Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Alexandria Affair by Ashley Gardner

First Sentence:  In late August, 1818, my wife had me abducted, trussed up, and taken down the Thames to be put on a tall ship bound for Egypt.
Rather than having him underfoot, Captain Gabriel Lacey's pregnant wife has packed him off to Egypt with his friend, the wealthy and admired Lord Granville, and staff.  It's not exclusively a pleasure trip as Lacey owes favours to crime lord James Denis and is constantly watched over by Brewster.  As part of his payment to Denis, Lacey has been asked to locate and procure an ancient papyrus, said to be in the hands of a treasurer hunter's widow.  Can Lacey fulfill the task without being killed by the mysterious man similar enough to be his twin, and who has tried to kill him twice before?
What a delightful opening.  Gardner very skillfully presents to us the cast of characters their backgrounds and relationships in a very easy manner, told in first person by the protagonist.  It is also nice that her dialogue has the feel of the period, without being heavy handed--"I'd been a pathetic wretch when I'd departed Lisbon four years ago."-and the first-person narrative is natural with just the right touch of humor--"I hadn't taken off my galabiya, being perfectly comfortable inside it.   Bartholomew, however had said that if I wanted to look as though I rushed about in a nightshirt, to please tell no one he dressed me."

Discussions of archaeological discoveries and newly advanced scientific theories solidify the sense of time, and the detailed description more than crate the sense of place. However, it is unfortunate that Gardner is prone to including completely unnecessary portents.
Removing the story from England and moving it to Egypt provides delightful opportunities to see the characters out of their comfortable element.  For Lacey, who spent time in the army and is fascinated by new places and cultures, it's an adventure.  For Granville, who travels in luxury, it's rather England transported.  For bodyguard Brewster, and staff Bartholomew and his twin brother, Mathias, they'd as soon be in England, thank you--"Not what we're used to," Bartholomew said apologetically. "They don't much understand an Englishman's breakfast, these servants.  And in the middle of preparing it, there's a man yelling, and the rush away to start bobbing on their carpets." However, Gardner does make note of this being a time when foreigners traveled to Egypt in order to find treasures and remove them to museums and private collections outside of Egypt. 
Lacey is a compelling character and one who is fully developed--"You're soft, Captain..Soft and yet more ruthless than any man I ever clapped eyes on."  The relationship between Lacey and Granville is so well conveyed.  In spite of their differences in rank and wealth, there is a true friendship filled with mutual respect.  Gardner's wonderful descriptions place you next to Lacey so that you see and feel what he does.  Yet Gardner doesn't allow one to become too comfortable as danger erupts suddenly and brutally. 
"The Alexandria Affair" is a wonderful balance of a foreign setting, good suspense and heart-pounding action.  

THE ALEXANDRIA AFFAIR (Hist Mys-Capt. Gabriel Lacey-Egypt - 1800s) - VG
Gardner, Ashley (aka Jennifer Ashley) - 11th in series
JA/AG Publishing - May 2016

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stealing the Countess by David Housewright

First Sentence:  The Maestro insisted that it wasn't his fault.
"The Countess Borromeo," a four-million-dollar Strativarius, was stolen from Maestro Paul Duclos after playing a concert in his small hometown on Lake Superior.  The insurance company refuses to pay for its return unless they can arrest and convict the thief.  Duclos is willing to pay $250,000, no strings attached, for the violin's return and asks MacKenzie to help.  Not only is he up against the police, FBI, insurance company's rep, and his own lawyer's advice, but others are after the violin too.  Some are even willing to kill for it.
Housewright is one of those wonderful authors who takes you right into the story-no prologue, no extraneous pages of description-and captures your interest immediately.  In this case, we are taken into the world of classical music with personalities singular to it. As is often true of those who love the tool of their art, here we are introduced to "The Countess" and the relationship between her and her artist while learning about the tradition for-"A Stradivarious nearly always goes by the name of the owner."-and the plot becomes more intriguing with each page.        
Housewright creates very real characters.  You can easily visualize them and their surroundings.  It's entertaining having both MacKenzie's conversations with others, and his internal monologue-"Help you what?  Be specific."  "Take the money to Bayfield, find out who stole the Strad, and buy it back." Hell no, my inner voice shouted.  "Let me think about it," I said aloud."
For those who like suspense and action, Housewright really knows how to turn the dial up.  At the same time, he achieves the perfect balance of drama, excitement and wry humor-"Special Agenct in Charge Reid Beatty was not happy.  I knew because he kept telling everyone, "I am not happy, I am not happy, I am not goddamn happy.""
"Stealing the Countess"  is a very good read with excellent twists, did-not-see-that-coming moments, and a very good ending.

STEALING THE COUNTESS (Unl. Invest-Rushmore MacKenzie-Minnesota-Contemp) - VG+
            Housewright, David - 12th in series
            Minotaur Books - May 31, 2016


Friday, June 17, 2016

The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  There is a canyon in the heart of Wyoming carved by a river called Wind and a narrow, opposing, two-land highway that follows its every curve like a lover.
Highway Patrolman Rosey Wayman has been instructed to have a psychiatric evaluation as she claims received several radio calls of "officer needs assistance," at exactly 12:34 a.m. from a long-dead Arapaho patrolman, Bobby Womack.  She has also found, under mysterious circumstances, rare silver dollar coins, a bag of which Bobby is thought to have stolen.  Is Bobby's ghost haunting the Wild River Canyon?  Or is something more corporal at work? 
Johnson does write wonderfully evocative descriptions which create a strong sense of place-"Traveling north through rolling flats, there is a windswept, rocky terrain that stands like a fortress next to the shores of the Boysen Reservoir with ice blue water that reflects the Owl Creek Mountains, looking as if they might run to the Arctic Circle." However, there is also the point at which description begins to feel as though it's merely filler, and it does seem excessive in this story. 

