Rosa, Riccardi’s childhood nanny who has stayed with him and cared for him how into adulthood, and who worries about who will care for him when she is gone; and the two women around him; one who is wealthy is believes she loves him, one who is poor, lives across the alley and does love him, and even Maione’s informant, Bambinella. It is the balance of solving the crime, set off by Riccardi’s personal life and internal struggles, and the politics of the day that makes this series so memorable.

de Giovanni has such a wonderful use of language which portrays the city to us, good and bad …”the Sanità neighborhood, bubbling over with life and grief, cheerful energy and poverty.” We learn of Naples in the 1920s, and of an old tradition related to Jordan almonds after the passing of a child. He also makes us painfully aware on the capacity of humans for cruelty…”Ricciardi shivered. He was increasingly finding the dead less frightening than the living.” Through Maione, de Giovanni also brings insight to the readers, “Children living on the street were somebody’s children; in fact, they were everybody’s children.” The wonderful exchange of letters between Riccardi and Enrica, the woman across the alley, adds such a sweet touch to a sad, dark story.

The author’s perspectives and descriptions are evocative to the point where one finds oneself re-reading passages for the pure pleasure of it. Although the translation is rough at time, particularly related to the dialogue, it also makes you very aware that you are in a different time and place. This story is the most serious of the series so far, and that it’s approach is different from those previous, only demonstrates the awareness of the author.

The Day of the Dead” has a twist that is completely unexpected. The ending is sad, happy and leaves you immediately wanting to read the next book, but do read them in sequence.

THE DAY OF THE DEAD: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi (Hist Mys-Comm. Guido Riccardi-Naples-1921)
de Giovanni, Maurizio – Ex
Europa Editions – Mar 2014

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Murder Most Historical by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence/First Story: The Poullard hotel much to dispel my misgivings about returning to Paris.

“THE BISHOP’S LADY” set in 1679 Paris - Okay

Émilié d’Armand is holidaying at the home of her friend and fellow lady-in-waiting to Marie-Therese. The woman in whose room she is staying died from an accidental fall down the stairs. But was it?

This was short, too short to really develop how the protagonist solved the puzzle, outside of being Sherlock Holmes. Still, the protagonist is demonstrates how clever and facile women of the aristocracy, particularly if they are widows, needed to be in order to survive.

“A SOUPҪON OF POISON” – 1880s London – Good

Kat Halloway is cook in the home of a wealthy bachelor. Kat is arrested when the man is found with one of her cooking knives in his back. However, she has a champion on her side, determined to prove her innocence.

This was very well done in that we are as much in the dark as it Kat. The character of young James is very appealing, as is the very mysterious Daniel. The romantic interest leads one to think this may have been, or may still be, intended for a new series. Very interesting and different method of murder.

“A MATTER OF HONOR” – London 1820s – G+

Although, this book is thought of as being “paranormal,” it really is not. If anything, it is a example of the power things have only if we believe they do. This really was a quite good morality lesson.

Murder Most Historical” is an enjoyable collection, particularly for those of us who are already fans of Ms. Gardner’s writing.

MURDER MOST HISTORICAL (SS-Various-England/France-Hist) – Good
Gardner, Ashley – Short Story Collection
JA / AG Publishing – May 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen

First Sentence: From the doorway I can already smell the scent of old books, a perfume of crumbling pages and time-worn leather.

Violinist Julia Ansdell buys an old book of Gypsy music while visiting a shop in Rome. What really intrigues her is a sheet of handwritten music entitled “The Incendio Waltz.” Returning home and playing it for her daughter incites acts of extreme violence. Convinced the music is the cause, she travels back to Italy, specifically Venice, to track town the story of the composer and the significance of the music.

This is a very different book from Gerritsen as it is the first time she has written something set in two time periods, and which blends the scientific with the concept of past memories and energy embedded into objects. And what a wonderfully intriguing opening she provides. We are immediately fascinated, and horrified. Through Julia, we transition back to pre-war Venice, Lorenzo, romance, how hard it is for people to believe extreme danger is coming and that people can be betrayed by others they trusted …”Beware the ignorant, Lorenzo. They’re the most dangerous enemy of all, because they are everywhere.”

The dialogue is somewhat uncomfortable to the virtual ear, but the story more than makes up for it. It is always good to learn, even when it is something horrible and painful, such as learning about the Polish camps to which Italian Jews were shipped. Gerritsen is able to convey the terror and horror of the camp and La Risiera di San Sabb; aka Stalag 339.

Lest one think this book is completely dark; be assured it is not and the mystery of the music in both the past and the future are wonderfully resolved.

Playing with Fire” shows a very different Gerritsen.  It is a powerful, painful story. It is not emotionally easy to read, nor should it be, but it should be read and the facts never forgotten.

