Thursday, July 27, 2017

Some Bitter Taste by Magdeline Nabb

First Sentence:  The young man, Gjergj, just disappeared.
An elderly woman believes a stranger has been in her apartment and asks Marshal Guarnaccia to visit her.  Another case of a wealthy expatriate interferes.  When he does, he discovers she has been murdered.  The two cases involving the past, as well as Albanian and Jewish refugees, causes Guarnaccia to question his own judgment.
For places we’ve not been, one tends to think of the idealized version of them.  Nabb quickly dispels that image of Florence—“There were no words to describe Florence in July.  … Breathing the same soup of evaporating river, car fumes, sweat, and drains day after day made you long to stay indoors where it was cool and clean.”
Nabb gives one a real sense of the marshal.  Without going into specific details, we know how he looks, as well as how he deals with, and is regarded by others.  The types of complaints handled by the marshal seem universal. One also gets a look at his home life—“She held his head and looked down into his big, mournful eyes. ‘What is it, Salva?...’ As long as she kept hold of him and he could feel the vibrations of her voice it was all right.’.  It’s nice to have him referenced as Salva—one assumes short for Salvatore—by his wife, rather than always by his rank. That he is so self-deprecating—‘He’s too clever for me.’  The captain sat back in his chair and looked hard at the marshal.  ‘The prosecutor doesn’t think so, as I said.’  The marshal wanted to say, ‘You shouldn’t give the wrong idea about me, get up people’s hopes. It’s not right’--, while everyone else sees his skill and worth, is both interesting and rather unique.
Although it appears there are two separate cases, the commonalities and the way in which Nabb finally weaves them together is so well done.  While his superiors deal with the procedural aspects of the cases, Guarnaccia follows the actual clues. More than that, however, is his ability to what lies behind the images people present.
Some Bitter Taste” is a true mystery, rather than a book of high action.  It’s a story of flawed people.  The ending is a bit sad, but it’s real.

 SOME BITTER TASTE (Pol Proc- Marshal Guarnaccia-Florence, Italy-Contemp) – Good
      Nabb, Magdeline – 12th in series
      Soho Press – October 2002

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Drifter by Nicholas Petrie

First Sentence: He walked into Harder’s Grange, announced by a chrome-plated bell mounted to the doorjamb.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran Peter Ash suffers from PTSD and severe claustrophobia which manifests as a loud buzzing in his head. While helping out the widow of a fellow-Marine he finds a huge, mean dog under her porch, and a suitcase filled with cash and explosives.  Investigating their source could kill him.
From the very outset, there is no question that there’s going to be trouble—“It was dark and musty under the porch, the smell of weeds and forgotten things, with an animal stick on top.  Not a dog smell, but something wilder.  Something feral.  The smell of the monsters in the oldest of fairy tales, the ones where the monsters sometimes won.”  And if that doesn’t catch one’s attention…
There is a good twist right at the beginning.  However, rather too much is made of Peter’s warewolf eyes, constant motion, and feeling of static at the back of his brain.  Although one understands the author trying to convey symptoms of PTSD—“How fucked up was it that walking inside freaked Peter out, but the prospect of a fistfight or shoot-out calmed him down?”—it becomes distracting.  In fact, a better editor was to be desired for several reasons.
Petrie does have a very good, captivating voice.  Within all the suspense and violence, there is also humor, particularly from the dog, Mingus—“He would have a nice bruise tomorrow.  It was traditional to put a steak on it, but Mingus would just eat it, then lick him to death.  A bag of frozen peas would be better.  The dog was not a vegetarian.”
The characters, and there are quite a lot of them, good and bad, do all come to life.  They are interesting and complex.  It is nice always refreshing that they also don’t all play to stereotype.  A word of caution for those to whom it matters, there is also a lot of profanity.  It’s realistic considering the characters, but perhaps not to everyone’s taste.
 “The Drifter” definitely keeps one reading, although the end seemed abrupt.  It is, however, an exciting ride.

