Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel by Benjamin Black

First Sentence: It was one of those Tuesday afternoons in summer when you wonder if the earth has stopped revolving.

PI Phillip Marlow is hired by the lovely and, apparently, wealthy Claire Cavendish to locate her former lover. Marlow quickly learns the man was killed in a hit-and-run; news it seems Mrs. Cavandish already knew. Yet she claims to have seen him alive in San Francisco. Marlow runs into one unexpected event after another in his search to find out what is really going on.

At the very beginning, the author’s voice makes you smile. Black does try to capture the feel of the Golden Age authors but it just never quite rings true. There are cracks in the veneer. Although Black uses terms that are not politically correct for today, they also weren’t accurate for the period. There were small details that were off—straight skirts weren’t called “pencil” skirts in the 50s. Some of the descriptions in the beginning weren’t bad…”That smile: it was like something she had set a match to a long time ago and then left to smolder on by itself…” but they soon disappeared. It was also painfully clear that this was not written by an American, and certainly not someone who lived and breathed the area as Chandler had done.

Black does capture a bit of Chandler’s dry, ironic voice…””Someone like who?” He seemed to wince; it was probably my grammar.” 

The plot’s not bad and there were good surprises, good lines…”The world, when you come down to it, is a scary place…”, but the further one reads, the more it turns from gold, to gold gilt, to brass, to lead, and becomes almost uncomfortable to read. 

The Black-Eyed Blond: A Philip Marlow Novel”?  Not really.  It might be a decent read for those who’ve not read the classics. However, to those who have, it really doesn’t hold together. Once again, I find myself believing that when an author dies, should their character. 

THE BLACK-EYED BLONDE (Mys-Phillip Marlow-Fict. Calif. City (Basically, LA)-1950s) - Poor
Black, Benjamin (aka John Banville) – 1st in series
Henry Holt and Co., 2014

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Stone Cold by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  Nate Romanowski pushed the drift boat onto the Bighorn River at three-thirty in the morning on a Sunday in early October and let the silent muscle of the current pull him away from the grassy bank.
Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is sent on a special assignment by the Governor.  Wolfgang Templeton has purchased a magnificent old mansion and most of the private holdings in Medicine Wheel County, located in a remote part of the state.  The Feds suspect he is running a high-end, murder-for-hire business.  On paper, he seems legitimate but the Feds are worrying the Governor so he wants Joe to look into it, but not get involved.  Joe has another concern in that his eldest daughter, Sheridan, is concerned about a young man on the same floor of her college dorm, who wears only black, keeps strictly to himself and plays first-person shooter video games.
There’s nothing like a dramatic opening that immediately captures your attention and, boy, does Box ever do that.  Add to that wonderful descriptions…”It was twenty-four degrees and steam rose from the surface of the black water in thick tendrils…” and you are completely absorbed from the first page.
Joe is such a wonderful character.  He has a good marriage that has survived the rough spots, and children to whom he is dedicated.  He believes in the law, although he isn’t above bending it at bit in the name of justice, and in doing his job even when others won’t.  He is not good at turning his back or keeping a low profile.  He has a strong moral code and an equally strong loyalty to his friends.  At the FBI building, he was willing to check his cell phone and weapons, but wouldn’t give up his hat.  He may be a poor shot with a sidearm, but he's dangerous with a rifle.  And whatever you do, don’t lend him a car, truck or any other vehicle.  He is someone you’d definitely want on your side.
Beyond Joe, Box is very good at bringing characters to life.    You have a sense of who they are; none of them are one dimensional.  For those of us following the series, it is nice to have Nate involved.  And boy, is he ever involved.  Box also brings the area to life by providing an interesting history of Medicine Wheel County.

Stone Cold” ratchets up tension.   It is suspenseful, horrifying, and tragic; and then Box throws in a surprise, just for fun.  I can’t wait for the next book.   

STONE COLD (Lic Invest-Joe Pickett-Wyoming-Contemp) – Ex
C.J. Box – 14th in series
Putnam, 2014       

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence: The dead child was standing motionless at the intersection between Santa Teresa and the museum.

Commissario Luigi Alfredo Riciardi is cursed by being able to see and hear the last few seconds of those who have died violently. He is called to Naples’ San Carlo Theater. The world’s greatest tenor, Maestro Arnaldo Vezzi, has been found murdered in his dressing room. He sees the shadow of the victim dressed in clown costume singing part of the aria from Pagliacii, “…I will have vengeance…” Although Vezzi had millions of adoring fans, he was generally hated by those who knew him. However, many depended upon him for their very livelihood. So who hated him enough to kill him?