PLAYING WITH FIRE (Susp-Julia Ansdel-Italy-Contemp/1943) - VG
Gerritsen, Tess – Standalone
Ballentine Books – Oct 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cop Job by Chris Knopf

First Sentence: I got there just in time to see the crane hoist Alfie Aldergreen out of Hawk Pond.

Who would kill a wheelchair-bound, paranoid schizophrenic? Or is that all he was? Sometimes investigator for defense lawyer Jackie Swaitowski, Sam Acquillo is determined to find out. But things get complicated when there realize this is much more than a simple murder of one person, and that there are people involved at levels one wouldn’t expect.

A very good opening takes us immediately into the story, introduces a couple of the main characters and tells us why the protagonist happens to be on the scene. Even better; there’s nothing as good as an effective plot twist and one set at the beginning of the story is effective, indeed.

Knopf has an excellent storyteller’s voice. It’s easy, comfortable and humorous, although the sarcasm can feel rather heavy-handed toward the end. However, it’s his relationship with live-next-door lover Amanda, and his wonderful mutt Eddie Van Halen that makes Sam appealing, interesting and helps us realize there’s more to Sam than meets the eye. One appreciates that Knopf neither assumes readers have read nor remembers the details of the previous books in the series, but provides us with nuggets of background and information about the character as we go. …”More than anything, this was the musical score accompanying my life. I liked how it sounded, though I didn’t know exactly where it came from, or how long it would last. But who knows anything about good fortune, tight-lipped and capricious that it is.”

Knopf writes very good, natural dialogue. An attack on Sam’s daughter leads to a very effective and telling scene between Sam and his daughter’s boyfriend, Nathan.

The plot is good, but does slow down at points, making the reader wish he'd get on with it. However, as one who knows that part of Long Island, it can be appreciated that Chris depicts the Long Island of the everyday people, rather than focusing on the wealthy and famous.

Cop Job” is a well done, character-driven mystery with a very good ending.

COP JOB (Lic Inv-Sam Acquillo-New York-Contemp-G+
Knopf, Chris – 6th in series
The Permanent Press – Sept 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fire in the Sky by Andew Mayne

First Sentence: A rush-strained fishing trawler glides down the Mississippi river sending a wake across the water, gently rocking the houseboat.

FBI agent Jessica Blackwood is sent off to the Bayou of Louisiana with rookie agent Nadine. An elderly fisherman claims he’d seen the crash of an alien spaceship decades ago.

There’s no question that Jessica is a character about whom one is intrigued. Having her set off against the lightness of Nadine is a wonderful contrast. It also causes Jessica to take a hard look at herself, realize the source of her own, internal darkness and correct it.

Fire in the Sky” is a very short, intriguing story. It’s fun to watch how the mystery is resolved. For those not familiar with the author and protagonist, it is an excellent introduction to a fascinating series.

FIRE IN THE SKY (Pol Proc-Jessica Blackwood-Louisiana-Contemp) – G+
Mayne, Andrew – Short Story
Bourbon Street Books, May 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Company She Kept: A Joe Gunther Novel by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: “Pull over, Doug. I want to get a shot of this.”

The body of a Vermont State Senator, with the word “dyke” carved in her chest, is found hanging from a cliff retaining net along the interstate. A close friend and ally of Governor Gail Zigman, she requests that Joe Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation take the lead on the case. Although this could be a hate crime, Joe and his team aren’t so certain.

Mayor’s use of imagery provides a wonderful sense of place…”Several homes sported thin plumes of woodsmoke from the chimneys, making Doug think of feather quills protruding from toy-sized inkwells.” Not only does the pastoral beauty quickly desert us, but shocks us by the subsequent events.

Mayor is very good at introducing readers to each of the principal characters, providing us with a sense of who they are and how they relate to one another, including equating Willie to the perpetually pessimistic Eeyore from A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” Nothing creates a clearer image. We are also delighted by Joe’s new housemate, Gilbert. That Joe and his team work well as a team, makes them interesting both individually and as a unit. Even though who have been following the series for years will find new insights into Joe, and enjoy watching the relationship between Willie and Sam grow.

Having a strong, distinct voice is so critical for an author and Mayor more than achieves that goal. …”That central hall told the take of the house—wood panels, stained-glass windows, both soaring overhead to a vaulted, coffered ceiling and an enormous chandelier—suspended like a relic caught between the Middle Ages and “Downtown Abbey.”

No matter one’s personal views, Mayor skillfully addresses the roll sex and sexuality has in today’s politics. It is no longer a private issue, but a public one. And yet…”a disclosure like hers should have by now become irrelevant as right- or left-handedness. The ending did seem very abrupt and rather unsatisfying, in spite of the poetic justice.

