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

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Mystery at Carlton House by Ashley Gardner

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

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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Where the Dead Lie by C.S. Harris (aka Candace Proctor)

First Sentence:  The boy hated this part.
      
Poor street children die all the time in London.  Dr. Paul Gibson calls for his friend, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, to view the body of Benji Thatcher, a young boy who was tortured and murdered, and whose young sister is missing.  St. Cyr's outrage for this crime leads him to learn how many children are missing, the writings of the Marquis de Sade, and the realization of wealthy men who torture children for pleasure.
      
There is nothing better than a compelling opening chapter, except when that chapter leads to another, and another, and a complete story all equally good.
      
While the plot captures one, it is the characters to whom we are most attracted.  With few words and simple descriptions, Harris brings her characters to life.  Harris takes us from the lives of the most wealthy, to the most poor, with Dr. Gibson being the perfect middle note. One of the things that makes St. Cyr such a strong character, is his sense of morality—“Someone’s been killing poor children…” “…Do you know who is responsible?”  We all are, Sebastian wanted to say. You. Me. This city.  This nation. Everyone who ever saw a cold, hungry child alone upon the streets and simply looked away.”
      
Harris employs the same deft hand in establishing the sense of time and place, as well as transmitting the emotions of each character.  It is painful to read the descriptions of the lives of the poor, especially the women.  She doesn’t shy away from acknowledging man’s capacity for violence--“Any man who has ever gone to war understands only too well the worst of what his fellow men are capable. … He reached the conclusion that this capacity for barbarity actually forms a fundamental and inescapable part of whatever it means to be human, however much we might want to deny it.”  Yet Harris knows how to tug our heartstrings as well.
      
A really good author educates as well as entertains.  Among the things we learn are about making shot for rifles of the time, and 14th/15th-century building construction.  Additionally, she also provides an accurate assessment of humanity—“With humanity’s capacity for great good comes the capacity for unfathomable evil.”
      
Where the Dead Lie” is a very good book with plenty of action and suspense.  More importantly, it deals with a very painful theme which still holds true today. Do be sure to read the notes at the end. 

WHERE THE DEAD LIE (Hist Mys-Sebastian St. Cyr-London-1813/Regency) – VG+
      Harris, C.S. – 12th in series
      Berkeley – April 2017

Monday, April 17, 2017

The First Rule of Ten by Gay Hendricks and Tinker Lindsay

First Sentence:  I was just sitting down to a cold beer and hot corn soup, at the end of a long week, when my phone rang.
     
Half Tibetan, half Caucasian, raised in the Buddhist monastery, Tenzing “Ten” Nurbu always wanted to be Sherlock Holmes.  Now retired from the LAPD, he becomes a private investigator with a high-tech sidekick and his first case. 
      
It’s always intriguing to have a protagonist with an unusual background and Ten is definitely different.  A very good opening introduces us to the character, his background, outlook, and ambition all within a dangerous situation and very effectively sets him, and us, up for the next step.  Then, for some unexplainable reason, Hendricks falls into the rookie author trap of not one, but two portents.  Happily, he stopped that completely unnecessary device after those two. 
      
The mix of Buddhism, with descriptions and explanations of the rituals such as a bardo, is nice, but more research for accuracy would have been appreciated.  Still, it’s a nice offset to Ten’s passion for his car and guns.  His alleged telepathic powers with his cat is a bit over the top. I would suggest not reading this while hungry—“Thirty minutes later, we were serving up a cashew-and-vegetable stir-fry with basmati rice.  Expertly chopped cucumber salad on the side.”
      
There is an interesting mix of philosophy and menace in a verbal dual--“The Buddha himself said we shouldn’t believe his words without question—we must discover the truth for ourselves.”  Brother Eldon saw things a little differently.  “Obey your God, Nehemiah.  Obey me.  Go! Guard God’s Paradise!” I got a sudden urge to “find my own way” out of there, and quick.”—and a simplistic, but adequate definition of karma—“…it is our intention that determines our karma; good intentions produce good karma; bad intentions produce bad karma.”
      
The story is well-plotted, and a bit painful for those of us who all too well remember Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, but with a very interesting and effective twist.  There are a few minor inaccuracies related to Buddhism, and rather TSTL move by the protagonist.
      
