Friday, May 29, 2015

Thin Air by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence: The music started.

The gathering of university friends for a wedding hamefarin’ on Unst in the Shetlands Islands comes to an end with the discovery of one of the friend’s body the next morning. Was it suicide, as indicated by an email received from the dead woman the next day? Was her death foretold by Perrie Lizzie, the ghost of a young girl who’d died there years before? Inspector Jimmy Perez and his team travel to the outermost island to find out.

Cleeves excels at creating a sense of place and painting visual pictures which employ all the senses. Even though few will be able to visit these rather remote islands, you have a true sense of being there, with the long days and weather contributing to the plot. To this, she adds just a touch of the supernatural, leaving you to question what is real.

All of her characters are fully dimensional. You know their appearance, enough of their back story to have a true sense of them, and even insights into their personalities and insecurities. The relationships are realistic, understandable and important. The interplay between the investigating team and those associated to the victim are equally important and well balanced in the story. Yet it is Perez, his slowly maturing Sergeant Sandy Wilson, and Detective Willow Reeves brought in to oversee the case, who most hold our interest.

Thin Air” is very well done, with a plot that takes us around and amongst the islands, leading us down one path to another, with very good twists along the way. Cleeves is a wonderful writer and one who should be on any mystery-reader’s list.

THIN AIR (Pol Proc-Insp. Jimmy Perez-Shetlands, UK-Contemp) – VG+
Cleeves, Ann – 6th in series
Minotaur Books – May 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Flame Out by M.P. Cooley

First Sentence: The rain was unforgiving.

Former FBI agent June Lyons is now a small-town cop in upstate New York where her family lives. An unidentified woman, critically burned in a warehouse fire, leads to finding another body sealed for years in a barrel within the warehouse. The question is not only who they are, but how they impact June’s family and that of her friend and partner.

Cooley begins with a good introduction of the protagonist, June Lyons, and concise information on her background. It’s nice when an author doesn’t assume readers have read previous books in the series. There is also an excellent description of the event and history of the building, including the building’s relationship to her partner’s family. Best of all is a very good, early plot twist.

When people think of New York, they automatically think of New York City. It’s a nice change to a story to depict a small, working-class factory town in the state instead. It would have been nice to have a greater sense of where the town, even if fictional, was located; a stronger sense of place. The author kept referring to being on “the island” but you never had an understanding as to what island and what mainland. 

June, her daughter Lucy, and her mom were very strong characters; more so even than the rather annoying FBI agent, Hale. There were also a couple times I was caught off-guard and actually laughed aloud, which is always the sign of an author having a good voice. And Cooley does have a wonderful voice… “Between Tanya and these two, I felt surrounded by vigilantes. I was lucky they didn’t have gun permits. Oh wait! They did!”. It often adds just the right element of lightness to the story…”Hale gave a low whistle. “Dickens called. He wants his prison back.”” There were references June made about her daughter Lucy which even caused me to laugh aloud.

The use of the Hale was important and well done, however, in that he facilitated Lucy having access to resources and information she would not on her own as a police officer. The forensic information was fascinating and critical to the plot. 

The author does do a very good job of capturing how difficult things can be between a parent and a child, particularly when they are very different as individuals. It’s nice that one character originally designed to be disliked, turns into one of the best characters in the story.

The characters and their relationships do enable some very good plot twists. However, there are so many characters, and even secondary names for some, that their relationships became confusing. It was difficult to keep them straight and to feel connected to them.

Flame Out” was a good read with some major strengths and minor weaknesses. It will be worth watching this author progress. 

FLAME OUT (Pol Proc-June Lyons-Hopewell Falls, NY-Contemp) – G+
Cooley, M.P. – 2nd in series
William Morrow – May 2015

