Thursday, October 24, 2013

A Place of Confinement by Anna Dean

First Sentence: My dear Eliza, I am in prison and I do not know how much longer I can bear my confinement.

Spinster Dido Kent has been sent off to Charcombe Manor with wealthy and demanding Aunt Manners. Upon arriving, she learns that Miss Letitia Verney is missing, though to have eloped to Gretna Green with Tom Lomax, wastrel son of Dido’s suitor, William. There is more than one puzzle to keep Dido busy. Why does no one seem concerned about Letitia?  Why is Aunt Manners giving her jewelry to George, a brother she dislikes? Why is crying heard from a deserted part of the manor house? And most urgently, how can Dido prevent Tom from being hung for the murder of a man visiting George’s new resort town near the estate.

From the very opening, it is hard to resist Ms. Dido Kent and the charming letter to her sister. Ms. Dean very cleverly creates the atmosphere of there being a mystery about to unfold without resorting to the cliched use of a portent.

Anyone familiar with Jane Austin will find themselves equating Dean’s characters with those of Austin. Dean captures the details of the period perfectly from the societal structure, to the inclusion of a chamber horse, to the style of speech. “…And would you seek to change the world’s opinion on the matter?” “I do not presume so far… I seek only to act as my conscience dictates. It is a matter of integrity, Mr. Lomax, not revolt.” The relationship between Dido and William Lomax is wonderfully written and completely appropriate to the characters and the period.

Yet set into this period of lightness, Dean introduces murder and an element of the Gothic and dread through a grim discovery made by Dido. There does appear to be a small oversight in the logic needed to solve the crime, but it can be forgiven considering the very clever plot twist and even bigger surprise. The sub-theme of duty is very effective and adds depth to the story.

A Place of Confinement” is wonderful. I do love Dido Kent and admire Ms. Dean’s skill of creating a character who solves crimes in a way that is completely believable considering the constraints placed upon her by the period in which she is set. Do treat yourself and begin the series at the beginning.

A PLACE OF CONFINEMENT (Hist Mys/Ama Sleuth-Dido Kent-England-Georgian/1807) – VG+
Dean, Anna – 4th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Saturday, October 19, 2013


First Sentence: I met Paul when a friend of my friend Tabith played at the Hotel Utah late on Thursday night.

An ex-boyfriend of PI Claire DeWitt is found dead. The police believe it was a robbery gone wrong, but Claire isn’t convinced, particularly when were appear to be links to the past. While Claire investigates, she sends her new assistant, Claude, off on a case of miniature horses that have gone missing from a ranch in Marin County.

Sara Gran has such a wonderful, original voice and often writes passages that make you stop and think…”Maybe it was true: Life was a series of words we’d been given to arrange as we pleased, only no one seemed to know how. A word game with no right solution, a crossword puzzle where we couldn’t quite remember the name of that song.” She is very good at expressing small truths, “Everyone things their grief is the first grief. Everyone things their grief is primary and everyone else’s is secondary.”

When some author’s characters refer to past cases, you feel as though you’ve missed a book in the series. When Claire refers to past cases, it is almost as an aside and assures you that it is fine that you don’t know the details. That said, it is very helpful to have read the actual first book in this series, “…City of the Dead.”

Told in first person, this is very much a character-driven book. It is fascinating to see how Gran incorporates different philosophical beliefs into Claire’s thought process. And then there is the book by the French detective Jacques Silette which seems to have almost magical properties of his own and becomes something of an on-going character in the series.  Claire, however, is far from being a paragon of virtue. She excels in vices; legal and illegal and the focus on these significantly and adversely effect the reader's view of the character.  Rather than want to know her better, she becomes someone you'd likely avoid.

Description and sense of place are also among Gran’s strengths, even if she does get a bit Map-Quest-y at times. For those who live, or know, the San Francisco Bay Area well, it is delightful following Claire to places so familiar to us. For those who don’t, her descriptions and details provide the feeling of being there.

Unfortunately, what is severely lacking is the mystery. It is there, but it seems the clues were not.

…Bohemian Highway” sadly lacks the charm, humor and magic of Ms. Gran’s first book. I found myself more annoyed by Claire, than entranced by her. I do hope Ms. Gran’s next book finds its way back to the appeal of the first, but I’m not completely certain I’ll be there to read it.

