Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Murder in the Eternal City by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence: The first English Person I encountered as I wandered the vast city of Rome in February of 1820 was a man I already knew.

Captain Gabriel Lacey, and his loyal bodyguard Brewster, are in Rome with Lord Grenville. He has been commissioned by James Denis, criminal overlord of London, to obtain a small marble statue while he is there. In the process, he encounters a man he thought to be dead who asks for his help. Lacey is also asked to help prevent Conte Trevisan, an aristocrat, from ruining his daughter. Lacey is further tasked with discovering the murderer of Conte De Luca, the man who owns the statue Denis desires.

One is always a bit afraid that a series, by the 16th book, may become repetitive or stale. There is no fear of that with Gardner. Her books are very much character-driven, and what great characters they are. Their lives continue to develop and change with time. And what wonderful characters they are. One of the best things about Lacey is that he is not a superhero. He doesn’t win every fight or always comes to the correct conclusion. But he is surrounded by those who support him, and he’s willing to change his mind. Brewster, Lacey’s bodyguard, is a pleasure. More than simply muscle, he is intelligent, well-read, and clever.

Lord Grenville does play a role, albeit less than in some books, as does Lacey’s wife Donata, who appears later in the story. One appreciates that Gardner has avoided the trope of having the wife become actively involved in the investigation.

Gardner’s descriptions create a visual picture of place and time, even including the earthquakes which are common in Italy. She does an excellent job of switching from the gentility of the drawing room to the danger of the streets. Although most of the story is set in Rome, one is also taken to Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Napoli, bringing the locations to life and seamlessly incorporating their history. Art is an important element of the story, along with the rising popularity of opera, and the looting of ancient treasures. In fact, it is a piece of art that provides the final twist at the end.

MURDER IN THE ETERNAL CITY is a delightfully twisty book, where one never knows who can be trusted and people are not always what they seem. It is exciting and suspenseful, tempered by scenes of Lacey and his much-loved wife, Donata. One hopes this series will continue for many books to come.

MURDER IN THE ETERNAL CITY (HisMys-Captain Lacey-Italy-Regency/1800s)

Ashley Gardner - 16th book in the series
JA/AG Publishing, Sept 2022, 314 pp.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

The Overnight Guest by Heather Gudenkauf

First Sentence: On August 12, 2000, Abby Morris, out of breath with sweat trickling down her temple, was hurrying down the gray ribbon of gravel road for her nightly walk.

Crime writer Wylie Lark is snowed in at the farmhouse where she retreated to write. The setting is perfect as two decades earlier, two people were murdered there, and a girl disappeared. What she doesn’t expect is to find a child nearly frozen in the snow, or that someone is desperate to find them.

There is nothing worse than starting out reading a prologue pretending to be Chapter One, a character who is too stupid to live, and a woman willing to put up with physical abuse. The author lost my attention from the very beginning.

THE OVERNIGHT GUEST is yet another book with multiple timelines, alternating narrators, and multiple points of view. While some may appreciate that style of writing, I find it a tiresome and annoying device.

Susp-Wylie Lark-Iowa-Contem
by Heather Gudenkauf - Standalone
Park Row, Jan 2022, 336 pp

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Things We Do In the Dark by Jennifer Hiller

First Sentence: There’s a time and place for erect nipples, but the back of a Seattle police car definitely isn’t it.

Paris Peralta’s husband has been murdered. Covered in blood, and holding a straight razor, she is immediately arrested. Her greatest fear is that the media attention will result in Paris’ true identity and past being exposed by her mother, Ruby Reyes, who is in prison for a similar crime. Ruby will claim Paris was guilty of that murder, too.

The first line of this book sets the tone, and it goes straight downhill from there. The biggest problem with this book is that it was filled, absolutely filled, with unlikable characters. There really isn’t one with whom one can identify or empathize.

Back story can be a good thing. Drowning the reader in back story is not. And a backstory that often makes one’s skin crawl is even worse. Yes, it was understandable and explained why the character was as she was, but one would need something to make one care about the character. Instead, she made some horrendously stupid decisions both in the past and in the present.