What a fascinating, yet heart-rending, introduction to the character of Riciardi. The description truly paints a picture so vivid, you are grateful the character has his colleague, Brigadier Raffaele Maione. Maione death of his son in a tavern fight ensured Maione’s strong loyalty to Riciardi. Women are attracted to Riciardi, but the only woman in his life is Tata Rosa, who looks after him and his house. Riciardi is a man who doesn’t make assumptions, but seeks out the proof before making an arrest.

The setting is wonderful. This isn’t the Naples of tourists. It is the Naples during the early years of Mussolini. It is the Naples of those who live there; of the wealthy and the poor and the superstitious. 

This is a book about opera. Through the character of an opera-loving priest, we are provided information on the two operas being performed and the workings behind the scenes. This information is fascinating and will be enjoyed and appreciated by those who are opera fans, as well as those who are not. Even aside from the world of opera, the story points out the impact the death of a star can have on those who work for them.

There is a wonderful wistfulness to the story in the relationship between Ricciardi and a woman he has never met, but that he sees every day through a window across the way. There is a sub-theme about dreams unable to be realized.
When reading the book, do not ignore the excellent notes from the translator. They certainly answered one question I had.

I Will Have Vengeance” is different, unusual and unique; all in very positive ways. The story is completely intriguing. This is an author from whom you’ll want to read more.

I WILL HAVE VENGEANCE (Pol Proc-Comm. Ricciardi-Naples, Italy-1931) – Ex
de Giovanni, Maurizio- 1st in series
Europa Editions, 2012

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Outcast Dead by Elly Griffiths

First Sentence: Every year a ceremony is held at Norwich Castle for the bodies in the paupers’ graves: the Service for the Outcast Dead.

Archeologist Ruth Galloway is on a dig at Norwich Castle when she uncovers the remains of a woman who may be Jemima Green, aka Mother Hook. She was a woman in the 1800s, thought to have taken in orphaned and abandoned children, only to murder and sell them to a resurrectionist. Her boss interests a television station in including the dig in their program, “Women who Kill,” but the show’s historian Professor Frank Barker, believes Mother Hook was innocent. DCI Harry Nelson, father to Ruth’s daughter, suspects a mother of recently killing her son. Did she also kill her two other children? And who is the “Childminder” who claims responsibility for newly abducted children?

It is from the opening of Ruth attending the Prayers for the Outcast Dead, a service to remember the buried unknown souls buried, that we learn the reasons why Ruth became an archaeologist…”To find out about how ordinary people lived their lives. We are their recorders….”

Griffiths has created a wonderful assortment of characters. However, one criticism is that there are so many, they are hard to keep straight. Also, if one is new to the series, I suspect they might find it a bit challenging keeping straight those new to this story and those carried forward from the past, especially those only referenced but not actual participants. That said, one of the things most appreciated is that Griffiths not only presents the events happening to the characters, but lets us see inside them to their fears and insecurities. She also captures perfectly the one-upmanship that can occur amongst strangers in a social setting.

Although Ruth is a wonderful character—not young, not svelte, not gorgeous, somewhat insecure about her skills as a mother, but an excellent archeologist, and we learn about more about her immediate family, it is her friend Cathbad, a druid who believes in things unseen but also suffers from heartache, who quickly becomes a favorite. “…He could burn some herbs and try to meditate. …He sighs and goes to look up Judy’s house on Google Earth.”

The Outcast Dead” was an enjoyable read but, sadly, not Ms. Griffiths best book. There were just too many characters and families with crossed lines to one another that made it difficult to follow. I like the series very much, but this needed to be pared back, perhaps to only one, or two story lines. Still, that doesn’t put me off looking forward to Ms. Griffiths next book.

THE OUTCAST DEAD (Lic Invest-Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) – G+
Griffiths, Elly – 6th in series
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Verdict of the Court by Cora Harrison

First Sentence: There was a light frost over the landscape when Mara, Brehon of the Burren, set out from that kingdom to spend the Christmas of 1519 at the King’s court.

The Christmas celebration and 20th anniversary of King Turlough Donn’s reign over the three kingdoms of Thomond, Corcomroe and Burran are interrupted by the murder of The Brehon of Turlough. Mara, the King’s wife and overseer of the law, must determine the murderer. An attack on the castle, sabotage on the Turlough’s cannon, and the enemy’s deadly trebuchet and guns may completely overshadow bringing a killer to justice.