(PI-Claire DeWitt-New York City-1980s) – Okay
Gran, Sara
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

An Old Betrayal by Charles Finch

First Sentence: The long green benches of the House of Commons were half-deserted as the evening session began, scattered with perhaps a few dozen men.

Charles Lenox has a very full life.  He has a wonderful wife, infant daughter and a seat in Parliament. Although it is a very busy time in Parliament, Charles Lenox agrees to meet with a former colleague’s client. But it’s the murder of a country squire that returns Lenox to his former profession of investigation, at least part time. Lenox finds this to be much more than a simple murder. Instead, it’s a case which could impact the nation.

Finch opens with a very good introduction to the main characters, providing both background and a clearly established sense of time and place. There is also an unusual set up right from the start that adds just a touch of humanity and humor to the story. Asking about the outfit worn by an 18-month old child, Lenox says “I have never understood this strange tradition that has us dress our small boys in martial clothing. This one seems to be wearing a regimental jacket.” Rather than describing the details of the season, he has Lenox equate Spring, not with nature, but with the events and posturing of the London Season. That’s not to say his traditional use of description is not evocative, for it assuredly is.

Finch’s details on the period, both in appearance and in conveying the spoken, and unspoken, rules of society are exacting. “…Toto burst into tears, burying her face in Jane’s quickly encircling arms. In a woman of slightly lower birth it would have been a distasteful spectacle. Rules soften toward the top, however.” He includes wonderful bits of historical detail, such as how Charing Cross obtained its name and the etymology of “hogwash.”

The dialogue also contributes to the sense of time as it reflects the speech of the period. There are actually historical figures deftly woven into, and critical to, the plot. Again, the details are very impressive although I do suspect some liberty was taken with Campbell’s Soup being available in England during that time.

What was rather fascinating was watching Finch, and ergo Lenox, balance both the investigation, the demands of his personal life and those of Parliament. The mystery keeps one involved and provides wonderful twists along the way with a motive clearly linked to actual events in history.

An Old Betrayal” is a very good read and entry to a wonderful series which should be read in order.

AN OLD BETRAYAL (Hist Mys/Lic Invest-Charles Lenox-England-1875) – VG
Finch, Charles – 7th in series
Minotaur Books, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013


First Sentence: At the sound of footsteps in the alley, Maggie Keene dimmed the gas lamp and sidled up to the room’s only window.

Deputy Marshal Archie Lean is summoned to a murder scene. The body of a prostitute is found, pinned to the earth with a pitchfork, her heads and limbs laid out to represent a pentagram, and her body parts removed—all in the traditional method of killing a witch. Also on the scene is Cyrus Grey, Indian and former Pinkerton who studied anatomy. In spite of their different approaches, the two men must join forces and stop a killer.


This had all the elements that would normally have appealed to me; historical, police procedural, Maine, witch trials, occult. Of course, the very small print did not help that, but that’s the fault of the publisher, not the author. Still, had I been engrossed in the story, I would have persevered. Instead, I found it just didn’t hold my interest. 

The main characters of Lean and Grey were too clearly fashioned after Watson and Holmes, almost to the point where they felt plagiarized, but with the names changes. The anachronisms were overwhelming, the speech had no reflection of the period; it seemed much too modern. As for setting, it is an area I know well. However, beyond a map-quest tour of the area, the sense of place was not evocative.

The Truth of All Things” was a slog to read with stereotypical characters and no strong sense of time or place. I abandoned it after the first 150 pages. I did try, but just couldn’t stay with it.

THE TRUTH OF ALL THINGS (Hist Mys/Pol Proc-Archie Lean/Perceval Grey-Maine-1892) – DNF
Shields, Kieran – 1st in series
Broadway Paperbacks, 2012

Thursday, October 10, 2013


First Sentence: Lewis and Clark County Montana Sheriff’s Department Investigator Cassandra Dewell winced when a pair of headlights broke over a rise onto a long treeless bench in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains north of Helena.

The first thing readers need to know is that this is definitely not a Joe Picket book. If you are expecting Joe’s Dudley-Do-Right morality, do not read this book. That said…

The elements of Box’ style which hold are very visual descriptions—occasionally more so than some might care for –and excellent dialogue being top among them.

As many of the characters in this book previously appeared in “Back of Beyond,” I greatly appreciated that Box summarizes the first story, providing the back story and relationships of the characters. The characterization of the two girls was very well done, even down to Danielle’s anthropomorphizing her car. The contrast of the two sisters is excellent; one being a survivor, the other a victim.

