Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Day of the Dead: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurzio de Giovanni

First Sentence: As the dawn was beginning to extract the outlines of things from the night and the rain, if someone had happened to pass by the foot of the monumental staircase leading up to Capodimonte, they’d have seen a dog and a child.

When the body of a young boy is found, it is assumed he is another tragic victim or poverty and hunger. Commissario Riccardi believes differently, but even he is confused as his usual “gift” is not providing the usual indication of it being a violent death. With the impending visit of Mussolini, his superiors want there to be no investigations of serious crimes on the books, so Riccardi decides to go on his own and find the answers during this week of the dead celebration.

Commissario Riccardi is one of those rare characters who stays with you long after you finish the book. Not because of his gift/curse, but because one can’t imagine what it would be like living with it. But also because of the supporting characters; Brigadier Maione, his second who doesn’t always understand him but always supports him; Dr. Bruno Modo, the pathologist and the one person who brings humor to the taciturn Riccardi; Rosa, Riccardi’s childhood nanny who has stayed with him and cared for him how into adulthood, and who worries about who will care for him when she is gone; and the two women around him; one who is wealthy is believes she loves him, one who is poor, lives across the alley and does love him, and even Maione’s informant, Bambinella. It is the balance of solving the crime, set off by Riccardi’s personal life and internal struggles, and the politics of the day that makes this series so memorable.

de Giovanni has such a wonderful use of language which portrays the city to us, good and bad …”the Sanità neighborhood, bubbling over with life and grief, cheerful energy and poverty.” We learn of Naples in the 1920s, and of an old tradition related to Jordan almonds after the passing of a child. He also makes us painfully aware on the capacity of humans for cruelty…”Ricciardi shivered. He was increasingly finding the dead less frightening than the living.” Through Maione, de Giovanni also brings insight to the readers, “Children living on the street were somebody’s children; in fact, they were everybody’s children.” The wonderful exchange of letters between Riccardi and Enrica, the woman across the alley, adds such a sweet touch to a sad, dark story.

The author’s perspectives and descriptions are evocative to the point where one finds oneself re-reading passages for the pure pleasure of it. Although the translation is rough at time, particularly related to the dialogue, it also makes you very aware that you are in a different time and place. This story is the most serious of the series so far, and that it’s approach is different from those previous, only demonstrates the awareness of the author.

The Day of the Dead” has a twist that is completely unexpected. The ending is sad, happy and leaves you immediately wanting to read the next book, but do read them in sequence.

THE DAY OF THE DEAD: The Autumn of Commissario Ricciardi (Hist Mys-Comm. Guido Riccardi-Naples-1921)
de Giovanni, Maurizio – Ex
Europa Editions – Mar 2014

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Murder Most Historical by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence/First Story: The Poullard hotel much to dispel my misgivings about returning to Paris.

“THE BISHOP’S LADY” set in 1679 Paris - Okay

Émilié d’Armand is holidaying at the home of her friend and fellow lady-in-waiting to Marie-Therese. The woman in whose room she is staying died from an accidental fall down the stairs. But was it?

This was short, too short to really develop how the protagonist solved the puzzle, outside of being Sherlock Holmes. Still, the protagonist is demonstrates how clever and facile women of the aristocracy, particularly if they are widows, needed to be in order to survive.

“A SOUPҪON OF POISON” – 1880s London – Good

Kat Halloway is cook in the home of a wealthy bachelor. Kat is arrested when the man is found with one of her cooking knives in his back. However, she has a champion on her side, determined to prove her innocence.

This was very well done in that we are as much in the dark as it Kat. The character of young James is very appealing, as is the very mysterious Daniel. The romantic interest leads one to think this may have been, or may still be, intended for a new series. Very interesting and different method of murder.

“A MATTER OF HONOR” – London 1820s – G+

Although, this book is thought of as being “paranormal,” it really is not. If anything, it is a example of the power things have only if we believe they do. This really was a quite good morality lesson.

Murder Most Historical” is an enjoyable collection, particularly for those of us who are already fans of Ms. Gardner’s writing.

MURDER MOST HISTORICAL (SS-Various-England/France-Hist) – Good
Gardner, Ashley – Short Story Collection
JA / AG Publishing – May 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Playing with Fire by Tess Gerritsen

First Sentence: From the doorway I can already smell the scent of old books, a perfume of crumbling pages and time-worn leather.

