Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Hidden Man by Robin Blake

First Sentence:  Standing in the doorway, with medical bag in hand, Luke Fidelis peered into the shadowed room until its main features had resolved themselves:  the outline of the low pallet bed; the man’s gaunt, ghostly face looking steadily upwards; the pale hand resting motionless outside the covering blanket.
From the very beginning, Blake transports us to 1742 England, and it’s not a particularly pleasant place to be.  Life can be hard; particularly for women.
The people of Preston are looking forward to the celebration of the Preston Guild, until Phillip Pimbo, the pawnbroker and man responsible for keeping the event funds secure is found shot behind the locked door of his office.  For Coroner Cragg, all evidence points to suicide; Doctor Fidelis isn’t as certain.  To learn the truth, and even to open Pimbo’s safe, Cragg must learn the secrets of Pimbo’s life, including facts about the African slave trade and missing Civil War treasure.
Blake is incredibly clever about aligning his two characters, even down to how it can be possible for Coroner Titus Cragg to set down, in third person, the events and dialogue of Doctor Luke Fedelis without Cragg being present, while events occurring to Cragg are written in first person.  It is the complete attention to detail that makes Blake’s writing so impressive.
An author who seamlessly educates and informs, while entertaining and intriguing their audience, is one of real skill.  To learn about banking in the 1700's is fascinating.
Not only are the two main characters interesting and a good balance to one another, but one cannot help but like Titus’ wife, Elizabeth.  She is wonderfully clever.  However, her winning point comes with the words, “Titus, dearest, I’m reading.”  Some will also appreciate Titus’ issues with his in-laws.
Don’t for a moment be concerned that this is a slow read.  Whilst some may find the level of detail overwhelming, it is the details that make the story completely fascinating, thanks to the pacing of the story that picks up as one reads.  It is fascinating to see who they weave together form the whole fabric.
Blake presents the different views and attitudes of the time toward the slave trade. It is sad that, although now that the focus of present-day concerns is different, many of the attitudes remain the same:  “…it is conducted by evil men.  Why is there no outcry?”  “Because people are making money.”  Blake’s writing occasionally causes one to pause and consider…”Death is all around us, yet we will never treat it as commonplace.  I suppose it is because we don’t know the manner of our own deaths that we are so powerfully drawn to discover how others have died.”

The Hidden Man” is a very good read with an excellent plot twist, captivating characters, and a compelling plot.  It is also part of a series well worth reading.

THE HIDDEN MAN (Hist Mys-Cragg/Fidelis-England-18th Cent) - VG
Blake, Robin – 3rd in series
Minotaur Books – March, 2015

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Walking By Night by Kate Ellis

First Sentence:  Debby Telerhaye’s footsteps echoed in the fog like hammer blows as her tottering heels hit the stone pavement.
No one really believes the claim of an inebriated teen who claims to have seen a dead body and nun-like figure in the ruins of an abbey, except for DI Joe Plantagenet.  The story becomes more believable when a woman is reported missing.  Does it have something to do with a local play dealing the religious and sexual violence?  Or could it even connect to the death of a young nun centuries before?
Ellis captures our attention from the very first with the combination of a young woman, fog, an abandoned abbey, the sense of being followed, and a dead body. For what more could one ask?

Joe Plantagenet is clearly a man with a past, and it a very interesting character.  He had studied for the priesthood, married and was widowed.  Through him, Ellis paints a very realistic portrait of a man who is still grieving, even after several years.  He is also a man whose friend is a Canon and a Diocesan Exorcist.  It is a nice change to have a protagonist listen to sacred music, such as the Thomas Tillis mass for four voices, Allegri: Miserere.  In contrast, his DCI, Emily Thwaite, is a married woman with three children.  It makes for a nice balance.

One must respect an author who doesn’t make you feel as though you’ve missed something by starting with the fifth book in the series.  Still, reading this does make one want to go back and start at the beginning of the series.

Walking by Night” contain a delicious sense of menace, a very good plot twist, and intrigue that underlies the entire story. 