The First Rule of Ten” has plenty of action and a good resolution, as well as some minor first-book problems.  Still, it makes for a good airplane read. 
     
 THE FIRST RULE OF TEN (PI-Tenzing Norbu-LA-Contemp) - Good
      Hendricks, Gay and Tinker Lindsay – 1st in series
      Hay House Visions – January 2012

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Fall by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  When she saw the telephone pole with the yellow plastic base again, Olivia Fletcher slammed on the brakes of her mail truck, bringing it to a skidding halt.
      
FBI Agent Jessica Blackwood’s boredom on stakeout is irrevocably broken by a woman appearing at the door threatening to kill the baby she’s holding. The same day a major earthquake hits the East Coast, and a video is televised of well-known Peter Devon, dead for eight years, predicting the location and date of the earthquake, promising more predictions to come.  But for Jessica, the critical question becomes who is pulling the strings of the building chaos.
      
There’s nothing like a really good opening.  An entire town disappearing is a really good opening.
      
Jessica Blackwood is a fascinating character; as is the author himself—do read his bio.  You know a book about a woman whose father and grandfather were magicians, as she also was before working in law enforcement, is going to be different.  However, it only takes a few pages before you also realize how intense is the action.
      
Mayne has a wonderfully readable voice; he’s a natural storyteller. He has done an excellent job of having created a completely believable female character.  He moves the story along at a rapid pace, but doesn’t rely on any one device.  Yes, there’s suspense, but the story is also filled with Jessica’s memories, historical information, her observations, and even her insecurities—“I bought this outfit three years ago, and I’m sure I didn’t see a single person with the same lapel style in the entire FBI building in the last twelve months.  It’s stupid stuff like this that drives me nuts.  I’m hung up on it because I think other women may be hung up on it.  It’s a vicious cycle.” It's not easy for authors to write cross gender, but Mayne does it exceptionally well.
      
More than a mystery, the story is filled with fascinating ideas in information—“Almost five hundred years ago, John Wilkins, a philosopher and bishop, pushed heavily for the written language to adopt an upside-down exclamation point at the end of a sentence to indicate irony.  Think of how many online feuds that could have prevented.”  While some authors cause one to seek a dictionary, Mayne prompts visits to Wikipedia.
      
Damian is an intriguing character about whom we’d like to know more.  And, we realize we probably won’t.  It is that mystery that keeps him so intriguing.
      
Mayne is frighteningly spot on with some of the events happening today.  This makes the book both fascinating and terrifying—“The ammunition is rumor, innuendo, misinformation, and leaks. …the delivery vehicles are ordinary citizens, journalists, media personalities, and politicians.”  As much as I tend to dislike prologues, the connection to it is very well done later in the story.  
      
Good dialogue, natural-sounding dialogue, can make all the difference to a story even when it’s a monologue to a horse perfectly conveying the character's nervousness about the situation—“Alright, boy.  If you don’t hear from me in ten minutes, go get help.” Silverback stares at me blankly. … “And get me a grande latte…um, and a cowboy…blue eyes, independently wealthy, not too rustic….” I pat Silverback on the flank, which he interprets as a signal to start walking.  I chase after him and grab the reins. “Wait! Hold up.  Not yet.”  Silverback stops and gives me another of his looks:  Seriously, lady?”
     
 “BlackFall” has excellent suspense, and twists; great characters, and very relevant themes.  It is, so far, the best book in the series.  Yes, at times, it’s over-the-top and there are plot holes, but one doesn’t really care.  Once embroiled in the story and the series, it doesn’t let go.  One simply, impatiently, waits for the next book.

BLACK FALL (Pol Thriller-Jessica Blackwood-US- Contemp) – VG+
      Mayne, Andrew – 4th in series
      Harper Perennial – March 2017

Monday, April 10, 2017

MURDER ON THE SERPENTINE by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  The man stood in front of Thomas Pitt in the untidy office, papers all over the desk from half a dozen cases Pitt was working on.
      
Queen Victoria summons Commander Thomas Pitt to investigate the murder of her confidant, Sir John Hilberd.  Sir John had been looking into the influence Alan Kendrick, a horse-racing enthusiast might have on Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales and, perhaps, prove a danger to the monarchy.
      