Although this wasn’t meant to be a police procedural, the lack of any normal procedure was almost comical. Any author who writes books involving the police should at least know the basics.

There was no real suspense; no breath-catching twists. The perpetrator was obvious very early on in the book, and the outcome was predictable.

THINGS WE DO IN THE DARK was an overlong, convoluted story with characters about whom one may not care less. Apparently, Hillier has written other highly-rated books, but one couldn’t tell that by this one.

PsyThriller-Paris Peralta-Canada-Contemp
Jennifer Hillier - Standalone
Minotaur Books – Jul 2022  – 352 pp
RATING: Poor / D

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Bookstore Sisters by Alice Hoffman

First Sentence: The letter to Isabel Gibson arrived on a Tuesday, which had always been the unluckiest day of the week.

Isabel Gibson had left Brinkley’s Island, Maine, far behind and is now living in New York City. Her parents are dead, the family bookstore is nearly bankrupt, and she has broken completely from her sister, Sophie. Still, she can’t ignore the letter which draws her back to the Island, and to the past.

Isabel is a character with whom many may easily identify—“She could even forget that she had once been considered the girl most likely to become somebody when she’d turned out to be nobody in particular.” Many may also identify with being estranged from their family or a family member. Hoffman conveys that situation very well.

As a lover of books, one desperately wants to get their hands on the bookshop and straighten things up. There’s a sense that, as with the relationship of the two sisters, it had once been wonderful. The question is whether it could be again. And then there is Violet, Sophie’s daughter who doesn’t like to read yet compares Isabel to Mary Poppins; Hank the Labrador, and Johnny Lenox, Isabel’s childhood friend growing. Of those, Sophie can be irritating, as she is always in tears. However, the letter from her mother that Isabel finds is worth shedding a few tears over.

THE BOOKSTORE SISTERS is a quick read filled with lots of very good truths. It’s a lovely little, short story, sometimes reading a bit juvenile, but with a good lesson to be learned.

THE BOOKSTORE SISTERS (ShortStory-Isabel Gibson-Maine-Contemp)

Alice Hoffman – Short Story
Amazon Original Stories – Nov 2022

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Fox Creek by William Kent Krueger


First Sentence:  It’s after the lunch rush, and the man at the window orders a Sam’s Special, large fries, and a chocolate shake, a pretty standard request.

Henry Meloux, an ancient Ojibway healer, has had visions of his own death.  Dolores Morriseau has come to Henry for solace and advice.  Cork O’Connor’s wife, and Henry’s niece, Rainy, agree to assist Henry and Dolores. All is well until three men, one of whom tricked Cork into leading them to Henry’s, show up intent on killing Dolores.  The only choice Henry has is to lead the two women into the woods and head for the Boundary Waters to keep the three of them safe.  Anton Morriseau, Dolores’ brother-in-law, hunter, and cop with the Leech Lake Tribal Police, arrives and proves to Cork the man claiming to be related to Dolores is an imposter. He and Cork head off to find Henry, Dolores, and Rainy, not knowing the danger they will all be in.

There is a prologue, but it works, providing the perspective of one of the principal characters.  The story is told in present tense from three points of view with the transitions indicated by the chapter heading. This prevents any confusion on the part of the reader.

Krueger has created an excellent ensemble of characters in Cork, Rainy, and Henry. Cork’s son, Stephen, and Rainy’s nephew, Daniel, also play a significant role. However, none of them are perfect and Cork’s realization of a failure is one that can be felt and understood. 

One can’t help but admire Henry’s philosophy toward death—“He understands his death is an experience neither to fear nor to welcome.  It is simply a place toward which he has been walking since the moment of his birth.” I was also taken by Henry always referring to the Native Indians as “The People,” which conveys dignity and rightfulness. There are no weak characters here, all the supporting characters are significant to the story and well-defined.

What is particularly interesting about this book is the character LaLoup, the tracker hired by the villain, and witnessing the change he undergoes as the story unfolds.  This is a character one hopes may return in future books.