Friday, May 22, 2015

Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill

First Sentence:  On December 25, 1978, the concrete public-address system pole in South That Luang’s Area Six unexpectedly blew itself up, a Lao skirt with a severed finger sewn into the hem passed through the national postal system unchallenged and Vietnam invaded Cambodia.
Things have changed in Laos.  Dr. Siri is no longer the national coroner—there isn’t one—and his team has been disbanded.  That doesn’t mean his curiosity is any less sharp.  When he receives an anonymous package containing a traditional Northern Laotian skirt and a severed finger, Siri and his wife, with the help of friends and a couple of spirits, set off following a trail of clues against a brutal adversary and a potentially unseen killer.
Even if you’ve not read a previous Dr. Siri book—which would be a shame—one cannot help but be charmed by him and his friend Civilai.  Then you set the two of them next to the time period of Laos in 1979, and you know you’re in for something different and special.  In spite of Siri’s increasing age, it’s clear he has lost none of his skills of negotiation.
Cotterill does an excellent job of introducing his characters, providing their backgrounds and an understanding of the relationships.  This is particularly important for those who come into the series with this book.  His descriptions of people make you smile, but also impress the character clearly in your mind…”The choirmaster was an elderly balding version of what Santa Claus might have looked like after a crash diet.”
He also provides a good sense of where and when we are in history.  Kudos to the Soho Crime for providing a map at the front of the book.  In addition to the wonderful descriptions…”There was far more action in that sky than there was on the ground, meteoroids shooting back and forth like drunken fireflies.”…He also makes you stop and think…”Driving alone on bad roads gave a man far too much time to weigh the good against the bad.  Bad invariably won, though.”…and the Chinese attitude toward war…”They win wars by sending in wave after wave of expendable militia until the enemy runs out of bullets.  It’s like Stalin said, ‘One death is a tragedy.  A million deaths is a statistic.” 
Six and a Half Deadly Sins” takes you down a seemingly innocent road.  And then, the road turns to dark and dangerous with the danger and threat steadily increasing all the way to an unanticipated ending.

SIX AND A HALF DEADLY SINS (Lic Invest-Dr. Siri Paiboun-Laos-Contemp) – VG
Cotterill, Colin – 9th in series
Soho Crime – May 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Anatomy of Deception by Lawrence Goldstone

First Sentence: For days, clouds had hung over the frigid city, promising snow, and ephemeral late winter veneer of white, but the temperature had suddenly risen and a cold, stinging drizzle had arrived instead. 

Dr. Ephraim Carroll has left his practice in Chicago to learn from the esteemed Dr. William Osler in Philadelphia. During an anatomy session, Osler the corpse of a young woman seems to be a shock to Osler and another student, Turk, bringing the class to an abrupt end. Upon Turk’s death, which Carroll discovers is from arsenic; questions arise for which Carroll is determined to find answers.

A strong opening that immediately establishes a clear sense of place and time is always a pleasure. Goldstone does not only that, but sets the mood and enables us to feel the apprehension of the protagonist.
Not only are we in the time and initial company of Arthur Conan Doyle, but the style of the narrative and dialogue reflect the prior, bringing the reader most assuredly into the Victorian period, such as with the description of the morgue…”It was a place of spirits, where the tortured souls of hundreds, perhaps thousands, who had died from abuse, disease, want or ignorance would spend their last moments in the company of the living before they were removed for their solitary rest and placed in the ground forever.” The inclusion of actual figures from the period only further cements this feeling. I was less happy, however, that some were used in ways which were vastly changed for the purpose of the plot. At least, the author kindly told us of these changes at the end of the book. 

This is a time of great progress and advancements in medicine and surgical techniques such as women doctors and sterilization, as well as technology with the development of Eastman’s box camera. It is also the time when John’s Hopkins is being built and staffed. All these elements become important aspects of the plot although there were times when the medical details tended to overtake the plot.

The plot starts of quite sedately, but there’s certainly nothing boring about it. Threads and patterns begin to form. There is considerable medical and forensic information to which the more squeamish might object, but it is also fascinating. The characters also begin to take a more substantial form, particularly Simpson, the female student. 

The Anatomy of Deception” is delightfully unpredictable. The path of the plot turns suddenly and you are presented with something quite unexpected in a story of very good intrigue and suspense.