A wonderfully descriptive opening provides a very picturesque sense of place while also informing us of Mara and her backstory. It’s wonderful to have a protagonist who is not only a woman, but one of power and respected by men. However, there is nothing strident about the character as her power is based on the actual laws of place and time.

Mara is an interesting, fully-developed character about whom you come to care. Her relationship with King Turlough is one to be envied. Some of the young people are particularly enjoyable.

Each chapter begins with information what explains Brehon law and society. One fact I found particularly fascinating was that there was a law pertaining to satire…”The law regards satire as a very severe attack on a persona because it strikes and cuts a log n-enech (literally the ‘price of his face’-but meaning the ‘honor price.) Anything that causes a person to lose face, injures that person and recompense has to be paid.” There is nothing better than to be entertained and educated at the same time.

The plot is interesting and includes a good red herring, a dramatic and suspenseful battle scene and a look at the price of battle. 

Verdict of the Court” is well done. It’s a fascinating look at different system of law and society. 

VERDICT OF THE COURT (Hist Mys-Mara-Burren (Ireland)-1519) – VG
Harrison, Cora
Severn House, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Kings Confess by C.S. Harris

First Sentence: Paul Gibson lurched down the dark, narrow lane, his face raw from the cold, his fingers numb.

A murdered French physician and a woman with no memory send Sebastian St. Cyr into the world of the ex-patriated French royal family and the mystery of the “Lost Dauphin”: the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who is presumed dead. Or is he?

The story begins with descriptions, not of elegant and refined London, but of dark, dangerous alleys and death. With each chapter, the story becomes more intriguing and compelling. The dialogue conveys the style of the period.

St. Cyr and his new wife Hero are very likable characters. Hero is pregnant and the arcane ideas of preparing a woman for delivery are terrifying. It’s nice to see that St. Cyr has moved on from his past and grown. Harris is very good at describing emotion, particularly the animosity between St. Cyr and his father-in-law, St. James. Nicely, all of the characters are very well drawn; none are short-changed. Each is brought to life in our mind’s eye.

There are a number of historic figures included in the story in ways, if not wholly accurate, are appropriate to the story. There is history we learn which is not that of which we learned in school and is terrible. At the same time, it is critical to the story. However, the historical information related to the peace negotiations between the English and Napoleon’s delegation, which conflicts with the English crown wanting the Burbons restored to the throne, is fascinating. The statement “We like to think we’re more civilized, more honorable, more righteous than our enemies, but we’re not….And once you realize that, it does rather beg the question: Why am I fighting? Why am I killing?” is true of any country, in any age, that engages in war.

The story is very well plotted, mixing history and fiction seamlessly. The numerous sub-themes--PTSD, phantom pain, privilege, childbirth and others--add depth to the story. The plot twist adds interest.

Why Kings Confess” is one of the best books in the St. Cyr series so far.

WHY KINGS CONFESS (Hist Mys-Sebastian St. Cyr-England-1813) - VG+
Harris, C.S. – 9th in series
An Obsidian Mystery, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Color of Light by Wendy Hornsby

First Sentence: Six girls walk down the sidewalk away from the camera, seemingly unaware anyone is watching them.

Documentary filmmaker Maggie MacGowen has returned to her childhood home in Berkeley, California to clear the house after her father’s death. That return has resurrected many memories and questions, particularly after Maggie finds a film her father took showing her with her friends. One of those friends, Beto, is shown with his mother, who turned up murdered later that same day. No one was ever arrested. Can Maggie put the pieces together after all these years and do so without getting killed?

What a wonderful, completely captivating opening that is so visually rendered. It draws you in and the, suddenly, lets you go.

It is interesting to learn about the Bay Area during the Vietnam years; the refugees and the Hungry Ghosts Celebration. Although it is my own home, it is one to which I came later in time and I learned things about the area I hadn’t known. Also, because of Maggie’s profession, one learns a bit about the television industry.

For those who have not followed the series, there is very good background information on Maggie. It is brief and perfectly woven into the story. From there, there is an interesting theme about Maggie learning things about her parents, particularly her late father. It can lead the reader to wonder what one may not know about their own parents.

One appreciates that Maggie is a character who develops and whose life changes through the course of the series, including her relationships.

The Color of Light” may not be a fast-paced read, but it well plotted with a good twist. It is an enjoyable read that certainly held my interest.

THE COLOR OF LIGHT (Mys-Maggie MacGowen-Berkeley, CA-Contemp) – G+
Hornsby, Wendy – 9th in series
Perseverance Press, 2014

Thursday, May 15, 2014

By Its Cover by Donna Leon

First Sentence: It had been a tedious Monday, much of it spent with the written witness statements about a fight between two taxi drivers that had sent one of them to the hospital with a concussion and a broken right arm.