There is a mysterious message saying “Kill Catie” which adds to the complexity of the plot. It’s not unusual to have a story focused on the hunted and the hunters.  Krueger takes it one step further by adding another layer, and then the weather on top of it all, making it particularly exciting. Kruger’s writing is visual due to his strong sense of place, and ability to convey emotions.  Any time both the protagonists and the villains are up against a deadline, the tension and suspense are heightened.  In this case, each side knows they will experience serious consequences if they fail.

Krueger is a wonderful writer and reading the Author Notes is strongly recommended. Although this book can be read as a standalone, reading the entire series is a special treat. 

FOX CREEK is an excellent and exciting read. This is not a book one will put down and come back to later. The theme is timely and important. The characters are excellent.  In a review by John Purcell, he noted—"Cork is the center, but Henry is the heart.” I couldn’t have put it better.  The ending is reassuring, but only if we pay attention. There are some good lessons to be learned. 

FOX CREEK (PI- Cork O’Connor-Boundary Waters, MN-Contemp)
William Kent Krueger – 19th in series
Atria Books, Aug 2022, 400 pp.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Shifty's Boys by Chris Offutt

First Sentence:  At age eight, Albin decided to be a race-car driver when he grew up.

Mick Hardin’s life isn’t going well.  He is on medical leave from the Army CID, dealing with the end of his marriage, and living in his late mother’s house now owned by his sister, Linda, who is running for re-election as the sheriff of Rocksalt. Things are even worse for Barney Kissick, known as “Fuckin’ Barney,” a known drug dealer who was found shot to death in the parking lot of Western Auto.  At Mick’s last conversation with Shifty Kissick, Barney’s mother, they were both armed. Now she wants him to find Barney’s killer.

Offutt’s descriptions often have a lyrical quality to them—“There was a palpable energy in the hills from the trees still in flower, the opening leaves of softwoods, and the infant animals.” 

The book is built on strong, yet very human, characters.  Mick is recovering from an IED injury and dealing with the betrayal of his soon-to-be ex-wife, trying to get off a dependency on drugs and alcohol to dull his pain.  Linda wants to prove herself as sheriff by winning the election even if it means rescuing a dog from a tree. Deputy Johnny Boy Tolliver may have a weak stomach and a fear of ghosts, but he loves his job and is observant, organized, and resourceful. Shifty Kissick wants to know who killed her son.  He may have been a drug dealer, but he was her first boy, although not the first she has lost or will lose.  

Mick is a wonderfully atypical protagonist.  From his experience in the military, he knows the value of life—“Fuckin’ Barney got shot down like a dog.  The guy might kill somebody else.  There’s never just one.  If I can stop it, I will. I had enough of people dying to last a lifetime.”  Even Linda, is aware of it—“Despite being capable of violence, he operated from a base of compassion that surprised her.” Even his stature is unexpected—“Shorter than everyone, including Linda, he exuded a sense of restrained power.”

There are wonderful idioms that reflect the speech of the region, such as describing someone as—“Keen as a briar.  Crazy as a soup sandwich.” 

 SHIFTY’S BOYS is darker, and more violent than Offutt’s first book “The Killing Hills.” Of Mitch, Offutt writes--“He’d become what he despised—a retribution killer.” However, it’s a very good read with great characters, and excellent dialogue, including thought-provoking, backcountry wisdom.  “He wondered how often people tried to convince themselves that homicide was acceptable in service to the greater good.” This seems to be a common theme these days and an interesting one to ponder.

SHIFTY’S BOYS (Noir-Mick Hardin-Rocksalt, Kentucky-Contemp)
by Chris Offutt – 2nd in series
Grove Press, Jun 2022, 282 pp.


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Three Pines: The television series

IIPMO - LJ's Review: "THREE PINES, an Amazon Prime television series based on the books by Louise Penny.
From the opening scene where we see Gamache reprimand a young officer, to where he gives the indigenous family a ride home, Alfred Molina is excellent as Gamache, capturing his compassion, his sense of justice, and later, his occasional humor. His face is expressive, often conveying more emotion than could words.