THE DRIFTER: A Peter Ash Novel (Susp-Peter Ash-Unk-Contemp) – Good
     Petrie, Nicholas – 1st in series
     G.P. Putnam’s Sons – March 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Outfoxed by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  I’ve been enjoying work lately.
Defense attorney Andy Carpenter spends most of his time as partner of a dog rescue group.  When a former white-color-crime client escapes from prison, taking with him his puppy-for-prisoners program dog, and is accused of murdering his soon-to-be-ex-wife and former partner, Andy finds he has no choice but to get back into the legal game.  He just didn’t expect it to be as dangerous as it is.
What an excellent cast of characters with Andy, his wife Laurie, partner Willie, Marcus, and others.  We are easily introduced to each of them and provided their backgrounds in such a way that readers new to the series need not feel lost or confused.  And although there are not nearly as many characters as some authors include, Rosenfelt has a nice way of, within the plot, reminding one of whom some characters are and their role in the story.
Rosenfelt is the master of dry, biting humor—“Sam does not realize it, but he’s two boring sentences away from strangulation.”  Who has not known someone about whom they feel that way? 
One issue with having a wealthy protagonist is his ability to buy information; money is no object.  It does feel a bit too easy at times.  However, the information on online betting is quite interesting.
There are a number of threads to the plot.  Whilst one doesn’t know quite where the author is going with them, one does know to trust the author.  Rosenfelt does an excellent job of taking those seemingly loose threads, making their importance clear, and finally tying them all together.  His courthouse scenes are very well done.  The author does an excellent job of explaining various aspects of the law.
Outfoxed” is a very good read with action, suspense, legal and courtroom drama, a dash of wry humor, and a very satisfactory ending.

OUTFOXED:  An Andy Carpenter Mystery -(Legal Thriller-Sam Carpenter-NJ, Contemp) – VG
      Rosenfelt, David – 14th in series
      Minotaur Books – Reprint Edition June 2017

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Homecoming by Alan Russell

First Sentence:  “Don’t get too near the fire, Stella.”
Seven years ago, a perfect day at the beach became a family’s worst nightmare when young Stella disappears from her home during the night.  Now, a teenaged Stella has reappeared with a story of having been taken by a company of Travelers; extraterrestrials who communicated telepathically.  Detective Cheever, who has been working the case the whole time, searches for answers while another mysterious group is tracking Stella as well.
Russell’s voice is that of a true storyteller, almost simplistic in tone.  But that doesn’t diminish the story we’re being told.  He starts off with a classic summer scene and the telling of a ghost story, giving us a true sense of Stella; who she is and what matters to her.  But placid quickly turns into panicked.
The portrayal of the family is sensitively handled.  The twist is well executed.  But then….there are the seeming villains, or are they?  One is not quite certain, but we do know their code names for everyone becomes rather confusing. One, however, can’t help but like Det. Cheever and his girlfriend psychiatrist Rachel Stern—“Rachel nodded.  “I believe it was Obi-Wan who said, ‘Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view’” “And that’s what makes you so exceptional,” said Cheever. “Any shrink can quote Freud.  But how many can quote Yoda?”  “It’s not something I typically advertise,” she said.”   How nice it is to have a good cop. 
The information on desert communities and the Salton Sea denotes an author who has done his research.  It’s also a fascinating inclusion.  Aside completely from the story, are gems of truth—“Because nothing is constant.  Because you have to accept the blessing of those people who are part of your life and who make your life special, just as you have to accept their absence.  In the end there is always the hope that you will meet up in some way and at some time in the future.”
The Homecoming" is a wonderfully unpredictable book.  It is a mystery, a fantasy, a love story.  It is fascinating if one can let go and just enjoy it.

THE HOMECOMING (Susp/Pol Proc-Stella/Det. Orson Cheever-SoCal-Contemp) – G+
      Russell, Alan – Standalone
      Thomas & Mercer - June 2017