Violinist Julia Ansdell buys an old book of Gypsy music while visiting a shop in Rome. What really intrigues her is a sheet of handwritten music entitled “The Incendio Waltz.” Returning home and playing it for her daughter incites acts of extreme violence. Convinced the music is the cause, she travels back to Italy, specifically Venice, to track town the story of the composer and the significance of the music.

This is a very different book from Gerritsen as it is the first time she has written something set in two time periods, and which blends the scientific with the concept of past memories and energy embedded into objects. And what a wonderfully intriguing opening she provides. We are immediately fascinated, and horrified. Through Julia, we transition back to pre-war Venice, Lorenzo, romance, how hard it is for people to believe extreme danger is coming and that people can be betrayed by others they trusted …”Beware the ignorant, Lorenzo. They’re the most dangerous enemy of all, because they are everywhere.”

The dialogue is somewhat uncomfortable to the virtual ear, but the story more than makes up for it. It is always good to learn, even when it is something horrible and painful, such as learning about the Polish camps to which Italian Jews were shipped. Gerritsen is able to convey the terror and horror of the camp and La Risiera di San Sabb; aka Stalag 339.

Lest one think this book is completely dark; be assured it is not and the mystery of the music in both the past and the future are wonderfully resolved.

Playing with Fire” shows a very different Gerritsen.  It is a powerful, painful story. It is not emotionally easy to read, nor should it be, but it should be read and the facts never forgotten.

PLAYING WITH FIRE (Susp-Julia Ansdel-Italy-Contemp/1943) - VG
Gerritsen, Tess – Standalone
Ballentine Books – Oct 2015

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Cop Job by Chris Knopf

First Sentence: I got there just in time to see the crane hoist Alfie Aldergreen out of Hawk Pond.

Who would kill a wheelchair-bound, paranoid schizophrenic? Or is that all he was? Sometimes investigator for defense lawyer Jackie Swaitowski, Sam Acquillo is determined to find out. But things get complicated when there realize this is much more than a simple murder of one person, and that there are people involved at levels one wouldn’t expect.

A very good opening takes us immediately into the story, introduces a couple of the main characters and tells us why the protagonist happens to be on the scene. Even better; there’s nothing as good as an effective plot twist and one set at the beginning of the story is effective, indeed.

Knopf has an excellent storyteller’s voice. It’s easy, comfortable and humorous, although the sarcasm can feel rather heavy-handed toward the end. However, it’s his relationship with live-next-door lover Amanda, and his wonderful mutt Eddie Van Halen that makes Sam appealing, interesting and helps us realize there’s more to Sam than meets the eye. One appreciates that Knopf neither assumes readers have read nor remembers the details of the previous books in the series, but provides us with nuggets of background and information about the character as we go. …”More than anything, this was the musical score accompanying my life. I liked how it sounded, though I didn’t know exactly where it came from, or how long it would last. But who knows anything about good fortune, tight-lipped and capricious that it is.”

Knopf writes very good, natural dialogue. An attack on Sam’s daughter leads to a very effective and telling scene between Sam and his daughter’s boyfriend, Nathan.

The plot is good, but does slow down at points, making the reader wish he'd get on with it. However, as one who knows that part of Long Island, it can be appreciated that Chris depicts the Long Island of the everyday people, rather than focusing on the wealthy and famous.

Cop Job” is a well done, character-driven mystery with a very good ending.

COP JOB (Lic Inv-Sam Acquillo-New York-Contemp-G+
Knopf, Chris – 6th in series
The Permanent Press – Sept 2015

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Fire in the Sky by Andew Mayne

First Sentence: A rush-strained fishing trawler glides down the Mississippi river sending a wake across the water, gently rocking the houseboat.

FBI agent Jessica Blackwood is sent off to the Bayou of Louisiana with rookie agent Nadine. An elderly fisherman claims he’d seen the crash of an alien spaceship decades ago.

There’s no question that Jessica is a character about whom one is intrigued. Having her set off against the lightness of Nadine is a wonderful contrast. It also causes Jessica to take a hard look at herself, realize the source of her own, internal darkness and correct it.

Fire in the Sky” is a very short, intriguing story. It’s fun to watch how the mystery is resolved. For those not familiar with the author and protagonist, it is an excellent introduction to a fascinating series.