Someone is stealing pages from some rare books as well as stealing whole books as well from a prestigious library in Venice. Their one possible witness is an ex-priest who has been coming to the library for years. It quickly becomes clear to Commissario Guido Brunetti that the man for whom they are looking is an American professor with credentials from an American university. Not only do they discover the credentials are false, but that other libraries in Italy have suffered losses as well.

This is truly a book that bibliophiles will love. Yet it is one that will occasionally make a bibliophile cringe. There is a wonderful description of old, handmade books.

It is nice to not always start with a murder, but to let the story build. That takes a truly confident writer. But be patient; the murder will come.

Comm. Guido Brunetti is such an excellent and appealing character. He is well aware of the corruption and graft within the government and the police department. Yet he believes in his job and works to bring justice. One wonderful thing about Leon’s writing is that her characters are anything but one dimensional. Brunetti’s family is just as much a part of the series as is he. For those who have followed the series, it’s nice to see how relationships have evolved. However, even for new readers, there is enough history provided that one never feels as though they are missing something.

Leon is an incredibly intelligent author. The things one learns, on a variety of subjects, are nearly as interesting as the mystery. She makes the reader curious to look thinks up and to know more. She provides small statements that make you think, and sometimes question the way you’ve thought…”It’s more important to understand people than to forgive them.”

By Its Cover” is an excellent and rather unusual mystery with an eyebrow-raising twist in the plot.

BY ITS COVER (Pol Proc-Comm. Guido Brunetti-Itlay-Contemp) – Ex
Leon, Donna – 23rd in series
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Death on Blackheath by Anne Perry

First Sentence: Pitt stood shivering on the steps leading up from the areaway to the pavement and looked down at the clumps of blood and hair at his feet.

Thomas Pitt, Commander of Special Branch, and his sideman, , has been called in to investigate a crime involving signs of a violent struggle, a missing ladies made from the hope of Dudley Kynaston, a naval weapons expert and important to the English Government. The discovery of a severely mutilated female body makes it important to discover whether this is the maid and, if not, where she is. As the investigation proceeds, it becomes clear that people, and their relationships, are not always as they seem.

A well-written hook draws you into the story, establishes Pitt’s position, role and background very quickly. This is critical for readers new to the series. It also returns Pitt much more to his previous role conducting a police investigating; something many of his fans have missed.

Perry’s descriptions create such a strong sense of place and atmosphere. Whether the characters are standing in the dark and cold, or in a warm kitchen with the smells of cooking; she immediately makes the reader part of the scene. Beyond description is the understanding Perry conveys regarding life during Victorian times. The social customs and restrictions, particularly on women, dress, manners, different types of households depending upon wealth and social strata all come to life under Ms. Perry’s deft hand.

The dialogue is excellent and conveys not only the period, but the class and area of England from which each character has come. At the same time, when she does write in dialect, it is never to where the reader has difficulty understanding the conversation.

It is the characters and their relationships which are the true strength of the story. Again, each is introduced, a brief background given and their relationship to the other characters established. One never feels they need a cast of character to understand the interrelationships. For those of us who’ve long followed the series, we’re even caught up, briefly, on past characters. The relatively new character of Stoker, Pitt’s bagman (in the British sense of the word), is a wonderful addition to the series and we learn more about him in this book. One wonders whether he might not take a larger role going forward.

A major theme in all of Ms. Perry’s work is honor, integrity, loyalty to another and to one’s country, and relationships--”…You can’t go through life without owing anybody. The real debts are hardly ever a matter of money: they are about friendship, trust, help when you desperately need it, a hand out in the darkness to take yours, when you’re alone.” ”What debt of honor could he own great than that to his country?

With “Death on Blackheath,” Ms. Perry has added another wonderful book to an excellent series. Yes, there may have been a couple slight deficiencies in the plot and some might find aspects a bit twee (overly sweet), but it also had very good suspense, and some excellent twists that made you question some of the characters. All I know is that I’ll definitely be back for book #30.