The protagonists, Cody Hoyt and Cassie Dewell, are as different from one another as could be. Cody, hardened by life and experience, believes in doing what is necessary to get the bad guys. Cassie is fairly new to the force and somewhat naïve; at least in the beginning.

This is a much darker story than we’re accustomed to from the Joe Pickett books. There are points where it’s ugly and very difficult to read. There is an unexpected twist which is so shocking, it’s hard to believe it happened. The story has an excellent reveal and climax, as well as a very, very good, albeit creepy ending. I applaud Mr. Box for taking this slightly risky step to the dark side. He is an author, I believe, who deserves much more credit and notice than he receives.

The Highway” was not a comfortable read, but it was a very, very good one. As an audiobook reader, Holter Graham did a very credible job, although it’s always a bit challenging having a man doing female dialogue. Even so, his voice did not take you out of, or get in the way of, the story.

THE HIGHWAY (Suspense/Pol Proc-Cody Hoyt/Cassie Dewel-Montana-Contemp) – VG+
Box, C.J. (Read by Holter Graham) – 2nd in series
A Macmillan Audiobook from St. Martin’s Press, 2013

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


First Sentence: The Theater District did not shut down for winter storms.

Putting on a play in New York is always a tough gig. However, having the play change constantly and having a person in the audience die each of the first two nights, makes it particularly challenging. It does draw an audience, and the attention of Special Crimes Unit, including Detective Mallory.

Kathy Mallory is a force and one of the most memorable and compelling characters there is. Her partner Riker, Dr. Edward Slope, brilliant Charles Butler and all of the recurring characters in this series are not only her family, but become part of everyone who follows the series. If you’re a fan, you are a real fan. If you’ve not read the series before, don’t start here.

It has taken me a long time to figure out how I feel about this book. The answer is that I’m somewhat disappointed. The reason why is the plot. It is confusing, to put it kindly. Of the secondary characters, there is only one about whom we care, and it takes us a long time to get there. Of the others, there is only one from whom we may feel some sympathy, but not that’s enough. There is, however, a very good second thread which does make the story more interesting. As opposed to most Mallory books, I did not find this a one-sitting read. I never considered not finishing it, but I did keep hoping it would get better.

The two things that drove me forward were the character of Mallory, who is always compelling, and O’Connell’s dialogue including her use of wry humor…”Words of a wise man: “Don’t ever let me catch you punching out a reporter.” And the late Louis Markowitz had also told her,” It’s unsanitary, kid. You don’t know where that scum has been.”. Those two elements are wonderful, but not enough on their own.

There seems to be a major continuity gap between the previous book, “The Chalk Girl”, and this book. That gap is never explained. There is also an epilogue in this book, as was in the last, that really doesn’t contribute anything to the story itself. The first time, it was interesting and touching; this time it seems disjointed and somewhat out of continuity with the previous one. I do, however, have a suspicion that O’Connell is playing with us, in the way Mallory would, and all will be clear….someday.

It Happens In the Dark” is not O’Connell’s best book. Were someone new to the series, or someone who is not a true fan, to read it, I suspect this would be the end or only book they would read by her. As someone who is a fan, I am willing to forgive an author their occasional blunder—who knows what may have been going on in Ms. O’Connell’s life during the time she was writing this—but I shall also very much hope the next book rises back to the level we’ve come to expect.

IT HAPPENS IN THE DARK (Pol Prod-Mallory-NYC-Cont) – Good
O’Connell, Carol
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Burning of Rachel Hayes by Doug Alleyn

First Sentence: A cold finger brushed Rachel’s throat, jolting her out of a dream.

Veterinarian David Westbrook, released after 2 years in prison, has rented a barn to rebuild his practice and his life. He hears a woman's screams and rescues her son who'd fallen in an old well. But he also discovers the remains of a woman, Rachel Hayes, who had died in a firestorm in the 1870's. But once her remains are found, fires and deaths begin.

Allyn starts us off with a dramatic prologue which clearly has a purpose and makes us want to know more. It establishes themes which run through the entire story.

The author has a wonderful voice and writes great dialogue…”One last question,” she said,” a medial one. Are you a good vet?” “I try to be. I was tops in my class at State. My patients bark at me sometimes, but they never write nasty letters.” “You have a strange sense of humor.” “Thank you.”