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eleventh Hour by M.J. Trow

First Sentence:  The linen stretched over the tenter-grounds like winding sheets, ghostly pale under the Norton Folgate Moon.
Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster to Queen Elizabeth, is dead.  It is believed by Nicholas Faunt, Walsingham’s right-hand man, that he was poisoned and impeaches playwright and former spymaster Christopher Marlow to uncover the killer.  In order to so do, Marlow seeks the help of leading scientists and thinkers, many of whom are members of the so-called School of the Night.
Trow truly captures the feel and meter of the period but not so much that it is incomprehensible.  In fact, the often writing gives the sense of listening to music.
It is not uncommon for historical mysteries to focus on Kit Marlow as a spymaster.  Here, one can appreciate seeing Marlow the playwright--Marlow had the rare skill of being able to walk and read at the same time.  His boots rang out on the cobbles as he strode, one hand holding the book, the other flinging out to the side placing players and poetry in the air around him.”--and getting a behind-the-scenes look at the state preparation.  The references to “Will Shaxper,” of whom the character of Marlow is quite dismissive while constantly quoting lines now attributed to the Bard, and the fascinating Dr. Dee are enjoyable. 
In fact, Trow truly makes all his characters come to life—“The choirboy in Marlow was never far from the surface, thought he would die rather than admit it and he hummed under his breath the soaring Tallis of his youth.”  There are many characters from history brought to life, but it can also be confusing as many of them are referred to by several different names each.  But stick with it; it is definitely worth it.
Trow’s subtle humor is such a pleasurable aspect of his voice—“It was quite incredible that when you put a perfectly normal, intelligent person on a stage and ask him to walk its length, he suddenly had the gait of an ostrich with ague.”  It comes through in even the most ordinary scene—“Carter was trying to look inconspicuous, to give him credit where it was due, but sitting on one horse and leading another, it was tricky to say the least.” 
One cannot help but be amused by the numerous references about Shakespeare being determined to write a play about Henry the Sixth.  Shakespeare did, in fact, write a trilogy of plays on Henry VI, and they are now credited as having been co-authored by Marlow.
Eleventh Hour” may not be for everyone, but it is delightful for those who love the period and the works of Marlow and Shakespeare.  There is a very clever exposure of the killer wherein “the play’s the thing.”
ELEVENTH HOUR: A Tutor Mystery (Hist. Mys-Kit Marlow-England-1590) - VG
      Trow, M.J. – 8th in series
      Crème de la Crime – First World Publication Edition – July 2017 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Night Bird by Brian Freeman

First Sentence:  Like a shiny Christmas display, red brake lights flashed to life across the five westbound lanes of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Psychiatrist Frankie Stein helps her patients deal with phobias resulting from traumatic incidences.  When three of her former patients die after seemingly psychotic breaks, Detective Frost Easton starts investigating her and her methods.  Wanting to know whether her treatment is responsible, Frankie joins Frost to prevent further deaths and find the Night Bird who has been leaving cryptic messages.
Freeman sets the stage with an opening that is a roller coaster of emotions.  The fear is truly palpable. 
Frost is an intriguing character who lives in a house owned by the cat who rides along with him.  He is a character with depth and someone about whom one wants to know more.  His view of psychiatrists is one many people share--“they were happy to pretend they had all the answers, but if one of their patients shot up a movie theater, the finger of blame pointed everywhere except at themselves.”
What a great voice.  Freeman captures one’s interest and keeps it; not only with the pace of the story, but with the inclusion of rather fascinating information on phobias, observations on memories—“People thought memories were fixed, but nothing could be further from the truth.  Every time you pulled a memory off the shelf and put it back, you changed it.  Therapists had a name for the process. Reconsolidation.”—and life in the San Francisco-Bay Area—“Beyond the waters of the small inlet, he could see the brown hills of Tiburon.  This little stretch of paradise north of the Golden Gate Bridge was where you lived if you had more money than God.  Even God couldn’t afford the views here.”
It is always fun to read a book set where one lives.  Freeman’s descriptions are very well done and accurate except for one tiny thing that always makes natives chuckle, but it works well for dramatic effect. 
An author who makes one think about, and even asks, questions is one to be appreciated—“What changes are you willing to take to get what you want?  What dangers do your choices create for other people?”
The suspense is truly creepy, yet subtle.  It builds nicely at an ever-increasing pace.
The Night Bird” is such a good read, with an excellent ruse perpetrated on the reader, and an ending that is as twisted as is Lombard Street.