DEATH ON BLACKHEATH (Hist Mys-Charlotte and Thomas Pitt-England-Victorian) – VG+
Perry, Anne – 29th in series
Ballentine Books, 2013

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Say You're Sorry by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  My name is Piper Hadley and I went missing on the last Saturday of the summer holidays three years ago.
Two girls went missing.  After three years, the body of one of the girls is found, frozen and mutilated.  Is the other girl still alive?  A family has been murdered in a farm house and the house torched.  A young man is accused, but psychologist Joe O’Loughlin believes he is innocent and that the murder and the girls are connected.
The book starts off very well with a compelling opening of the situation from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl.  Robotham captures the voices and personalities of his characters.  He does have a compelling voice filled with wry humor and pragmatism.
Joe is an interesting character; very human with his own shortcomings and insecurities.  Robotham does a good job of bringing readers, new and old, up to date on Joe’s life. 
The story is about two cases; one which began in the past, one in the present.  The threads are joined together very well and with a good building of suspense.
Where the story falls down is in its predictability.  Because of its structure, you can guess the outcome, although not the villain, very early on.
Say You’re Sorry” is not Robotham’s best work, which is sad.  He is a very good writer who has written some wonderful books.  Unfortunately, this is not one of them.  

SAY YOU’RE SORRY (Lic Invest/Psychologist-Joe O’Loughlin-England-Contemp) – Okay
Robotham, Michael – 6th in series
Mulholland Books (LB&Co), 2012

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Last Act of All by Aline Thompson

First Sentence: Each time tonight, when her eyelids dropped over burning eyes, she could see the scene again, lit by memory as mercilessly as any performed under television arc-lights.

Actress Helena Fielding gave up her career when she became the wife of actor Neville Fielding, star of a highly successful television series. When Neville decides they should buy a house in the remote village of Radnesfield, nothing is the same.

Talk about an intriguing opening. One, at first, can’t help but wonder where the story is going, but you sense it is well worth following the author’s path. You soon realize the story actually begins in the middle of the character’s narrative, than moves back to. Rather than this being distracting or frustrating, it proves a fascinating way of learning about the characters, the backgrounds, and potential motives. In this case, it is incredibly effective and impactful.

The characters, both good and bad, are very effective. Templeton captures perfectly the nature of a small, insular village and the collective of gossiping church ladies. Mr. Tilson, an observer of people and the village, is someone with whom you would very much like to spend time. The dialogue between him and D.S. Fielding is a treat… “He smiled. ‘Come and talk to me again. I collect people, you know.” “’Like slugs in a jam jar,”’ Frances quoted… [No, I don’t know the source. Anyone?] Tilson’s assessment of people’s reactions to a disturbing announcement is quite wonderful.

Templeton is a wonderful writer. There is an analogy that is particularly memorable.

Last Act of All” is an excellent read. It draws you in and keeps you there, including a very well-done surprise, and a killer I certainly didn’t see coming.

LAST ACT OF ALL (Mys/Pol Proc-Helena Fielding/D.S. Frances Howarth-England-Contemp – Ex
Templeton, Aline
Amazon Digital Services, 2014-Novelette

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

First Sentence: A trail of tiny breadcrumbs led from the kitchen into the bedroom, as far as the spotless sheets where the old woman lay dead, her mouth open.

Comm. Adamsburg travels to Ordebec in response to a woman’s plea. Her daughter, Lina, has seen the Ghost Riders with four men. According to legend, this mean each of these men will meet a violent death. Adamsburg takes with him a young man he believes innocent of the murder for which he is accused, and his 18-year-old son, whom he recently met. Although entranced by the lovely Lina, one of the envisioned men does die and it’s time for Adamsburg to get to work.

There is nothing ordinary about a Fred Vargas book. It begins with a unique murder, quickly solved by Adamsberg, which quickly displays his understanding of people and their behaviors.

The Serious Crime Unit, of which he is the head, is a collection of strange and unusual individuals. It’s hard to imagine how they solve crimes, but solve them they do. Vargas even keeps the characters from her book “The Three Evangelists” included in this series.

Legends, ghost stories, witchcraft, and the supernatural are included in the story, but don’t overtake the fact that this is, at its core, a police procedural. Yet her books are definitely character-driven focusing not only on their physical presence, but their personal characteristics.

There is something mercurial and wise about Vega’s writing that can make you stop and think…”The world’s full of details, have you noticed? And since no details is ever repeated in exactly the same shape and always sets off others details, there’s no end to it.”

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec” started off just a bit slowly but quickly made up for it. It is, as are all her books, wonderfully weird and very French. You’ll either be completely entranced by Vargas' writing, or she’ll just not quite be your cup of tea. Me? I’m firmly in the former group.

THE GHOST RIDERS OF ORDEBEC (Pol Proc-Comm. Adamsberg-France-Contemp) – VG+
Vargas, Fred – 7th in series
Penguin Books, 2013