Perry so perfectly creates the environment of the time, the constraints and social restrictions on men and women, and the division of the classes—“Aunt Vespasia calls all her maids Gwen, regardless of what their names really are.  I don’t think they mind.”  Perry’s details are exacting, right down to the way we imagine Queen Victoria might sound. 
      
This is a time when Germany and the Kaiser are looking at expanding their power.  That the Pitt’s son, Daniel, realizes this and wants to study German, looking at a possible career in the diplomatic service, is interesting and a possible bridge to the series’ future.
      
The Boar War, and that there were actually two Boar Wars, isn’t something about which most know very much.  While this doesn’t go into the war, it focused a bit on the lead up to it.  It deals with the issue of the greed of men, and on trading connections for profit.
      
For those who follow the series, it is nice to see Charlotte and her sister, Emily, working together again to help Pitt in his investigation.  Perry’s descriptions of fashion and food provide us a true sense of place and time, as do the inclusions of actual historical events and the social issues of the time.
      
Murder on the Serpentine” is a very good entry into and excellent series.  Redemption is a theme which runs through the series. The manner in which the villain is dealt with is satisfactory and very effective, and the ending particularly gratifying.         

MURDER ON THE SERPENTINE (Pol Proc-Thomas/Charlotte Pitt-England-Victorian)-VG
      Perry, Anne – 32nd in series
      Ballentine Books – March, 2017

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Mission Hill by Pamela Wechsler

First Sentence: I’m in bed, silently reciting their names.

Prosecution attorney Abby Endicott learns a colleague has been killed execution-style by gangbanger Orlando Jones. Abbie takes on the case, in part as she blames him for the murder of her friend many years ago. If she loses, not only does he walk, but she could lose her license to practice law.

Pamela Wechler’s legal and screenwriting background are apparent from the first paragraph. She certainly knows who to capture the reader’s attention, as well as touching one’s emotions. Yet the explanation makes sense, as do the geographic references.

Our introduction into Abby’s background is handled early and quickly. The relationship between Abby and her lover, Ty, is a nice counterpoint to the case. That it’s not a perfect relationship is a refreshing change.

Wechler’s voice is crisp and real—“The sleek, high-tech building offers one-stop shopping; it houses the homicide unit, the crime lab, the ballistics lab, the identification unit, and the fugitive squad. It’s a kind of like a Neiman Marcus for prosecutors.” For those who know, or even want to visit, Boston, Wechler describes the city very well, good and bad, as well as its politics, and the project known as “The Big Dig.”

There are interesting details about which one wouldn’t normally think—“A hospital emergency is a cheater’s purgatory. Spouses and girlfriends rush to be by their man’s side, only to discover that he has another significant other—or others. There’s nothing that a bed-bound patient can do to prevent the encounters.” The author’s wry humor helps offset the drama nicely—“A dirty mop and bucket are in the corner, next to an overflowing trash barrel. The order of grease is so strong I feel like I need to go to Elizabeth Grady and have my pores extracted. I was hungry when I walked in here. I’d planned to get a burger and a bag of fries for the road. Now I’m seriously considering becoming a vegetarian.” However, fewer product placements wouldn’t have gone amiss.

There is a very good escalation in the seriousness of the plot, but it also goes a bit over the top. For being a legal mystery, there could have been time spent in the courtroom.

“Mission Hill” does have some weaknesses, but it’s a very credible first effort. It will be interesting to see how the series progresses.

MISSION HILL (Legal Thriller-Abby Endicott-Boston-Cont) - Good
Wechsler, Pamela – 1st in series
Minotaur Books – Mar 2017

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Darkness Absolute by Kelley Armstrong

First Sentence:  We’ve been tracking Shawn Sutherland for almost two hours when the blizzard strikes.
      
The Yukon Canadian town of Rockton is completely off the grid and its residents, those running from their past/past crimes, are controlled by a remote town council.  The unapproved departure of one of those residents leads to the discovery of a woman who has been held captive in a cave for over a year, as well as the bodies of two other women. The town’s sheriff, Eric Dalton, and homicide detective, Casey Duncan, need to find the person responsible.
      
No easy, gentle opening here.  Instead, the story begins with a strike to the senses and continues on to the end with a story that keeps you totally off balance.
     