THE NIGHT BIRD (Pol Proc-Det. Frost Easton-San Francisco-Contemp) – VG
      Freeman, Brian – 1st in series
      Thomas & Mercer – February 2017

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Murder in G Major by Alexia Gordon

First Sentence:  Gethsemane Brown leaned closer to the windshield.
Conductor and violinist Gethsemane Brown has come to Ireland for a dream job.  Her luggage lost, her money gone, the job given to someone else, she has few options but to accept the challenging job of turning a group of school boys into an award-winning orchestra.  The good news is that the job comes with a charming Irish cottage to housesit and the ghost of the former owner who presents her second challenge; provide him innocent of killing his wife and committing suicide.
Before automatically giving this a pass due to being a cozy and/or a paranormal, one might want to stop and reconsider.  In fact, if one is old enough, think a bit on “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” but also a bit of “Midsomer Murders.”  There are many things with which one can identify in this opening. And that’s just the start.
It’s hard to imagine a better setting or name for a protagonist.  And what a wonderful protagonist is Gethsemane.  Learning the history of her family goes a long way in explaining who she is and her behavior.
The dialogue is wonderful—“Well, which is it?” Eamon frowned down at her. “Ghost? Trick of the light? Or maybe a psychotic break? Or drunk on my bourbon?” enhanced by excellent analogies—“The theater’s Victorian beauty reminded her of Miss Havisham, past her prime but still proud.”—and descriptions—“She closed her eyes and inhaled the almond-vanilla smell of old books, one of her favorite scents.”  There is also a lovely little change up to a classic riff on “The Godfather”—“Remind me why you come to me whenever you need help with something dangerous.”  “Frankie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  “Casablanca explains every situation.” 
The only slight criticism was that the ending seemed a bit weak.  It tried a bit too hard to lead one to the next book, but that’s being picky.
Murder in G Major” was an unexpected read, much more of a traditional mystery than a cozy:  delightful characters, excellent sense of place, compelling author’s voice, and well-done pacing and flow to a thoroughly enjoyable story. 
MURDER IN G MAJOR (Para Mys- Gethsemane Brown- Ireland-Contemp) – VG+
      Gordon, Alexia – 1st in series
      Henery Press – September 2016  

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

First sentence:  He shouldn’t really be driving:  they all know that.
DCI Harry Nelson has a new boss, with whom he’s not best pleased, and a missing person to find.  Could she have disappeared into one of the many chalk-mining tunnels beneath Norwich.  She wouldn’t be the only thing hidden there.  Anthropologist Ruth Galloway has been asked to investigate a set of human remains.  They’re not old, but they do appear to be the result of the body being boiled.
Griffiths does do a very good job of introducing one to most all of the relevant characters and their personalities.  How can one not love her descriptions—“From his name Ruth expected Quentin Swan to be camp and at least sixty.  In fact, the man who comes bursting in through the Guildhall doors is youngish and dark with horn-rimmed glasses.  He looks like a cross between Harry Potter and Dr. Who (David Tennant era).” [Reviewing from an early ARC, one hopes the correction was made to “Doctor Who”.]
It is nice to have odd bits of history included as it provides those lovely “ah-ha” moments and creates a bit of a pause before the action ramps up. …and then the murders begin.
Relationships play a significant role in the story.  Within the police, it is appreciated that they work as a full team, each with their own responsibilities.
The plotting of the actual mystery is well done.  There are very good connecting threats.  The theme of underground cities is fascinating as they have existed around the world throughout history.   One might, however, wish future stories to focus more on Ruth and her work.
Ruth is an appealing character living a complicated life.  Yet it is her moments of decisiveness and strength that shine through—“Joe decides her.  ‘Stay here,’ she barks at Ruth.  That does it.  Ruth isn’t going to be bossed about by a woman in tight trousers who things she’s Helen Mirren playing Jane Tennison.’ 
The Chalk Pit” is well done, although it spends nearly as much time on the various and complicated relationships as on the case and the resolution seemed very rushed. 

THE CHALK PIT (Pol Proc-Harry Nelson/Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) – G+
      Griffiths, Elly – 9th in series
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – May 2017