The characters are fully-dimensional. Each has a past they are trying to overcome and with objectives for their futures. They are real; they are alive and you feel their pain. You find yourself empathizing with Westbrook. You want to pull him back when he’s about to do something stupid and are very relieved when he doesn’t.

Even the four-legged creatures become very real to us. Allyn’s descriptions and understanding of the animals is wonderful. I shall caution that there are animals harmed in this book, but it was relevant to the plot and done with a purpose. The protagonist is a vet and a rescuer. It helps to keep that in mind.

The Burning of Rachel Hayes” is a gripping read with an underlying element of the Gothic and a bit of “something wicked this way comes” feel. It is not a typical ghost story. There is a paranormal element but one leaving you wondering whether it’s truly paranormal or corporal. It is filled with strong, diverse and interesting characters, both human and animal. I found myself so caught up in the story, parts of it stayed with me long after finishing the book. Although Mr. Allyn has written other books, he now concentrates on short stories, including the David Westbrook collection of “All Creatures Dark and Dangerous.”

THE BURNING OF RACHEL HAYES (Myst-Dr. David Westbrook-Michigan-Contemp) – VG+
Allyn, Doug
Five Star, 2004

Saturday, October 5, 2013


First Sentence: “This is the sword of justice,” Jean-Baptiste told him, lifting it from its long, straw-lined, padlocked crate.

Due to the illness of his father and pressure from his grandmother, Charles-Henri Sanson is forced to assume the position and title as the fourth generation hereditary master executioner of Paris. It is a position of title and power. It is also a role into which one is born and has no choice but to assume as no other professions are open to the inheritor of that role. Yet Charles must both learn his position and strive to maintain his humanity while so doing.

Ms. Alleyn wisely provides a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of this book. This is critical, and very helpful in avoiding confusion, as she is dealing with many members of one family. That she takes this family, whose profession is as terrible as one could imagine, and make them both human and sympathetic is a remarkable accomplishment.

Charles is the antithesis of what one would imagine for his role, yet part of the power of the book is that it breaks down stereotypes. He is, to paraphrase another character’s observation, prosperous, has a good education, nice manners and is very, very handsome. He also despises what he does,…”It was rather pathetic, Charles often thought, that among the crowds who came to stare at public chastisement, the one least eager to be present was the man in charge of the business.” Conversely, his grandmother and sister are very matter of fact about the profession and proud of the family’s title and status. That conflict makes for a very thoughtful reading.

The story deepens with the introduction of an antagonist. Although she has so done throughout the story, it is at this point, Ms. Alleyn forcefully speaks to our emotions. One doesn’t just end the story, one muses over it long after the last page is turned.

The historic detail doesn’t just create a sense of time and place, but includes us and informs us. It is fascinating to learn the levels of what could and could not be done, both in terms of the punishments and types of executions for different levels of crimes and society, but how bodies were handled after death. We also learn about the legal process in the days before defense lawyers.

While “The Executioner’s Heir” sounds as though it could be very grim, it is not. Yes, there are passages difficult to read, but never unnecessarily graphic. It is a very human story and, in the end, about a man deciding to be the best he can be. It is a remarkable book. 

THE EXECUTIONER’S HEIR (Hist Novel-Charles-Henri Sanson-France-1760s) – Ex
Alleyn, Susanne – Standalone
Spyderwort Press (1st electronic edition), 2013

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Hangman by Louise Penny

First Sentence: Armand Gamache didn’t like what he was looking at, but then, few people would.

A guest at the Inn and Spa in Three Pines is found hanged by a jogger. Inspector Armand Gamache and his deputy Jean-Guy Beauvoir are sent to investigate. The question is whether this is a suicide or murder.

This novella was written for Canada’s Literacy Project at the Grade 3 level for adult readers. The style and plot are very simple and, where characters in the series books, would use French words or phrases, English is used here. Even so, this is a wonderfully written story.

The underlying question is “why?”. Why was the man there? Whether by his own hand or that of another, why did he die? There is another question of “why” but I refuse to give away a major plot point.

This is yet another example of Ms. Penny’s skill and quality of storytelling even for those of us way above Grade 3 level reading. Do not, however, confuse that for meaning the story has been ‘dumbed-down’. Not at all. It has all the elements that define an excellent tale with its strong sense of place, excellent characters, wonderfully done and natural dialogue. Although the structure and language may be fairly simple, the plot twist is not and the motive leaves us thinking.