WALKING BY NIGHT (Police Procedural-Joe Plantagenet-England-Contemporary) – G+
Ellis, Kate – 5th in series
Severn House/First World Publication – July 2015 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Confessor's Club by Jack Fredrickson

First Sentence:  The gold Rolex Day-Date on his wrist had cost eleven thousand dollars.
Dek’s ex-wife, Amanda, is the daughter of one of the most wealthy and powerful men, who control the city of Chicago.  And they are dying; being murdered very quietly.  Amanda, who wants Dek to investigate, is someone he cannot refuse. Her father is less than agreeable.  It quickly becomes clear he’s knows more than he’s saying.  Can Dek keep him alive, or is he behind the murders?
It’s nice to see an author’s writing mature, and Fredrickson’s definitely has since his first book.  In Dek, he has created a very interesting character with sardonic humor balanced by introspection and hope, as wonderfully exemplified by an ash tree.
The focus on sartorial details is always an interesting way of establishing social and economic class.  Fredrickson employs that device in the conventional way, but also turns it on it's head with Dex' best friend.  The same is done with food. One can appreciate the way in which Dex evaluates fast food restaurants.  Some authors offer mouth-watering description of superb meals.  Frederickson provides guilt-pleasure descriptions of artery-closing food... “His masterpiece was four over-easy eggs piled atop two English muffins, slathered with sausage, melted cheddar and mushroom gravy the thickness of porridge.”  It's some of these nuances that make Fredrickson such an enjoyable author to read.

Dex is an interesting character whose career, relationships and life has seen highs and lows, yet he maintained his ethical core.  The pacing of the story is nicely done with good flow.  This is certainly not a book one puts down with thoughts of coming back to; rather, it is a good, compelling read.  You want to know what is going to happen next. 
Two minor criticisms; The prologue was completely unnecessary and would have been better left only within the context of the story and, my personnel irritant, there was an unfortunate, and completely unnecessary, semi-portent.

The Confessor’s Club,” is a very good book with nice tension, suspense and plot twists.  

THE CONFESSOR’S CLUB (PI-Dek Elstrom-Illinois-Contemp) - VG
Fredrickson, Jack – 5th in series
Severn House / First World Publication – July 2015

Monday, April 20, 2015

Murder in Grosvenor Square by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence:  I had an appointment on Lady Day, not have a week away, to face a man in a duel.
In a case that is very personal for Captain Lacey, two young men were brutally attacked in a squalid area of London; one murdered and the other at death’s edge.  With the help of Lacey’s friends and acquainted, the investigation involves illegal trade and illegal actions in a plot with elements very relevant today.
Gardner’s Captain is a very interesting and appealing character who was not raised with wealth, but has learned to be fairly comfortable with wealthy society while maintaining his edginess.  Having been in war, his views are often more tolerant than those around him.  He views himself as “A realist, I would say, … I’ve learned to take things as they come.” He is, however, intolerant of injustice.
Gardner is such a good writer that she takes you from the tension of the scene of a duel, to the passion of the bedroom conveying all the passion while the “action” is completely behind closed doors. 
Although each book can be read as a standalone, the characters grow and their lives change with each book in the series.  For those who have been following the series, we do learn more about one of the secondary characters that is unexpected and rather delightful. Each character is well developed with attributed and, certainly, flaws.  Certainly, none of them are boring. 
Gardner provides an excellent look into the attitudes and social structure of the time.  It’s not always a pretty picture, but it is, I suspect, a very realistic one.  One thing of which you become aware is that some attitudes--very important from the 1700s until now--how very little has changed.  Yet for those elements of life which are less critical, customs have changed greatly.
Murder in Grosvenor Square” is a very good read with twists and turns and a wonderful ending.

MURDER IN GROSVENOR SQUARE (Hist Mys-Capt. Gabriel Lacey-London-1818) - VG
Gardner, Ashley – 9t in series
JA/AG Publishing – Oct 2014

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Condemned to Death by Cora Harrison

First Sentence:  The body of the man in the boat with no oars had been washed up on to the orange sands of the beach of Fanore.
As Brehon of the Burren and the one who dispenses justice, Mara knows of the punishment for kin-murder, but never seen someone who has been set to sea in a boat without either sail or oars.  Now just such a boat had turned up.  No one in the small fishing community admits to knowing who the victim is, but Mara, with the help of her law students, doesn’t believe them, or that he washed ashore from another location.
Each chapter heading introduces readers to an element of Brehon Law.  It is not only fascinating, but almost makes one long for such a practical system.  Additionally, within the story, it is interesting how Mara considers that a change is needed to the Brehon laws in order to reflect the changing times.
Harrison paints wonderfully descriptive pictures giving us a strong sense of place.  She is also very good at using weather and, in this case, the sea, as an additional character in the story.  There is also a very good reminder as to how brief is life and how “Their silver and their gold shall not be able to deliver them in the day of the wrath of the Lord.” 