The Company She Kept” is a character-driven mystery, with an excellent plot twist, and a case solved by teamwork and following the clues.

THE COMPANY SHE KEPT (Pol Proc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) - VG
Mayor, Archer – 26th in series
Minotaur Books – Sept 2015

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry

First Sentence: The small gas lamps along the walls of the corridor flickered as if there were a draught, but Hester knew, it being well after midnight, that all the doors were closed.

Hester Monk is filling in at London’s Royal Naval Hospital for a nurse who is sick. She discovers three small, horribly dehydrated children and learn they have been purchased from their impoverished parents and are imprisoned as donors for an experiment by the Rand brothers—Magnus, a doctor, and Hamilton, a chemist. Hester is kidnapped and taken by the brothers with the children, a wealthy patient and his daughter; Hester knowing the four of them will die if the experiment fails.

Perry starts the story by hitting all the right notes; a strong sense of place and time, compelling well-introduced characters, and a sense that something is very wrong.

Perry’s characters are alive, their personalities are real and their speech reflects their status and upbringing. She excels at showing us the unpolished reality of live from the most poor and vulnerable to those with wealth. Monk’s amnesic past is always intriguing in the questions it presents to him without any answers. Hester is her most noble and determined as a former WWI nurse. Rathbone’s frustration as a disgraced judge now reduced to serving as second chair in a trial is palpable. But it’s the supporting characters in their lives that add real spice to the story and make it completely delicious.

What is delightful is the sense of this being a Victorian-era version of “Law and Order,” beginning with the crime and carrying the story on through the trial and all the way to the resolution. However, this is even better than that in that things are not cut-and-dried. There is much more nuance and a strong layer of moral question which elevates this beyond the ordinary. Without making a point of it, the book demonstrates how far criminal justice has come through the advancement of crime-scene investigation and forensics.

The court proceedings are anything but boring, particularly with the inclusion of a wonderfully dramatic moment. Perry so clearly describes that evil does exist in people, and her definition of hell gives us pause.

Corridors of the Night” demonstrates, once again, that Perry still reigns in creating mysteries that enthrall, educate, and make us think. One reason for reading mysteries is for the comfort of justice being served. Ms. Perry makes us question whether there is such a thing as true justice.

CORRIDORS OF THE NIGHT (Hist Mys-Monk/Hester-England-1800s) – VG+
Perry, Anne – 21st in series
Ballantine Books – Sept 2015

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Cup of Blood by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence: Cold.

Disgraced knight Crispin Guest has taken to “finding things” for people in order to survive, earning him the sobriquet of “Tracker.” Young Jack Tucker is an orphan scrounging and picking pockets on the streets of London since he was 8 years old. Now, at age 11, his life, and hands, are saved by Guest, and Jack attaches himself to his rescuer after it is found that Jack’s “mark” is dead and Jack accused. When it appears the victim was a member of the Knights Templar. Suddenly Crispin has more business than anticipated with the Sheriff wanting him to find the killer, but a noblewoman wants him to find a piece of jewelry, and French and English monks also impressing him to work for them. Can Crispin and Jack survive long enough to sort out all the threads?

Westerson is a very good writer. Within pages, she presents us with humor, dread, suspense, action and sorrow. She truly brings to life a time harder, particularly for those who have nothing, than any of us can ever imagine.

Jack is an appealing character. He is a survivor, as it is the only choice he has other than death. While is faith is part of him, as it was for all people during the period, he also knows how to display it to his advantage. Jack may not be at all educated, but he is as street smart and observant as they come. Crispin has a harder exterior—understandable as we get to know his background—but one warms to him through his treatment of Jack. The two of them make a wonderfully appealing team.

Westerson educates us about an interesting period of history, but she does so in an unobtrusive fashion, never interrupting the story but greatly adding to it. The map, author’s afterward, and glossary were fascinating and very helpful. There is a very interesting conversation between Crispin and a priest, as well as Crispin’s subsequent thoughts.

This book is actually a prequel to the series. If one is new to the series, in spite of the publishing date, this is where one should begin. It is also a book for those who like action and excitement on the written page. It is also a mystery about a object that has fascinated people for centuries.

Cup of Blood” is a wonderfully visual book with some very powerful scenes; strong, tangible emotion, and plenty of really good twists right to the very end.

CUP OF BLOOD (Hist Mys-Crispin Guest/Jack-London-1384) – VG+
Westerson, Jeri – Series Prequel
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform – May 2014

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong

First Sentence: April is a cruel month, if not the cruelest.

Chen Cao, on an upward track within the Shanghai Police Department and the Communist Party, has been “promoted” to a position with no power and few responsibilities. He suspects, but can’t prove, that he’s being set up for disgrace. Technically, Chen is in charge of a corruption case against a powerful Party figure. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not following you.