The Hangman” is complete unto itself and a wonderful read, no matter your age or reading level.

THE HANGMAN (Pol Proc-CI Armand Gamache-Canada-Contemp) – Ex
Penny, Louise – Short Story
Grass Roots Press – 2010

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny

First Sentence:  Pandora was still pretty.
A suspected suicide is found at the base of the Champlain Bridge.  Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is still dealing with the forces at the highest level of the Sûreté du Québec set on destroying his career.  He is without his college and friend Jean-Guy Beauvoir, yet determined to learn what is the motive.  A trip to Three Pines is prompted when Gamache receives a call of Myrna, owner of the used bookstore.  An acquaintance of hers had visited and was due back for Christmas but hadn’t returned or been heard from.   These three seemingly disparate threads come to be one of Gamache’s most dangerous cases of his life.
It is not easy to describe the images that go through the mind of a phobic, yet Ms. Penny does and does it brilliantly.  That is just the beginning of another book by this incomparable author.  There are some who mistakenly classify Ms. Penny’s books as “cozies.”  They are not.  They are multi-layered character studies.  Even though set in the seemingly idyllic town of Three Pines, her stories reinforce the fact that darkness can intrude anywhere. 
Penny’s characters are wonderful.  They are not perfect people but ones which are very human, with strengths, weaknesses, faults, and enormous depths.  Ruth is a literary treasure.  Gamache is a man of integrity and principle; someone to be admired and exemplified yet with blind spots of his own.   The town of Three Pines is a character onto itself.  It may be imaginary, yet the town and its residents, are brought to life. 
Her descriptions are evocative…”But this was the snow of her childhood.  Joyful, playful, bright and clean.  The more the merrier.  It was a toy.”  At the same time, there is a sense of plaintiveness here as well…”Why do decent young men and women become bullies?  Why do soldiers dream of being heroes but end up abusing prisoners and shooting civilians?...Because everyone else does…Corruption and brutality is modeled and expected and rewarded.”  That’s only one example of Ms. Penny’s voice and superb dialogue.  She is one of those rare authors whose writing often compels you to read it aloud to others, both because of its excellence and its message. Why do I quote so much of her work?  How could I even begin to express things as perfectly? 
The multi-threaded plot has a complexity that gives real depth to the story.  There were a couple instances where I thought I’d caught an inconsistency or wondered whether something could have been done another way, only to realize one should always trust Ms. Penny as her choices are the exact right ones.  There are unexpected, powerful twists, but never done in a way that seems manipulative.  At times, the protagonist is as surprised as the reader.  There is tension, drama and tremendous suspense. 

Ms. Penny, in an interview for the television series, made reference to..."these books are love letters to where I live, to the village I live in, to the people I live with..."  I don't think she realized how much they would also become love letters to those of us who love her books.
How the Light Gets In” is an excellent story of contrasts and the question of good overcoming evil; of light and darkness.   This may be Ms. Penny’s best book yet, although we’re talking in minute comparisons of excellence from her previous books.  However, this is not where a new reader should start the series.  Although each book could stand on its own, the entire series should really be considered as a whole and begun at the first book. 

HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN (Pol Proc-CI Armand Gamache-Canada-Contemp) - Ex
Penny, Louise - 9th in series
Minotaur Books, 2011

Friday, August 30, 2013

Blind Justice by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Hester let the hansom cab pass, then crossed Portpool Lane and went in through the door to the clinic for sick and injured prostitutes.
When one of the workers Hester Monk's women's shelter is concerned that her father has been the victim of an unscrupulous pastor, she asks for Hester's help.   In time, the case is brought to court with Oliver Rathborn, newly raised to being a judge,  to preside.  No one could have anticipated the devastation such a case could cause to all their lives.

From the very beginning, we are introduced to the main characters, as well as being provided their backstories.  While this may not be strictly necessary for continuing readers, it is a boon for readers new to the series and an author who doesn’t take forget new readers is one to be commended. Perry has wonderful ability for conveying insights into the lives of her characters and their thoughts.  They become very real people to the reader; people about whom you care.  In this book, that is particularly important.

Ms. Perry excels at raising social, moral and ethical issues and looking at them from various sides.  She poses questions and, while she may provide her answers, she causes the reader to consider and weigh their own answers.  She even address crime by those who feel they are entitled…”…they all think they will be the one to get away with it.”   Although this introspection does slow the first part of the book, she more than makes up for that later.   