FIRE IN THE SKY (Pol Proc-Jessica Blackwood-Louisiana-Contemp) – G+
Mayne, Andrew – Short Story
Bourbon Street Books, May 2015

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Company She Kept: A Joe Gunther Novel by Archer Mayor

First Sentence: “Pull over, Doug. I want to get a shot of this.”

The body of a Vermont State Senator, with the word “dyke” carved in her chest, is found hanging from a cliff retaining net along the interstate. A close friend and ally of Governor Gail Zigman, she requests that Joe Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation take the lead on the case. Although this could be a hate crime, Joe and his team aren’t so certain.

Mayor’s use of imagery provides a wonderful sense of place…”Several homes sported thin plumes of woodsmoke from the chimneys, making Doug think of feather quills protruding from toy-sized inkwells.” Not only does the pastoral beauty quickly desert us, but shocks us by the subsequent events.

Mayor is very good at introducing readers to each of the principal characters, providing us with a sense of who they are and how they relate to one another, including equating Willie to the perpetually pessimistic Eeyore from A.A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh.” Nothing creates a clearer image. We are also delighted by Joe’s new housemate, Gilbert. That Joe and his team work well as a team, makes them interesting both individually and as a unit. Even though who have been following the series for years will find new insights into Joe, and enjoy watching the relationship between Willie and Sam grow.

Having a strong, distinct voice is so critical for an author and Mayor more than achieves that goal. …”That central hall told the take of the house—wood panels, stained-glass windows, both soaring overhead to a vaulted, coffered ceiling and an enormous chandelier—suspended like a relic caught between the Middle Ages and “Downtown Abbey.”

No matter one’s personal views, Mayor skillfully addresses the roll sex and sexuality has in today’s politics. It is no longer a private issue, but a public one. And yet…”a disclosure like hers should have by now become irrelevant as right- or left-handedness. The ending did seem very abrupt and rather unsatisfying, in spite of the poetic justice.

The Company She Kept” is a character-driven mystery, with an excellent plot twist, and a case solved by teamwork and following the clues.

THE COMPANY SHE KEPT (Pol Proc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) - VG
Mayor, Archer – 26th in series
Minotaur Books – Sept 2015

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Corridors of the Night by Anne Perry

First Sentence: The small gas lamps along the walls of the corridor flickered as if there were a draught, but Hester knew, it being well after midnight, that all the doors were closed.

Hester Monk is filling in at London’s Royal Naval Hospital for a nurse who is sick. She discovers three small, horribly dehydrated children and learn they have been purchased from their impoverished parents and are imprisoned as donors for an experiment by the Rand brothers—Magnus, a doctor, and Hamilton, a chemist. Hester is kidnapped and taken by the brothers with the children, a wealthy patient and his daughter; Hester knowing the four of them will die if the experiment fails.

Perry starts the story by hitting all the right notes; a strong sense of place and time, compelling well-introduced characters, and a sense that something is very wrong.

Perry’s characters are alive, their personalities are real and their speech reflects their status and upbringing. She excels at showing us the unpolished reality of live from the most poor and vulnerable to those with wealth. Monk’s amnesic past is always intriguing in the questions it presents to him without any answers. Hester is her most noble and determined as a former WWI nurse. Rathbone’s frustration as a disgraced judge now reduced to serving as second chair in a trial is palpable. But it’s the supporting characters in their lives that add real spice to the story and make it completely delicious.

What is delightful is the sense of this being a Victorian-era version of “Law and Order,” beginning with the crime and carrying the story on through the trial and all the way to the resolution. However, this is even better than that in that things are not cut-and-dried. There is much more nuance and a strong layer of moral question which elevates this beyond the ordinary. Without making a point of it, the book demonstrates how far criminal justice has come through the advancement of crime-scene investigation and forensics.

The court proceedings are anything but boring, particularly with the inclusion of a wonderfully dramatic moment. Perry so clearly describes that evil does exist in people, and her definition of hell gives us pause.

Corridors of the Night” demonstrates, once again, that Perry still reigns in creating mysteries that enthrall, educate, and make us think. One reason for reading mysteries is for the comfort of justice being served. Ms. Perry makes us question whether there is such a thing as true justice.