There are many reasons to read a book by Qiu Xiaolong, but one is how much one learns about a place, history, culture and people many of us will never visit. What’s even better is when the author has a style and voice that brings it all to live and makes us feel as though we are there. Even the occasional awkwardness of the dialogue remind us that this is not a translation, but written by someone for whom Chinese his first language, which simply reinforces the sense of place.

The literary and poetry quotations interspersed within the story, along with descriptions of meals “…crispy fried green onions and shredded port. Qiun ordered plain noodles with peeled shrimp friend with Dragon Well tea leaves, in across-the-bridge style.”...further add to a very clear sense of place and culture. Xiaolong also makes us stop and consider…”To do nothing, it says in the Taoist classic “Dao De Jing,” makes it possible for one to do everything. Chen wanted to make his enemy believe that he was doing nothing, thereby allowing him to do whatever was necessary while they weren’t watching.”

Whilst some in this country may complain about government surveillance, Qui makes it very clear as to what it is like living under a one-party system where surveillance is everywhere and in every form. He also makes learning about Chinese history and tradition fascinating, including that of the ernai, who are similar to concubines but hold a different status and relationship.

Chen is a wonderful character. He is ethical, moral and loyal to his family and friends. He immediately protects someone who is innocent

Just when one thinks Chen truly is paranoid and we are all being led astray, there is a powerful twist that ratchets up the suspense.

Shanghai Redemption” is an engrossing book which should be savoured.  It begins slowly but builds to be a fast-action read. The ending is very satisfactory and yet elicits an intriguing sense of future uncertainty for Chen, which is always fun.

SHANGHAI REDEMPTION (Lic. Invest-Chen Cao-China-Contemp) - VG
Xiaolong, Qiu – 9th in series
Minotaur Books – Sept 2015

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

First Sentence: Some days I just can’t seem to focus.

The body of a young boy is found in Payatas, a massive dump where people, especially young boys, scavenge for their existence. The severely mutilated body has been brought to Father Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest and respected forensic anthropologist. However, this isn’t a singular case and Father Gus, along with his friend, psychologist Father Jerome Lucero, is asked by the Director of the National Bureau of Investigation to help find the killer.

One should not bypass the initial page, or the subsequent transition pages, as these provide insight and a bit of humanity to the killer and, in fact, add to the story’s suspense. However, this is also one of those times when the prologue really works. In the midst of horror, there is note of tenderness and caring which establishes the tone of the story.

Batacan has created a strong cast of characters. Father Gus is frustrated by the Church turning a blind eye to a pedophile priest, Father Jerome who started as Saenz’ student and is now his friend; Director Lastimosa, the elderly head of the NBI, the very egotistic and ambitious Attorney Ben Arcinas, and reporter Joanna Bonifacio who was also a former student of Saenz. The combination works to bring the story truly to life, and the animosity between some of the characters is palpable; a sign of excellent writing.

It is interesting to learn about the culture and policing in the Philippines. One can’t help but notice the focus on bathing and snacks, but we also learn of the complete inadequacy of their record keeping, technology, and inability to deal with missing persons. Much of that goes to explaining why the Director of the NBI would turn to the Father Saenz for help.

The author’s descriptions are so well done yet often difficult to read…”the man’s left shoulder touches the woman’s right one, but the corresponding hips don’t touch, as though they’re used to leaving room there for a child…”, particularly when dealing the sights and smells of the dump as contrasted by the evening at the opera with the elite. The contrast is very well done. Batacan’s inclusion of the meeting with the mothers and families of the child victims lends a poignancy and humanity to the story.

There are three, equally important, threads to the story; the murders, political power-mongering, and the irresponsibility of the Church’s insufficient handling of internal corruption and criminality; particularly pedophilia. The forensic information is fascinating. It also provides a very small look into the dictatorship under which the Philippines had previously lived.

Batacan’s dialogue is so well done. The very natural…”You have to wonder what ones on in people’s heads.” “No, I don’t,” Saenz says, pouring Jerome a cup of coffee. “And I’m a much happier man for it. Come, sit, sit. No use complaining about the world’s free press-we fought for it, we got it, now we have to live with the nonsense that it spews out.”, and often humorous, exchanges between the two priests provides much-needed lightness to a very dark story, and solidifies the close friendship between the two men.

While many may guess the identity of the killer, and the events of the climax are rather unsurprising, it is very powerful, effective, moving and not without a good degree of suspense. The offshoot is sadly common everywhere, yet confirms that we must hope, always hope, for change.

Smaller and Smaller Circles” is a very good, well-written book, and one which is a very affecting read.

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES (Myst-FF Saenz and Lucero-Manila-Contemp) - VG+
Batacan, F.H. – 1st book
Soho Crime – Aug, 2015