 The town of Rockton is as unique as its residents.  Each has a history of which only parts are revealed as the story progresses.  And as with any small town, there are rivalries, jealousy, and mistrust, heightened in Rockton by the resident’s pasts.  Then there are the “outsiders,” those who don’t live in the town, but with whom some of the residents have contact; and the “hostiles,” with whom no one deals.  The relationship between these characters, as well as the characters who live with Rockton, is what gives humanity and dimension to the story.
      
There is an interesting analysis of a serial kidnapper/rapist.  In fact, although much of the book focuses on action and suspense, there is a fair amount of psychology included, along with an appropriate reference to “Lord of the Flies,” as well as a line that can make one smile—“Do you ever look back on your younger self and just want to slap her?”. 
      
A Darkness Absolute” is a fascinating book dealing with the complexities of what are considered we humans.  It’s also highly suspenseful and very well done.

A DARKNESS ABSOLUTE (Susp-Casey Duncan-Canada-Cont) – VG
      Armstrong, Kelley – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books– February, 2017

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Old Bones by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

First Sentence:  There comes a point in the life of a balloon when it has lost so much air that it's taut, festive body becomes sagging, wrinkled and—well, frankly, sad.
      
DCI Bill Slider is decidedly unpopular at HQ due to those implicated in his last cast.  A young couple discovers a skeleton in their back garden.  It’s thought to be that of a young girl who disappeared from that garden two decades ago.  Slider’s boss, DS Porson, hope this case will be simple and will keep Slider out of harm’s way.  But does it?
      
Harrod-Eagles never disappoints.  Her use of language, Britishisms notwithstanding, is always a delight, including her chapter headings.  Her descriptions of people makes them immediately recognizable—“Carver was a miserable bastard, who had raised resentment to an art form, and his leaving do was appropriately cheerless.” and—“It was time that Atherton, the serial romancer, settled down.  He was tall, handsome, elegant, and irresistible to females.  Pure catnip.  He could commit sexual harassment by sitting quietly in another room.  Really, the world needed him to be taken out of circulation.”
      
How lovely to have the protagonist be in a marriage that has suffered its rocky patches, but that works.  There is an excellent comparison between Slider being a cop, and his wife Joanna being a professional musician.  There is also a moving and painful description of a mother learning of her daughter’s body being found years often her disappearance.  It is this ability to convey both light and dark equally well that makes CHE such a fine writer.
      
Slider and his team truly are a team.  They are an ensemble cast, each with their own parts to play and backgrounds about which we learn.  The case is a jigsaw puzzle, put together piece-by-piece, following the clues. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the cases are clichéd or the ending pat.  They are far from so being.
     
 “Old Bones” is a very well-done police procedural with excellent characters.  It is so well written; no prologue, no tricks, no portents or cliff hangers, just 256 pages of solid writing.

OLD BONES (Pol Proc-Insp. Bill Slider-England-Contemp) – Ex
      Harrod Eagles, Cynthia – 19th in series
      Severn House, Feb 2017

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney

First Sentence:  In summer, the season of the Hollywood blockbuster, Bingham, got to work at eight in the morning and didn’t leave until long after midnight.
      
There were two unsolved crimes in the summer of 1986; six movie theater workers were murdered, and a teenaged girl vanished from the state fair.  Now, 25-years later, two people are trying to find answers to those two mysteries. But now there’s a third mystery. Wyatt, now a P.I. in Las Vegas, has been hired to return to the small Oklahoma town where he grew up in order to find out who is trying to destroy the owner's music club. Are the three cases linked?
      
Berney creates a very good sense of time and place, immediately drawing one into the story.  He then tops that off by also creating a palpable aura of fear, but without graphic detail.
      
All three primary characters—Wyatt, the PI; Candice, who is being harassed; and Julianne, whose sister disappeared—are well developed and interesting.  Yet it is Wyatt, in particular, who draws one in and makes one care.  He makes the reader want the answer to this question as much as he does—“One of the toughest things about being a detective, Wyatt supposed, was that you never really stopped detecting.”  Wyatt makes us contemplate.  Don’t we all, at times, wonder about those from our past?—“He tried to remember the line from Lear.  “That way madness lies.”"  
      
The plot keeps one turning page after page.  The threat against Candice is real and absolutely chilling.  What is more effective than a plot that has definite “Wow!” moments as does the mystery involving Julianne’s sister.
      