Perry creates a very strong sense of time and societal conventions, yet often in subtle ways.  A character is admiring a particular painting…”it is quite lovely,” he said instead, looking at the little painting.  “I think he could well become professional, don’t you?”  Henry smiled.  “Actually it’s a ‘she,’ so I doubt it…”

There is nothing fluffy about a Perry book.  She asks serious questions, addresses serious issues, and makes you look at things in a way you may not have previously.  Although set in Victorian England, all the issues she raises are just as relevant today.  At the same time, the story has an excellent twist, plenty of suspense, drama and tension.

Blind Justice” may be a bit of a morality play, but it’s also a cracking good and suspenseful mystery.  Although a bit slow and repetitive in the beginning, one should always trust that Ms. Perry will make it well worth your while to stay with it and read to the end.  You won’t regret it.

BLIND JUSTICE (Hist Mys-Monk/Hester/Oliver Rathbone-England-Victorian) - VG+
Perry, Anne - 19th in series
Ballentine Books - 2013

Death in the Vines by M.L. Longworth

First Sentence:  Olivier Bonnard sat on the bottom stone step of his cellar, his hands gathered around his head as if he were attempting to soothe a migraine.
Winery owner Olivier Bonnard discovers some, but not all, of his rare vintage wines have been stolen from his cellar.  Gilles d’Arras is missing something even more critical, his wife, Pauline, has disappeared.  It is up to Magistrate Antoine Verlaque and Police Commissioner Bruno Paulik to solve both mysteries.
For anyone who loves wine, the opening is quite devastating.  Unfortunately, it also contains a completely unnecessary portent.
Commissioner Paulik and Magistrate Verlaque are characters who are very different from one another, but work very well together, which is refreshing.  I did enjoy how the families of the characters played into the story.  It confirms the setting being a small city rather than being in Paris.  However, there was very little character development and much of the focus was on personal relationships, rather than the crimes.  That said, there were interesting insights into relationships in general.  Aside from the principals, there were a lot of characters introduced but with no indication of who they were or how they were relevant.
Although a strong sense of place is lacking, there are enough passages with visual descriptions that paint verbal pictures and assure us that we are in the beautiful area of Aix-en-Provence.  There are wonderful descriptions of wine, but not the mouth-watering descriptions of food other authors may provide. The narrative is smooth and the dialogue natural.
“Death in the Vines” is a gentle mystery.  It is much more a story of character—and very good, interesting characters they are--than of plot.  It is enjoyable but not terribly exciting. 

DEATH IN THE VINES (Pol Proc-Verlaque/Paulik-France-Contemp) - Good
Longworth, M.L. - 3rd in series
Penguin Books - 2013

Friday, August 23, 2013

Holy Orders by Benjamin Black

First Sentence:  At first they thought it was the body of a child.

A naked body, so badly beaten as to be almost unrecognizable, is found in the body of the canal, bringing out Inspector Hackett and ending up on a table in pathologist Quirke’s morgue.  Surprisingly, Quirke knows the victim, reporter Jimmy Minor, to be a friend of his daughter, Phoebe.  Phoebe feels she is being followed and learns it is the victim’s sister, Sally.  Together, Phoebe and Sally ask for Quirke’s help in learning who killed Jimmy.
We start out being introduced to a collection of characters who, after Chapter One and with the exception of Inspector Hackett, disappear and are never seen again.  From there, we move to a new set of characters whose common trait seems to be angst and depression.  I can forgive quite a bit, when it comes to characters, but there has to be something appealing about them beyond watching them self-destruct.  Although Hackett was the most appealing character, he was also the one of whom we saw the least. 
Other than the obsession over rain, there was little sense of time or place.  It really could have been set anywhere in the British Isles except that the glumness of the characters, the alcohol, obsession with the Church, referring to the Guards (Police) and, yes, the rain, gave it away as Ireland but only if you thought about it.
Beyond that, we had a detective who did little detection, a pathologist who did not pathology, depressing characters and very little suspense.  Lost in all this was the mystery which only popped up occasionally when the characters weren’t busy obsessing over their lives.  The only part worth slogging all the way through the book for was a scene at the end.  Even the satisfaction of that, however, was mitigated by the unsurprising events in the aftermath.