The casting of the Three Pines residents is excellent, and the inclusion of Tantoo Cardinal's character is one I can see Louise incorporating into a future book. I did always envision Jean-Guy as somewhat younger and clean-shaven, but I can deal with that.
The story of the missing indigenous women is an important part of Canada's sad story that needs to be told. I appreciated that the principal photography occurred between August and early December of 2021. No fake winter here. The winter scenes made one feel the cold.
This is no Cabot Cove. The story had a darkness to it as befits a murder investigation. The inclusion of the bluejay and Gamache's dreams only enhanced the atmosphere and seriousness of the plot. And serious it is with significant hits to the heart.
THREE PINES, Season 1 has eight episodes and is a series I highly recommend. Not only am I looking forward to the next 6 episodes, but very much hope for Seasons 2, 3, 4, ...
THREE PINES Produced by Left Bank Pictures
Released December 1, 2022 Rating: Ex

Monday, November 28, 2022

A World of Curiosities by Louise Penny

First Sentence:  “Oh, merde.

Going to the past can be painful and dangerous.  It is there where Chief Inspector Gamache and Agent Jean-Guy Beauvoir first meet during the case of two children so emotionally damaged they may have murdered their own mother, Clotilde Arsenault.  The older sister, Fiona, is sent to prison, while the brother, Sam, is deemed too young to be tried. Returning to the present, Gamache and his wife, Raine-Marie, take in a now-released Fiona and facilitated her enrollment in the École Polytechnique, from which she is now graduating along with Harriet, bookshop owner and ex-psychologist, Myrna Lander. Natalie Provost, a survivor of the Montreal Massacre where 14 were killed and 13 were wounded, all women, is receiving a special award.  Sam showing up at the graduation and is planning to stay in Three Pines, is an unwelcome surprise to Gamache, who never trusted the young man. 

Myrna and her partner, Billy, are thinking of moving from above the bookshop.  Instead, it is suggested they break through to an attic room that had been bricked off by Billy’s ancestor and about which he’d only recently learned upon receiving a letter dated 1862. In the room, they find a trove of unusual objects, some of which had been stolen from Gabi and Olivier’s bistro, and an enormous painting. The painting looks to be “The Paston Treasure,” better known as A World of Curiosities, painted in the 1800s and housed in the U.K.  But oddly, the painting in Three Pines is a copy filled with modern objects.  Also in the room is something long sought by Raine-Marie; a grimoire, a textbook of magic, inscribed with the name Anne Lamarque, a woman who’d been banished as a witch. After the death of the woman who sent the letter to Billy, Gamache brings in Agent Ameila Choquet to set up an Incident Room in Three Pines in order to learn how all these pieces fit together, and how they lead to a serial killer Gamache arrested years before.

Never has this reviewer written such a long synopsis.  Never has Penny written such a book where this long a synopsis was needed.  This is not a bad thing.

Penny paints wonderfully visual pictures and is such a lyrical writer.  She imbues some of her characters with depth, wisdom and poetry, while others are as basic and ordinary as people often are.  “While he’d [Gamache] become an explorer of human emotions, Jean-Guy Beauvoir was the hunter.” Penny also incorporates an informal, yet complete, cast of characters within the story.  The reader learns new things about the characters, which keeps them developing and expanding.  Ruth, the eclectic poet, provides humor, as well as wisdom and history essential to the plot, while Clara’s information about the painting is fascinating.

The interspersion of literary quotes and poems adds so much to the book.  They may inject humor, but they may also connote other emotions, melancholy, sorrow, or a warning. It’s not unusual for the reader to spend time looking up the source material for some of the quotes. 

It’s hard not to have favorite characters.  One may be the brilliant and fascinating character of Amelia Choquet with her complex history.  She is described by Myrna as—"If Ruth and a trash compactor had a child,…”  Her use of three particular lines at the end of the book is incredibly powerful.