The Long and Faraway Gone” is not your average mystery.  Yes, there are mysteries, and there are resolutions; however, it is more about people who were once lost, but now are found.  It truly deserves every award it was given.
     
THE LONG AND FARAWAY GONE (Novel-Wyatt-Oklahoma City-Contemp) - Ex
      Berney, Lou - Standalone
      William Morrow Paperbacks-Feb 2015 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Kahn

First Sentence:  Esa Khattak turned his head to the right, offering the universal salaam at the conclusion of the evening prayer.
      
Esa Khattak and Det. Rachel Getty are members of the Canadian Community Policing Section which handles minority-sensitive investigation.  At first glance, it doesn’t seem that the death of Christopher Drayton, who is believed to have fallen from a cliff, fits their charter.  Or does it? And is that Drayton’s real name? Was he really Canadian, or did he have a much darker past?
        
During this time in which we live, learning about other cultures and religions is not only informative but vital.  The very humanizing aspect of Khattak’s rug being made by his ancestors, and that we learn of his wife’s death, are good indications of the man.  It is also an excellent introduction to the character’s history and that of the unit he heads up; the Community Policing Station.
     
How refreshing when an author with eschews chapter-ending cliff hangers, but with uses clues instead.  Good chapter headings; some mild, others disturbing, are also much appreciated and can add so much—“Father, take care of my children, look after my children.”  It is only much later one realizes the significance of these passages. There are many passages within the text that cause us to pause and consider—“Because friendship was more than a source of comfort, or a place of belonging.  It was a source of responsibility.”
      
Although this is the first book in the series, there are constant references to a past time where Rachel and Khattack worked together.  One may find this more annoying than informative.  However, learning of Rachel’s background and present concerns does bring her to life.  What is interesting is how Rachel actually becomes the lead character after Khattack becomes too personally invested in the events.  She is a wonderful character and one of whom one would like to see more.
      
Best of all, we are provided with so many examples of such fine writing—“She scorned those who genuflected at the temple of nonviolence, their voices ringing with praise of the defenseless victims of butchery while they sat on their hands when the gods of carnage came calling.”  So much of the book’s theme is relevant today—“It was a compelling history lesson:  how quickly the violent ideals of ultra-nationalism led to hate, how quickly hate to blood.”
     
 “An Unquiet Dead” is more a novel and a warning—“Everywhere the radical right was rising:  Sweden, France, Belgium, Denmark, Holland.  While a steady stream of vitriol drifted north of the US border.”--rather than a mystery.  Either way, it is disturbing and painful, and excellent.
      
THE UNQUIET DEAD (Crime Novel-Rachel Getty/Esa Khattak-Canada-Contemp-) – Ex
      Kahn, Ausma Zehanat – 1st in series
      Severn House – Feb 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

First Sentence:  Half an hour before Diana Snyder died, she tidied up her desk in the typists’ office of the Cabinet War Rooms.
      
The war in Europe has begun but hasn’t come to England…yet.  Churchill is the new Prime Minster, and everyone is just waiting.  Maggie Hope has a fine, logical mind but, after another typist is murdered, has been hired on to work at No. 10 Downing Street.  But spies are afoot, and not just from Germany. 
      
The inclusion of segments from Churchill’s actual speeches well establishes the time period and adds veracity to the story.  Early dialogue leaves no question as to the location—“Tea,” she stated in her deep, booming voice, deliberately changing the subject. “We all need tea.  There’ll be no blood, toil, tears, or sweat until I have some goddamned tea.”
      
We are reminded that this was a time before the US entered the War and when some American Industrialists and politicians were supported the German regime, and when Ireland declared itself neutral. Yet the character of Maggie has an interesting perspective.
     
It is always a benefit to learn things one hadn’t previously known.  Such is the skill of a good author.  MacNeal’s references to specific events of the time are also a very clever way of indicating the passage of time within the story.  Yet we are painfully reminded of the attitudes toward women which prevailed then…and still often do—“You’re a smart girl,” Snodgrass said to her,” and that’s good.  You’ll have intelligent children.  But isn’t it more important to worry about your appearance and not calculations?  Let the boys like John here take care of it.  Stick to typing, please.”—which can cause readers to indulge in a gnashing of teeth.  Still, there is a wonderful reference to Noel’Coward’s song “The Stately Homes of England.”  A slight aside, if you’ve never seen the movie “The Grass is Greener,” I do highly recommend it.
     