THE ANATOMY OF DECEPTION (Hist Mys-Dr. Ephraim Carroll-Philadelphia-1889) – VG
Goldstone, Lawrence – Standalone
Delacorte Press – January 2008

Friday, May 15, 2015

Day Shift by Charlaine Harris

First Sentence:  It isn’t the rumbling of the trucks that seizes Manfred Bernardo’s attention; it is the silence that falls when their ignitions die.
Midnight, Texas is a town few people visit.  That’s just fine with the assortment of unusual and unique residents.  Yet into this town comes outsiders.  However, it’s when physic reader Manfred travels to Dallas that troubles begin as his client suddenly dies during her reading.   Accused of murder and stealing the woman’s jewels, trouble follows him back to Midnight.
There’s no doubt that one should start with the previous book of this series, “Midnight Crossroad.”  However, fans of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse, will certainly enjoy this new series.  It’s even nice that there are some crossovers between the series.
Unfortunately, this read more as a first, than second series book to be in that so much time was spent introducing us to the various characters.  While backstory is good, it does not substitute for plot.  The good thing is that each of the characters is unique, likable and strangely fascinating. 

Day Shift” is a delightful book for lovers of paranormal/fantasy in general and Charlaine Harris in particularly.  It is a fun, quick, guilty-pleasure read.

DAY SHIFT (Para/Fantasy-Manfred Bernardo-Midnight, TX-Contemp) – G+
Harris, Charlaine – 2nd in series
Ace – May 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  She was close to thirty years old when she was killed.
The discovery of the largest, most completely Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found brings a myriad of groups to Absaroka Country claiming ownership rights; tribal, federal, or that of the Cheyenne rancher now found dead in a turtle pond.  Sheriff Walt Longmire is also expecting a visit from his daughter and new granddaughter.  With the help of old friends, and the confusion of several interested parties and enforcement agencies, Walt has a crime to solve; one worth millions in ownership rights to someone.
Whether one loves history or is a fan of Jurassic Park, you’d be hard pressed not to be intrigued by the opening.  And, although our attention has been captured by the first mystery; two more levels are added leaving us compelled to read on.  In fact, the danger of starting a Craig Johnson book is that you can’t put it down until you’re done.
Johnson writes some of the very best dialogue of anyone…”He held the reins out to me.  “Here you go.” …”I glanced at the Bear, who shook his head.  “As much as it pains me to say, you are the better horseman.”  “I shook my head.  “It’s an Appaloosa.  Isn’t that the horse that Cheyenne traditionally rode into battle?”  “It was, because by the time you ride an Appaloosa some distance, you are ready to kill anything.”
The characters are fully developed and interesting, but not stereotypical.  One can particularly appreciate the exchange relating to Walt and Henry Standing Bear’s classical education.  The interaction between them is natural and real, often offsetting the seriousness of the story.  Learning new background on Walt creates an added intimacy with and dimension to, the character, as well as insight into what made him into the man he is. 
The plot is timely and relevant, reflecting many themes present in current events, but they are not politicized.  As well as being entertained, it is also pleasure to be informed and to learn things one, perhaps, hadn’t known.  Added to that, is a soupcon of spiritualism and philosophy…”Maybe that’s what happens when you invest so much of yourself in something; whether it is a person or a place, your soul is loath to leave it.”  These elements add to the richness of the story.

Dry Bones” is, at core of the story, a mystery; and a cracking good one.  There is excellent tension and suspense, as well as a powerful and shocking turn of events surely leading us to the next book.

DRY BONES (Pol Proc-Walt Longmire-Wyoming-Contemp) – VG+
Johnson, Craig – 12th in series
Viking – May 2015