There can’t be a story in Three Pines that doesn’t include food. While the meals may be simpler than in some previous books, still one is tempted by chilled pea soup, grilled Gruyère and sweet onion sandwiches; salmon, fresh-cut asparagus, baby potatoes, and green salad with vinaigrette; charbroiled steak with chimichurri sauce and frites; and wild mushroom ravioli with sage brown butter.

The story is the most complex Penny has written to date. It begins by jumping back and forth in time yet is easy enough to follow.  One must pay attention to the characters and their relationships. There is a lot to this plot that can’t be exposed in a review. It isn’t a book to stop and start but is best read by becoming completely absorbed in the story.

A WORLD OF CURIOSITIES is a story of family, love, and forgiveness while being filled with misdirection and red herrings at every turn, even though the clues are there.  Even though one instinctively knows, at least hopes, everything will be alright, the suspense is such that the end may engender tears of relief. The reader is so invested in the characters, one experiences their pain, fear, and anger, but also their love.  This is one of the most suspenseful books Penny has written and one that must have required a tremendous amount of research.  It may also be one of her best. 

A WORLD OF CURIOSITIES (Susp-Chief Insp. Armand Gamache-Three Pines, Canada-Contemp)
Louise Penny – 18th in series
Minotaur Books, Nov 2022, 384 pp.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Killing Hills by Chris Offutt

First Sentence:  The old man walked the hill with a long stick, pushing aside mayapple and horseweed, seeking ginseng.

Combat veteran Mick Hardin is now with the Army Criminal Investigation, Division.  Currently home on leave, he needs to resolve issues with his pregnant wife, but his leave time is running out. His sister, Linda, is the newly appointed sheriff the town’s Mayor wants to be fired.  With a murder case on Linda’s hands, and an inexperienced deputy, she turns to Mick for help.

There’s nothing better than discovering an author one has not read previously and immediately get drawn in by the author’s voice and the characters.  Offutt starts off with a chapter of wonderful description and ends with an eyebrow-raising revelation.  Along the way, Hardin uses wonderful imagery—“The vulnerable always died early.  Death begat death…”

Each character is strong and important to the story.  One appreciates Hardin’s approach of ---“I don’t want nobody else to get killed, …I had enough of it overseas.  If I can stop it, I will.” Mick isn’t a character who goes in hard unless it’s warranted.  His scene with Mullin’s mule and the front porch is delightful.  Whereas the interaction between Mick and his wife, and his subsequent action, is raw, yet Hardin truly captures Mick’s emotions. 

Mick’s sister, Linda, holds her own in the story—“There never was a body in Eldridge County that most folks didn’t already know who did it.  Usually a neighbor, a family, or drugs. … This is different.” Deputy Johnny Boy Tolliver, who gets car sick and believes ghosts exist but only in certain environments, is a particular favorite.

There is an underlying theme of family and love, even if that love is misguided.  Offutt shows that even though a family may not have much, the strength of that love can determine certain choices, and not always in a positive way. 

It can become a bit confusing keeping track of some of the characters who have both proper names and nicknames, yet Offutt fleshes out each character making them real people.

Some may not care for the way Offutt portrays the people of Kentucky, but it’s important to remember he is depicting one region, and not even all the people of that region.  While set in Appalachia, the book could have been set in almost any state with a concentration of people who live in the backcountry.  Still, the author ensures that the dignity of the people is reflected in their wisdom and philosophy on life.  Mick shares—“…one of his grandfather’s lessons.  Searching interfered with the ability to find. … At night don’t look for an animal trail, just walk where the trees aren’t.  See shapes and colors, not the thing itself.”  

THE KILLING HILLS is a book that is unexpected in the very best way.  The characters, dialogue, and descriptions are excellent. That’s not to say there isn’t violence; there is. Even so, Offutt is an author one may wish to follow.

THE KILLING HILLS (Noir-Mick Hardin-Rocksalt, Kentucky-Contemp)
Chris Offutt – 1st in series
Grove Press, June 15, 2001, 240 pp.