"Holy Orders" was definitely not my glass of Jameson.   I did keep thinking the book was "very Irish," if your definition of Irish is relentlessly bleak settings and depressing characters,.  For me, however, that alone does not a good book make.  I read the first of Black's Quirke books when it first came out, but none since.  Now I remember why.
HOLY ORDERS (Myst-Quirke-Ireland-1950s) – Poor
Black, Benjamin – 6th in series
Henry Holt & Company, 2013

A Spider in the Cup by Barbara Cleverly

First Sentence:  On a neglected reach of the Thames, a woman stood counting the chimes ringing out from Chelsea Old Church behind her.          
The body of a young woman buried in the banks of the Thames is discovered.  What attracted the dowsing rods this amateur group member’s attention, was the priceless gold coin in her mouth.  That she is also missing a toe sends the case to the desk of Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands.  Sandilands, however, is also task with protecting an important US Senator who is in London for an historic global economic conference.  Senator Cornelius Kingstone’s own bodyguard from the F.B.I., used to report to Sandilands in the British Army.  Protecting Kingstone, Joe learns there is much, much more at risk than one Senator’s life.

It is always painful to write a negative review for a book by an author whose previous works one has loved.  Sadly, there is just no way around it, in this case. 
Ms. Cleverly has such a wonderful ability to paint verbal pictures.  “The amber glow of the gas mantles was beginning to fade to lemon as a brightening sky quenched them, offering her sensitive eyes a symphony in grey and gold worthy of Whistler.”  I did, however, have a problem remembering when, exactly, the book is set.  Although there is substantial, and interesting, historic information included, if your knowledge of the pre-WWII era isn’t strong, it’s not easy to grasp. 
The characters are interesting and introduced very well although I was sorry to see those at the beginning of the story disappear so quickly, particularly Hermione Herbert, the head of the dowsers.  She was smart, self-assured, quick-witted and observant.  Another delightful character was Joe’s sister, Lydia, who was bright, capable and definitely not a wimp. For those who’ve not read previous books in the series, Cleverly provides details of the recurring characters backgrounds in a way that is informative yet not boring.  

Cleverly does write very good dialogue sprinkled with wry humor… “Joe’s expression of slight boredom was enlivened by a flash of humor.  “Thank God no one put a bomb in the surprise pudding.  The wealth makers of the world would have been splattered all over London!”  “Strawberries, crème de la crème and blue blood sauce,” Bacchus spoke grimly.  “A real Eton Mess we’d have had to clear up!”
One of the things to be appreciated about Ms. Cleverly’s previous books was that they were, at their heart, really good mysteries.  Sadly, that was completely lost in here.  There was a mystery but, by far, the greater focus was on there being an international conspiracy and the book suffered greatly because of it. …“Republicans, Communists, Fascists, Daughters of the Revolution, Seventh Day Adventists…you name it.  Hard to believe but a fully employed population earning a living wage with provision for good health, equal states for coloured folks and immigrants of all races, and equal rights for women come pretty low on the agenda of the wealthy and privileged.”
Although this book had many very good attributes, the overwhelming problem for me was at the end.  I don’t know whether Ms. Cleverly has something going on in her life that prevented her for improving this book; or whether she changed or didn’t use an editor; or whether she or her researcher didn’t check the information but the entire premise on which the motive for the story was based takes the book from fiction to absolute alternative reality.  We’re not talk a small thing that can be excused as creative license.  For anyone who knows anything about the structure of the U.S. Government, we’re talking a major point of unalterable fact so egregious it could not be overlooked. 
The “Spider in the Cup” came close to being a “wallbanger” for me.  The only thing that saved it was that justice was brought home to the killer.  Here is hoping Ms. Cleverly does much, much better with her next book.