Monday, June 26, 2017

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

First Sentence:  His skin told his history in tattoos and knife scars.
Nate McClusky is about to be released from prison.  Rather than being forced to be a soldier on the outside for the Aryan Steel, he ends up killing a high-ranking member and having a warrant to greenlight his murder, as well as that of his ex-wife, her new husband, and his 11-year-old daughter Polly. He is too late to save the first two, but he is determined to do everything possible to save Polly even if it means putting her in extreme danger.
Polly is one of those characters one can’t help but like from the very beginning.  Everything about her is unique and special—“She moved the bear with practiced hands so he stood on her lap and looked around.  She had practiced with him for hours and hours so he moved with a liquid sort of grace, like a true and living thing.”… “Poly read about this pearl planet with a storm inside it and the thought burped full-formed out of Polly’s brain:  I’m from Venus. That was the way Poly felt, that outside she was quiet and calm, but inside her acid winds roared.  She’d never known why she’d been that way, so quiet on the outside but inside so scream loud, but now she knew. I’m from Venus.”  Yes, she did make me think a bit of Flavia from Alan Bradley's series, but only in the sense that both characters are the same age, and both have found ways to cope with being different from those around them.
Nate, too, is unusual.  Rooting for the anti-hero, the ex-con, isn’t a position in which one usually finds oneself.  Yet here, one does.  He knows who, and what, he is.  He has a true awareness of self, and a focused determination.  Detective Park is equally rare; a cop who is willing to change his focus and is committed to the case even after everyone else has lost interest—“The media has lost interest the second week.  A starlet found floating facedown in a Hollywood Hills home had grabbed the spotlight.  The media was a living organism, and it ate beautiful dead things.”
With each character, especially Polly, one can’t help but feel a bit of sorrow and regret, no matter what happens.  Harper takes one into a world you know exists, but not in detail and one hoped never to be known personally.  He shows you the details so one will never be able to quite forget them—“That soon as you found something to live for, you found something to die for too.  But he guessed in the end it was a good trade.”
There are simple statements of truth—“Some things get replaced, she thought, and some things never will.”—and bits of information; i.e., how felons communicate with the outside, and bullet wounds.  These are things, thankfully, outside most people’s lives, but are part of reality.
Harper has such a fine writer’s voice.  He conveys both actions and emotions in simple sentences—“Park hit the apartment complex at speed. … He left the car in the fire zone, fuck-you-I’m-a-cop style.  He double-timed the stairs to Carla’s apartment.  Bam bam bam on the door, fuck-you-I’m-a-cop style.” Harper doesn’t rely on cliché tricks or even on plot twists.  Instead, there are small surprises that alter the trajectory just slightly.  There is violence and brutality, but it is never gratuitous.
She Rode Shotgun” is not an emotionally easy or comfortable book to read.  One is acutely aware of the “what if’s” associated with each character, especially Polly.  It is, however, an exceptional book with remarkable characters.

SHE RIDES SHOTGUN (Susp-Polly/Nate McClusky-California-Contemp) - Ex
      Harper, Jordan – 1st book
      ECCO – June, 2017 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What the Dead Leave Behind by David Housewright

First Sentence:  The way he paced recklessly in front of me, bouncing off the furniture, tripping on the throw rug/ the way he looked at me with unblinking eyes—I decided the kid was messed up.
Former police detective, now unlicensed investigator, Rushmore McKenzie is asked for a special favour; find out her killed the father of a friend.  But nothing is simple and one case leads to another unsolved murder and a particular group of friends.
Housewright is very good at the concise; from the very beginning, we know who are the primary characters.  We also have background on McKenzie and, through his internal voice, how he thinks and who matters to him. Knowing these things is of particular advantage to those jumping into this series for the first time.  

In addition to MaKenzie's investigative talents; he cooks—“braised boneless pork ribs simmering in gravy laced with chili powder; mashed potatoes seasoned with onion salt, black pepper, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and chives; plus green beans and pecans sautéed in chicken broth and maple syrup.”—cautions one to not read when hungry and reminds one a bit of Robert Parker’s Spencer.  
Housewright’s dialogue is easy, natural, and, at times, quite delightful—“Do you think that the killer might be at the party?” she asked. “That is so Agatha Christie.”

The plot is very well done.  There are plenty of twists to keep one off guard and surprised.  The unexpected is always a very good thing.
What the Dead Leave Behind” has an excellent protagonist and a very well done plot that goes unexpected places.  Learning where everyone ends up is very refreshing.