MacNeal provided us with an excellent and horrific description of the Germans’ bombing London, as well as a very moving poem about death.
      
One thing that would very much have helped would have been a cast of characters.  Although the characters are interesting and individual, there are a lot of them and one can find oneself confused as to who is whom, and the role they play. There were also some small historical inaccuracies, but nothing so significant so as to lessen one’s enjoyment.
     
 “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary” is full of surprises with intrigue, action, history; all of which is very well done.

MR. CHURCHILL’S SECRETARY (Ama Sleuth/Molly –London-WWII/1940) – G+
      MacNeal, Susan Elia – 1st in series
      William Morrow – March 2015

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Echoes in Death by J.D. Robb

First Sentence:  Was she dead?
      
Homicide Lieutenant Eve Dallas and her wealthy husband, Roark, are on their way home from a formal event, and a naked, bloody, dazed woman steps out in front of their car.  Although they are able to get her to the hospital in time, they find her husband, Dr. Anthony Strazza, murdered in their bedroom, his safes opened and the house ransacked.  Unfortunately, this is only one such incident.  Eve and her team race to find the man Daphne Strazza describes as ‘the devil.’
      
With overtones of Hamlet and philosophical question, we are inexorably drawn into this, the 44th book of the Eve Dallas series.  What is particularly remarkable is that in Eve time, the series has only progressed 3 years.  What homicide team wouldn’t love a clear rate of approximately 14-15 cases per year?
      
It is Robb’s skill that can take one from the victim of an exceedingly violent crime to a description of a sumptuous dinner.  Part of what makes Eve such an appealing character—aside from her husband—are her powers of observation and her lack of pretension.  How nice it is to have a character for whom the trappings of wealth are not only unimportant but can sometimes be an annoyance.
      
Robb is notable for her dialogue, which is extensive and very natural.  She doesn’t depend on the narrative to move the plot forward.  But when she does narrative, she does it well—“Eve found a street slot--small miracle—and decided it was worth a two and a half block hike in the snow.  She imagined some cheery optimist would call the wind bracing.  She hated cheery optimists.”  In fact, her books read more as screenplays with wry humor, and solid plots where the pieces are laid out one-by-one until the pattern emerges.
      
The character of Eve is so meticulously maintained one understands her focus on her job which justifies her lack of knowledge about popular culture, or that the Phantom in “Phantom of the Opera” being an actual person rather than an apparition.  Robb skillfully relates this case to the childhood experiences of both Eve and Roark, further explaining their personalities.
      
Robb knows just how and when to heighten the suspense and sense of dread, as well as providing a brow-raising twist.
      
Echoes in Death” may be set in the future with technology and references that can amuse, but it also points out the timelessness of people’s emotions and actions.  In the end, it is a very good read.   


ECHOES IN DEATH (Fut/Pol Proc-Lt. Eve Dallas/NYC-2061) – VG
      Robb, J.D. – 44th in series
      St. Martin’s Press – February 2017

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Racing the Devil by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  It was a way of daring Fate.
     
 Inspector Rutledge receives a call sending him to a village in Sussex where the local rector apparently lost control of the motor car he was driving and was killed.  There are more questions raised than answers found:  the rector wasn’t driving his car, nor had he asked the owner’s permission, and his death wasn’t a result of the accident itself.  The further Rutledge digs, the more he believes the rector’s death was a case of mistaken identity.  So who was supposed to die, and why?
      
The ability of Todd to place one immediately within a scene is such an admirable skill.  Beyond that, the very effectively conveys the effects of war on those who served—“There are those who came home to forget, hoping to outrun the past.  I’ve seen them, drinking too much, dancing all night, brittle, seeking oblivion.  The rest of us haven’t found our place yet.  It isn’t a world we recognize, and we don’t feel we’re a part of it.” 
      