Don't, however, mistake this for a book with a religious subtext.  It is more a lesson in the cost of man’s greed.  Still, she does make reference of the shift from the old faith to the “new,” “The priests were trying to call the first of February St. Brigid’s Day, but on the Burren it was still known as Imbolc and was one of the four great festivals in the Celtic calendar."
Harrison’s style does become a bit repetitive in the details giving one the feeling she fears readers might forget something previously told to them.  There is also an issue of flow and pacing as the story seems rather to meander along until the final quarter of the story when it becomes exciting and intense.  It would be nice where there a bit more consistency throughout.

Condemned to Death” contains very vivid characters, and a lesson in humility and priorities brought to bear in a devastating climax.  

CONDEMNED TO DEATH (Hist Mys-Mara-Ireland-16th Century) – Good
Harrison, Cora – 12th book in series
Severn House / First World Publication – Feb 2015

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Scroll by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  The early winter evening was drawing in. In the antiquarian bookshop well away from the High Street in Cambridge, Monty Danforth sat in his room in the back, working on unpacking and cataloguing the books and papers from the last crate of the Greville Estate.
Monty Danforth’s boss is out sick so it falls on him to unpack the shipment of books received from an estate sale. At the very bottom of the box, is an incredibly old scroll written in a language unknown to Monty.  Thinking to have it translated, he tries both photocopying and photographing it, only to find blank images. Soon, three very different individuals come to the shop insisting he sell the scroll to each of them.  He is also given a warning that the scroll could present great danger.
How delightful to have a contemporary story from Ms. Perry.  Even more delightful is that it is a combination of mystery, supernatural, and spirituality.  As well as the quandary in which Danforth finds himself, there is an increasing level of threat in the story, as well an element of faith, beyond any one religion, that causes one to wonder what they would do.

The Scroll” is yet another example of Ms. Perry’s writing excellence.  It’s a tiny bit Di Vinci Code and a tiny bit Stephen King in the best possible way, with just a touch of philosophical questioning.  The only problem with having it be a bedtime read, is the ending leaves you contemplating long after finishing the story.  And isn’t that the mark of an excellent book? 

THE SCROLL (Novella-Monty Danforth-England-Contemp) - Ex
Perry, Anne - Standalone
The Mysterious Bookshop – 2011 / Amazon Digital Services – 2012

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Killing at Cotton Hill by Terry Shames

First Sentence:  I watch Loretta Singletary hurry up the steps to my house.
Dora Lee Parjeter wasn’t particularly well liked by her neighbors or her estranged daughter, but that’s no reason to kill her.  When the less-than-conscientious chief of police, who also happens to be the town drunk, immediately arrests Dora’s live-on grandson, Samuel remembers that Dora claimed someone was spying on her, and wants to be certain the real killer is arrested.
Shames has a delightful voice.  She brings her characters to life and perfectly captures life in a small town.  No matter which state someone may be from, anyone from a small town will easily recognize the characters and traits, good and bad, of the characters, including cats…”They are careful to keep their priorities straight.  Feed me, give me a warm dry place to sleep, pet me when I tell you to, then leave me to my own devices.”
Samuel Craddock is a wonderful protagonist; intelligent and capable.  He is very likable, but with just a hint of an edge that keeps him from being a bit too perfect.  I particularly appreciated that he is still grieving for his wife and not looking for a new partner, and the way Shames included that relationship in the explanation as to why a small-town sheriff would have an extremely valuable art collection.
The flow is very; one is never tempted to put the book down. The plot is well done with plenty of suspects, a couple of good red herrings and, unfortunately, one large coincidence.  This is perfect a perfect book for those who like they’re mysteries “squeaky clean,” but don’t mistake it for a cozy.  It is a true traditional mystery and, by no means, insipid or twee.    
A Killing at Cotton Hill” is a very well-done mystery with a solid plot and excellent characters.  There is enough edge to keep the story realistic and compelling.

A KILLING AT COTTON HILL (Trad. Mys-Samuel Craddock-Texas-Contemporary) – VG
Shames, Terry – 1st in series
Seventh Street Books – July 2013