WHAT THE DEAD LEAVE BEHIND (Unl. PI-Rushmore McKenzie-St. Paul, MN–Contemp) - VG
      Housewright, David – 14th in series
      Minotaur Books – June 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Felony Murder Rule by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The waif-thin woman eyed me nervously from the swivel chair opposite my gunmetal gray desk.
As co-head of the Felony Division, DA’s Mike Daley rarely tries cases himself.  Melinda Nguyen’s son Thomas is on trial for murder even though he was not an active part of the actual crime that resulted in his friend being killed by a convenience-store owner.  But how can Mike turn his back on a woman who may have been married to his brother they thought died in Vietnam’s China Sea, and the boy who may be his son?
It is always interesting to learn about an obscure law that can have a major impact.  Although the information is interesting, it is the revelation related to those the laws will impact that truly captures one's attention.
Siegel does an excellent job of providing background on Daley, his ex-wife Rosie in a very concise manner without interrupting the flow of the story.  And what a good assembly of characters it is.  It is the relationships that bind the story together.
Daley’s internal narrative could be annoying but isn’t.  Instead, it again exemplifies Siegel’s writing style which is efficient and informative.  It provides more insight into the related events without being verbose. 
References to other authors are always enjoyable—“Her bookcases were jammed with legal treaties, Federal literature, and Donna Leon.”  For those who are local, the rundown of San Francisco’s famous/infamous characters can make one smile.
Dialogue is so important to the flow of a story and Siegel writes dialogue exceptionally well.  It’s quick, sharp, and very natural.  His wry humor provides a nice bit of light to the darkness of the case.
This is not a book to read when you’re hungry.  The food may not be fine dining, but there is a lot of it—“My brother always said the most important attributes for a P.O. were patience, perseverance, and a low-maintenance digestive system.
Felony Murder Rule” corrects any misconception one may have that a legal mystery isn’t suspenseful.  Not only is it, but it’s one with a very affecting and emotional ending.

FELONY MURDER RULE (Legal Thriller-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-Bay Area, CA-Contemp) – Ex
     Siegel, Sheldon – 8th in series
     Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – February 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Less Than a Treason by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  The body had been found early on by a raven, that inevitable first responder to carcasses in the wild.
Kate Shugak may have gone missing from all her friends and those who love her, but she knows where she is. Unfortunately, she is found by a woman who wants her to find her missing husband.  A geologist working for the Suulutaq Mine is known for going off on his own, but this time he has failed to keep a meeting with his wife.
Once past the first, relatively unnecessary chapter, the story begins with a dramatic and emotional opening which is an immediate pickup from the previous book.  It also leaves one with more questions than answers and an element of dread. 
However, we then settle into learning about the village and its residents. For series readers, all the favorite, and not so favorite, characters are here but one.  For new readers, this may not the place to start as there are a lot of characters.  Although some background on them is provided, it can become confusing.
Stabenow does provide wonderful descriptions—“A beautiful night, clear and cold, the Milky Way a smear of confectioner’s sugar, the moon and ethereal, almost translucent crescent.”
Kate is a character to be greatly admired.  She is smart, strong, independent and self-reliant; almost too much so.  Anyone in the medical field may do a major eye roll, however.  But she inspires loyalty and respect from all who know her.
There are a lot of plot threads to follow as well, but trust the author.  The threads do become whole cloth.  Even so, it is a bit frustrating that the two major reunions for which waits are late into the book, one not until the very end. 
 “Less Than a Treason” is not the best book in the series but the story builds well as the pieces fit together to a perfect ending.

LESS THAN A TREASON (Myst-Kate Shugak-Alaska-Contemp) – Good
     Stabenow, Dana – 21st in series
     Head of Zeus – May 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

First Sentence:  “One more, Boss,” said Hector Belascoarán Shayne.
What’s a PI to do when he needs money?  He accepts three separate cases.  In the first, he is hired to search for Emiliano Zapata, the nation’s folk hero and leader of the Mexican Revolution thought to still be alive.  The second involves a killing in a corrupt factory.  The third is to find who is sending threats to the daughter of a former porn starlet. 
What seems to be a stereotypical beginning turns out to be anything but.  How can one not be compelled to read on?
Taibo’s use of language is such a pleasure to read.  His use of metaphors—“After hesitating for a moment, he got up from the bed and walked wearily, like a man with a pair of incompatible ideas crowding the space inside his head.”—and observations—“if there’s one thing this country won’t forgive you for, it’s that you take your life too seriously, that you can’t see the joke.”—both delight and give one pause to consider.  Even his use of chapter headings is perfectly done.
Hector is a character one recognizes but isn’t one of whom one is tired.  Taibo has a fascinating way of working in bits of Hector’s background as we good.  The more we learn, the more intrigued one becomes to know him better—“…it occurred to him that what he liked to call his professional demeanor was no more than a reflection of the confused state of his own life.”  Hector’s office mates, and the nighttime radio DJ, add further to the interesting dimensions of Hector’s character.
There is nothing like a climactic moment one probably should have seen coming but didn’t.  The events which follow are extremely gratifying. 
“An Easy Thing” is one of those wonderful books that make one wonder why you’ve not read this author sooner, but makes one determined to make up for that lapse.