CORRIDORS OF THE NIGHT (Hist Mys-Monk/Hester-England-1800s) – VG+
Perry, Anne – 21st in series
Ballantine Books – Sept 2015

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Cup of Blood by Jeri Westerson

First Sentence: Cold.

Disgraced knight Crispin Guest has taken to “finding things” for people in order to survive, earning him the sobriquet of “Tracker.” Young Jack Tucker is an orphan scrounging and picking pockets on the streets of London since he was 8 years old. Now, at age 11, his life, and hands, are saved by Guest, and Jack attaches himself to his rescuer after it is found that Jack’s “mark” is dead and Jack accused. When it appears the victim was a member of the Knights Templar. Suddenly Crispin has more business than anticipated with the Sheriff wanting him to find the killer, but a noblewoman wants him to find a piece of jewelry, and French and English monks also impressing him to work for them. Can Crispin and Jack survive long enough to sort out all the threads?

Westerson is a very good writer. Within pages, she presents us with humor, dread, suspense, action and sorrow. She truly brings to life a time harder, particularly for those who have nothing, than any of us can ever imagine.

Jack is an appealing character. He is a survivor, as it is the only choice he has other than death. While is faith is part of him, as it was for all people during the period, he also knows how to display it to his advantage. Jack may not be at all educated, but he is as street smart and observant as they come. Crispin has a harder exterior—understandable as we get to know his background—but one warms to him through his treatment of Jack. The two of them make a wonderfully appealing team.

Westerson educates us about an interesting period of history, but she does so in an unobtrusive fashion, never interrupting the story but greatly adding to it. The map, author’s afterward, and glossary were fascinating and very helpful. There is a very interesting conversation between Crispin and a priest, as well as Crispin’s subsequent thoughts.

This book is actually a prequel to the series. If one is new to the series, in spite of the publishing date, this is where one should begin. It is also a book for those who like action and excitement on the written page. It is also a mystery about a object that has fascinated people for centuries.

Cup of Blood” is a wonderfully visual book with some very powerful scenes; strong, tangible emotion, and plenty of really good twists right to the very end.

CUP OF BLOOD (Hist Mys-Crispin Guest/Jack-London-1384) – VG+
Westerson, Jeri – Series Prequel
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform – May 2014

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Shanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong

First Sentence: April is a cruel month, if not the cruelest.

Chen Cao, on an upward track within the Shanghai Police Department and the Communist Party, has been “promoted” to a position with no power and few responsibilities. He suspects, but can’t prove, that he’s being set up for disgrace. Technically, Chen is in charge of a corruption case against a powerful Party figure. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not following you.

There are many reasons to read a book by Qiu Xiaolong, but one is how much one learns about a place, history, culture and people many of us will never visit. What’s even better is when the author has a style and voice that brings it all to live and makes us feel as though we are there. Even the occasional awkwardness of the dialogue remind us that this is not a translation, but written by someone for whom Chinese his first language, which simply reinforces the sense of place.

The literary and poetry quotations interspersed within the story, along with descriptions of meals “…crispy fried green onions and shredded port. Qiun ordered plain noodles with peeled shrimp friend with Dragon Well tea leaves, in across-the-bridge style.”...further add to a very clear sense of place and culture. Xiaolong also makes us stop and consider…”To do nothing, it says in the Taoist classic “Dao De Jing,” makes it possible for one to do everything. Chen wanted to make his enemy believe that he was doing nothing, thereby allowing him to do whatever was necessary while they weren’t watching.”

Whilst some in this country may complain about government surveillance, Qui makes it very clear as to what it is like living under a one-party system where surveillance is everywhere and in every form. He also makes learning about Chinese history and tradition fascinating, including that of the ernai, who are similar to concubines but hold a different status and relationship.

Chen is a wonderful character. He is ethical, moral and loyal to his family and friends. He immediately protects someone who is innocent

Just when one thinks Chen truly is paranoid and we are all being led astray, there is a powerful twist that ratchets up the suspense.

Shanghai Redemption” is an engrossing book which should be savoured.  It begins slowly but builds to be a fast-action read. The ending is very satisfactory and yet elicits an intriguing sense of future uncertainty for Chen, which is always fun.

SHANGHAI REDEMPTION (Lic. Invest-Chen Cao-China-Contemp) - VG
Xiaolong, Qiu – 9th in series
Minotaur Books – Sept 2015