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Anatomy of Evil by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  I understand it is said in scientific circles that if one attempts to boil a frog, it will jump out of the pot, but it one raises the temperature of the water slowly it will never notice the difference until it is too late.
“Unfortunate” women are being brutally murdered in the alleys of Whitechapel.  The head of Scotland Yard’s CID comes to private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, asks that they accept a temporary post within the Department to bring the killer to justice.  In the process, they have to navigate interagency maneuverings, a possible connection with the Royal Family, and possible pogram against London’s Jewish community.
From the very beginning, we are treated to both a wonderful narrative, as well as a tease of things to come…”We were not aware, my employer, Cyrus Barker, and I, that events of historic significance were happening around us.  As usual, I was merely trying to get from point A, January 1, to point B, December 31, in one solid and very much living piece.”  Sadly, the tease is followed by a much-hated and unnecessary portent.
The characters of Llewelyn, the narrator, and Barker, his employer, are wonderful and fascinating.  Thomas takes us down the sordid streets of Whitechapel and into the Jewish Ghetto.  Barker is a rather enigmatic, yet beguiling, character.  He is an encyclopedia of skills, knowledge and Biblical quotations.  With both, we have learned bits of their background in previous books, yet learn even more in this entry to the series.  That is not to say that new readers will feel lost or confused.  There are ample bits of information to bring these characters fully to life. 
Thomas excels at including real places and people into the story in a completely realistic manner.  This gives veracity to the story.  One also appreciates the Afterword providing information as to what happens with each of these figures.
The quality of Thomas’ writing is such that one doesn’t race through his books, but takes the time to savour and contemplate…”So, as I said, an hour and half ticked by very slowly.  Ninety minutes, five thousand and four hundred seconds subtracted from my life.  Shakespeare could have perfected a sonnet in that time, and Mozart a short libretto, if not a full score.  Not that Thomas Llewelyn could have written a sonnet or libretto, but I might have at least enjoyed the chance.” 
It is fascinating the things one learns from a excellent author; the difference between cobblestones and limestone setts.  Thomas is an author who educates readers on a vast array of subjects, as well as entertains.  He makes you thinks, such as in Thomas’ observations of the poor…”Anything of value whatsoever, from bits of broken glass from ale bottles to the very night soil left behind by workhorses, would be collected and sold by someone locally to whoever could turn a profit on it.”
There is so much one cam compliment about Thomas’ writing.  He has taken a much-trod subject and made it unique.  He has humanized the victims in a way not previously done.  Yet he also shows that bigotry, particularly discrimination on all levels against the Jews, has always been with us and that “Man requires no inspiration of hellishness, Thomas.  He can be plenty even on his own. … No religion is proof against madmen.  Not even Christianity.” 

Anatomy of Evil” is a look at the Jack the Ripper case focused not on the killings, but on the politics of the agencies involved and the times.  It's a fictionalized, fascinating and exciting investigation with a climax filled with excitement, tension and suspense, leading to a wonderful ending.  For those who love historical mysteries, Will Thomas should be on their "must-read" list.

ANATOMY OF EVIL (Hist Mys/Enq. Agents- Barker and Llewelyn-Longon-1888) - Ex
Thomas, Will – 7th in series
Minotaur Books – May 2015

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Torso by Helene Tursten

First sentence:  The wind gave no warning of the ghastly discovery.
Only the torso of a body is found on a beach in Sweden.  The only way to even identify the gender is through DNA testing.  Irene Hess and her team discover there was a similar crime, still unsolved, in Denmark.  The mother of a girl Hess knew is missing in Denmark and is found to be the third victim, although not as completely mutilated.  With the fourth victim, Hess fears the killings are somehow related to her. 
Hass is a very descriptive writer and very good at setting a scene.  This is particularly helpful with a foreign setting to which readers may never have been.  One thing very much appreciated is that all the money, weights, distances, etc., were converted in footnotes, for American readers. 
From the outset, we are introduced to Irene and her team--and doesn’t every team have that one, obnoxious member.  It’s a nice individuality that Irene’s boss refers to the morning meeting as “morning prayers.”  It is also a pleasure to have a DI with a supportive husband, two teen-aged daughters and dog Sammie; a normal family life. Thursden is very good at balancing the different aspects of the story and even includes several delicious meals prepared by her chef husband. 
There is a wonderful mix of personalities to the characters, particularly that of Tom Tanaka, a sex-shop owner who knew one of the victims.  Some of the characters also provide red herrings for the story.  One thing that is clear is the much more open attitude toward sex in Denmark than in other countries. 
Their laissez-faire approach did surprise me.  One does notice a certain fixation on eating and never missing a weekend.  The police never seem to miss a meal, even in the middle of an investigation.  It’s very much food-first; and no fast food here…”All of them chose tender ox rolls in a divine cream sauce, black currant jelly, and a large helping of early spring greens.  Everyone had beer.”
The forensic information is fascinating.  The tension builds with each chapter and it is not a book one is inclined to set aside.  One wants to keep going and see where the trail leads.  There is tremendous attention paid to the details in every aspect, but it the case or people’s personal lives.  One criticism would be that there is tremendous building up to the end, and then it just…ends.
The Torso” is gruesome, but not gratuitously so.  However, It is a thoroughly engrossing, true follow-the-leads police procedural. 

THE TORSO (Pol Proc-DCI Irene Huss-Sweden/Denmark-Contemp) – VG
Tursten, Helene – 3rd in series
Soho Crime – April 2007