Todd excels at providing small details of both events and characters without those details being overdone or intrusive.  Once gets to know even the minor characters of ever social strata and each is so distinct, that there’s never a sense of needing a cast of characters to prevent one from being confused.   There is a lovely connection between Rutledge’s friend Melinda Crawford and Bess Crawford of Todd’s other series.  Melinda is also a delightful character and provides a bit of lightness to the story. It’s nice to have a character who knows Rutledge personally and refers to him by his first name—“Do sit down, Ian.  It’s not your fault that you inherited your father’s height, but I’m getting a pain in my neck looking up at you.”
      
For those who follow the series, the voice of Hamish, the soldier Rutledge had to shoot for cowardice, is still here, but Todd gives us well-done new characters as well.  He provides plenty of background details that add dimension and explanations to Rutledge’s actions, such as his transition from a bicycle, to trains, to finally owning his own motor car, although one does wonder at his always being able to find petrol so easily. 
      
Racing the Devil” has a very effective escalation of suspense, and well-done plot twists with the case being solved by sheer dogged pursuit and a bit of luck.

 RACING THE DEVIL (Hist Mys-Insp. Ian Rudgledge-England-1920) – VG+
      Todd, Charles – 19th in series
      William Morrow – February 2017

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth

First Sentence:  When she heard the stair creak beneath her foot, Portia stopped and stood frozen.

In 1938, at the estate of Sir Jack Jessup, a friend of the Prince of Wales, an actress is murdered.  An ex-convict is arrested, confesses, and is hanged.  But was he really the killer?  In 1949, the reappearance of a necklace raises questions.  Although the police aren’t interested in re-opening the case, former CI Angus Sinclair persuades his former Inspector, John Madden to pursue the investigation.
 
Although it’s been four years since Airth’s last book, he certainly hasn’t lost his touch.  He also does an admirable job of catching readers, new and old, up with the characters, particularly of Madden and his family, and of the post-war period—“No matter how many times he visited Rotterdam…the sight of the devastation wrought by the German bombers in 1940 never ceased to impress…”  A significant change brought about by the war was the introduction of the National Health Service.
 
Airth transports one to England by his descriptions of people and his dialogue.  It is nice to have a protagonist with a solid family life—“Recently [his wife] had taken to wearing spectacles for reading and it was a source of wonder to Madden to see how a pair of simple horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of her nose somehow added a new dimension to a face that had never ceased to hold him in thrall.”
 
There are excellent revelations and twists through the story, but so well and subtly done as not to feel at all contrived.  An interesting shift, the explanation of an expression, and an evocative description all move the story forward nicely.
 
One can very much appreciate that all the police work well together.  It is particularly gratifying that Lily, the female police officer who is a fairly new addition to the force, is treated with respect.  That said, all the characters are fully developed and interesting.

When Airth does suspense, he does it well.  The pace picks up significantly in the last third of the book when situations become dangerous and dramatic with red herrings nicely done.  The reader is inclined to realize the guilty party just as Madden does.

The Death of Kings” is a very good police procedural from a very good author.

THE DEATH OF KINGS: A John Madden Mystery (Pol Proc-John Madden-England-1949) – VG+
      Airth, Rennie – 5th in series
      Viking – 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Last Mile by David Baldacci

First Sentence:  Mars, Melvin.
      
Malvin Mars receives a last-minute reprieve from judicial execution.  Someone else confessed to the crime.  But why now?  That’s what FBI special task force member Amos Decker wants to know, especially when he realized Mars’ case is similar to his own was.  When one of Decker’s team disappears, and the FBI tries to kill the investigation, becomes even more determined to find the answers in spite of the danger Decker.
      
Baldacci creates a powerful sense of place through his descriptions.  Although one rather expects the initial twist, it is still very effective when it comes.
      
It is nice to have a story that is logically and meticulously plotted, but you felt as though you could see his index cards on his wall.  He did create a good cast of characters.      
      
Plot twists can be very effective unless they are overused as they were here.  The whole thing felt over-the-top, and I shan’t even talk about chapter-ending cliffhangers.  Can an author not just tell a good story without needing “read-my-book” tricks? It's unfortunate as the first book in this series was so much better.
      
The Last Mile” does keep you reading and has a very satisfactory ending.  In spite of its many flaws, it is a decent read-it-and-leave-it airplane book.

THE LAST MILE (Pol Proc-Amos Decker-US-1949) - Okay
      Baldacci, David – 2nd in series
      Grand Central Publishing – 2016