AN EASY THING -(PI-Hector Belascoarán Shayne-Mexico-Contemp) – Ex
      Taibo II, Paco Ignacio – 1st in series
      Poisoned Pen Press – March 2002

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Templars' Last Secret by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, awoke a few seconds before six, just as the dawn was breaking.
A centuries-old religious artifact, thought to be hidden within the caves under the former Knights Templar stronghold Château de Commarque, brings murder and terrorism to the normally peaceful village of St. Denis. 
 A map!  There is a special place reserved or authors and publishers who provide a map.  Not only does a map provide clarification of the setting, but allows the readers to be part of the community and area in which the story is told.
 There are wonderful descriptions of the lovely bucolic setting which are then shattered.  The beginning deals with such a relevant and painful topic, but it also serves as a good introduction to Bruno and his life, including his past—“Anyone could take one glance at my wardrobe, he mused, and tell the story of my life:  the army and then the police, all the signs of a man more at home in uniform than in civilian dress.” 
Bruno is an excellent character; fully-dimensional and the type of leader for whom one would wish.  He knows his town and those who live there, and is well respected.  He is no light character, however, as his military background proves.  What is particularly well done is that he is surrounded by characters who are as interesting and well-developed as is he. 
Walker works the history of the area seamlessly into the plot.  There is fascinating information about French labour laws, the Paleolithic figures and the various theories related to them.  He joins the past to the present and makes both come alive in comparing the weekly market of today to how it might have been 700 years ago.  Add to that the technology which provides an identity for the murder victim and one is brought sharply into the present, including a discussion of fake news--“It doesn’t have to exist in reality as long as people give it a kind of reality by talking and writing and arguing about it.”
Set in France, one knows there will be food and wine—“He planned fish soup, followed by blanquette de veau with rice, salad with cheese and pears poached in spiced wine for dessert.”  There are even descriptions of how the dishes are prepared.
 “The Templars’ Last Secret” is definitely not a cozy.  It deals with terrorism and fanaticism.  It is a book that has it all; mystery, danger, history, and good food—all of it fascinating.

THE TEMPLARS’ LAST SECRET (Pol Proc-Bruno Courrèges-St. Denis, France-Contemp) – VG+
      Walker, Martin – 10th in series
      Knopf – June 2017         

Monday, May 29, 2017

Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  The land slipped while Jimmy Perez was standing beside the grave.
Due to heavy rains, a landslide destroys a house that was thought to be uninhabited.  The discovery of a woman’s body is sad enough, but no one knows her and their only clue is a letter to My dearest Alis.  Then it’s realized it wasn’t the slide that killed her.  She was murdered.
The opening is dramatic, sad, and slightly scary.  But it is also fascinating as well learn of traditions unfamiliar to most of us.  One does rather expect the first revelation when it comes, but it is still a bit of a jolt and very well done.
Cleeves characters are so real and are fully developed.  What is nice is that they even have normal insecurities.  It’s also nice to have an ensemble cast, with each character contributing to the investigation.  Enough backstory on Jimmy is provided so one understands him, and the budding, albeit slowly developing, relationship is a very nice touch. 
One would dearly wish for a map to be included at the beginning of the book as it would provide the reader a better sense of locations and proximities. The weather and atmosphere of the island itself become its own character.
There is something very refreshing about detectives who follow the clues and take us along with them even when its information gleaned from a newspaper interview. Cleeves isn’t a guns-and-car-chases author, but one who builds the story, and the case, piece-by-piece. 
Cold Earth” is a story into which one becomes immersed and involved with its very good characters and very satisfying ending.

COLD EARTH (Pol Proc-Jimmy Perez-Shetland Is. Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Cleeves, Ann – 7th in series
      Minotaur Books – April 2017

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