A SPIDER IN THE CUP (Hist Mys-Assistant Commissioner Joe Sandilands-England-1933) – Poor
Cleverly, Barbara - 11th in series
Soho Press, 2013

Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake

First Sentence:  According to the case notes, a checked against my private journal, it was on Tuesday the 18th of March, 1740, that a succession of disturbing events ran their course through the life of our tidy Palatinate town of Preston.
Coroner Titus Cragg is called to view the body of Dolores Brokletower, wife of the local squire.  The body is moved to the ice house until an autopsy by Cragg’s friend, doctor Luke Fidelis, can be done and then an inquest called. Before that can happen, the body disappears and more deaths occur.  Who is trying to prevent the inquest and why?
 I really like Blake’s voice and that the story is told in first person.  While that’s not usually my favorite, it really works here as it helps provide a sense of time; a bit before Jane Austen.  There is even a nod to “Dear Reader” of Charlotte Bronte.  Yes, there is a mild portent, but I was willing to forgive it.
There is delightful, natural humor incorporated in the narrative, which adds to the appeal of the protagonist. “I let her [Cragg’s wife] sign of the cross go without comment.  She was always more the papist when she had been with her mother.”  Cragg’s discussions with Fidelis on medicine versus religion, and with his wife on witchcraft, religion and spiritualism are very well done.  They a provide perspective on attitudes and science during that time and the information is well incorporated into the story through both dialogue and the narrative of Cragg. 
Blake has created wonderful characters in Cragg, his wife, Elizabeth, his clerk Furzey and friend Fidelis.  These are characters about whom we come to care and want to know more.  What’s nice is that both they, and the less than appealing characters, are fully dimensional and interesting.
Blake definitely knows how to create a dramatic moment.  It leads to a startling twist and, thus, a fascinating discussion. 
A Dark Anatomy” is filled with wonderful characters, a strong sense of time and place, excellent dialogue and a cracking good plot.  I can’t wait to read his next book, “Dark Waters.”  Highly recommended.  

A DARK ANATOMY (Hist Mys-Titus Cragg/Luke Fidelis-England-1740) – VG+
Blake, Robin – 1st in series
Minotaur Books, 2011

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Bones of Paris by Laurie R. King

First Sentence:  The envelope reached Bennett Grey early Wednesday afternoon.
There’s nothing to equal a powerful opening that contains evocative descriptions which paint mental pictures.  We feel a connection to Bennett, even though we know nothing about him.  King has captivated us and ensured our waiting to follow along, even if it is to a sex-scented bedroom in Paris.
Unfortunately, we also soon run into an issue which can be very annoying.  Apparently, there was a prior book with these characters; “Touchstone”.  Without having read the first book, one feels rather lost in understanding the character relationships.  An even greater shortcoming is that neither the back story of the character in the prologue, nor the character himself, appears until much later in this book.  Rather than being intriguing, it starts to leave the reader feeling lost and dissatisfied, particularly as he is one of the most interesting characters of the book and doesn’t reappear until nearly two-thirds of the way into the story.
Harris Stuyvesant is the primary narrator of the story and an interesting one.  He is a perfect reflection of the period, yet not someone you always like.  He is a 1920s noir private eye, yet not so tough he is without vulnerability and self doubt.  The relationship between Harris and Grey’s sister Sarah, and the scenes of them together are some of the most powerful of the story.
King’s dialogue has the feel of the period.  You can almost hear the narrator of a black and white film from the period…”It’s always a shock, when someone cares more about a thing than you do.”  King adeptly plays with the reader’s psyche.  At the same time, she is very good at conveying the persona of whosoever’s POV controls each section of the story, and at conveying emotion…”The list was, in fact, a ringed notebook bulging with anguish and loss.”.
King captures Paris beautifully…”Paris obscured by snow or softened by fog, Paris adrift on fallen blossoms or carpeted in autumn leaves, Paris in the rain, at night, the lights streaking on the pavement….” She creates a very strong sense of place and, as the art and artists of the time--and she does include almost everyone of them who was in Paris during that time--play a significant role to the story, her descriptions may send one to the internet to learn more about the individuals and their art.  This also, however, becomes an issue as some of the narrative sections become so long, the reader may start looking for the actual story wondering where the core of the plot has gone.

I was relieved when we did get back to the story but dismayed when I identified the villain fairly early on.  While the climatic scene was suspenseful and dramatic, it was also a bit over the top with shades of Edgar Allen Poe.
The Bones of Paris” has some great strengths but also some painful weaknesses.  It is an interesting book and one I never considered putting down.  Yet, I can’t help but wonder whether a much stronger editor would have solves some of the issues and made it a much better book.  Please, authors, do use and listen to your editors.  It’s unfortunately, as Ms. King is a very good writer and her book “Folly” will always remain as one of my favorites.

THE BONES OF PARIS (Hist Mys/Susp-Harris Stuyvesant-Paris-1929) – Okay
King, Laurie R.
Bantam, 2013