When we finally move on and into the story itself, it begins in a rather disjointed fashion.   Even the initial dialogue--although it's excellent dialogue--- suffers the problem of it being occasionally difficult to tell who is speaking.  All of this is such a shame because the plot is a very intriguing one and worth the effort.
Characters are one of Johnson's definite strengths.  Walt Longmire and Henry Standing Bear may be the primary characters, but each of the characters comes alive under Johnson's hand.
"The Highwayman" achieves the just the right balance of drama and humor, real and paranormal.  Although one could wish it were up to the standard of Johnson's earlier novella, "Spirit of Steamboat," it  is still filled with plot twists, action and danger, and ends up being a good way to spend a weekend afternoon. 

THE HIGHWAYMAN (Msyt-Sheriff Longmire/Henry Standing Bear-Wyoming-Contemp) - G+
      Johnson, Craig - Novella
      Viking - 2016

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Close Your Eyes by Michael Robotham

First Sentence:  My mother died with her head in another man’s lap.

Psychologist Joseph O’Loughlin swore he would no longer work with the police, and is pleased to have been asked to spend the summer with his wife and daughters, from whom he is it separated but still loves.  A call from DCS Veronica (Ronnie) Cray changes the first part of those plans with a request for him to look at the crime scene where a mother and daughter were murdered.  Learning that another psychologist, who Joe knew slightly, is claiming to have learnt “everything he knows” from Joe, piques his interest and draws him into a life-changing series of events.

It’s an opening which certainly captures our attention, both the event and evocativeness of the writing—“It was a though she had taken hold of a loose thread and the further she drove away from me the more the thread unraveled like a cheap sweater….”.  It’s a hard balance, having the voice of the killer run through the book, creating suspense, drawing us closer to understanding the motive, and yet not exposing the killer’s identity or being too intrusive to the principle thread of the story.  It’s a device which has become commonly used; perhaps too much so, but it does work here.

Even down to his name, Joe is a character with whom one can identify; he has Parkinson’s, is separated from a wife and two daughters he loves, and hopes for reconciliation.  He takes pride in what he does, takes offense when someone uses his name to promote their own agenda, and has a determination to uncover the truth—“You’re not going to stop, are you?”  “I don’t’ know how.” Even beyond his family, the two main characters supporting him, DCS Cray, and Vincent Ruiz, a former cop who once arrested Joe and then became his friend, are strong, interesting characters.  Milo, who capitalized on Joe’s name and reputation, exemplifies today’s world of pop “experts” who are more interested in fame and money, giving the public easy and quick answers to complicated problems and issues.  

This is an author who makes one think—“And yet…yet…we are the sum total of our experiences.  We are who we are because of what happened…”  His analogies are always on target--“Death is supposed to be the final act, yet so much is left unfinished when someone dies suddenly or unexpectedly.  It’s as though they’ve walked offstage in the middle of the performance, hoping to come back later to explain the plot and tie up any loose ends."  His observations about people are fascinating and make one realize how much we must give away about ourselves without even realizing it.

The plot has a very good balance of the investigation, of which the procedural aspects are realistic, and Joe’s personal life.  The twists are well done, as is the escalation of suspense and sense of danger.  There are a plethora of suspects.  Even Joe feels overwhelmed at one point—“There are too many names, too many possibilities.”  Yet, he defies you to identify the killer.

Close Your Eyes” has excellent suspense and danger which builds frighteningly, and a conclusion that causes one to question where Robotham is going from here, but you definitely want to know the answer.

CLOSE YOUR EYES (Psy Susp-Joe O’Laughlin-England-Cont) – VG+
Michael Robotham – 8th in series
Mulholland Books, April 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

By My Hand by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence:  The murderous hands work unhurriedly in the dim light.
Christmas is coming to Naples, a city now under a fascist regime and where people live in tremendous poverty in contrast to the luxurious apartment in which the bodies of a militia officer and his wife have been found.  While searching out the killer, or killers, Commisaario Ricciardi is concerned for his elderly former nurse and torn between two women, while Brigadier Maione is dealing with a crisis of his own.
One does not enter gently into this story.  Instead, one is nearly overwhelmed by the visual and narrative contrasts that attract and repel us.  However, the one thing one does not do is stop reading.
The two principal characters of Ricciardi and Maione are such wonderful contrasts to one another, yet they balance each other perfectly.  Maione provides a bit of light, whereas Ricciardi believes himself to be the dark due to his ability? curse? gift? of the Deed, which causes him to see the final seconds of those who’ve died by violence.  What’s nice is that these final seconds don’t help Ricciardi solve the crimes, as the words only make sense in the end. 
Supporting them is the always delightful Dr. Moto and his newly adopted dog; Bambinelle, Maione’s informant; Rosa, who has been with Ricciardi since his childhood; and Erica, the object of unrequited (so far) love on both parts.  It is the balance between being a police procedural, and being a book about people and their relationships, that help make this book so compelling.
The thoughts of the killer are chilling.  While this is a device that can be intrusive, it works here and provides a frightening look at the dichotomy of the killer’s mind.  In complete contrast Livia, the wealthy widow in love with Ricciardi, provide us a sense of place and a view of the people of Naples, “Waking up to the calls of the strolling vendors, the noise rising from the streets, the songs.  And the smells, the thousands of pots bubbling busily away, the thousands of frying pans sizzling, the pastry shops competing to present their masterpieces.  Everyone had dreamed up a calling, a profession; every one of them was trying to eke out a living.” 
There are two principal grounding elements to the story; the crashing of the waves representing conflict, and Christmas with all the emotions surrounding it, which provides wonderful segues to increasingly more serious aspects of the story—“Christmas is an emotion.  It’s a strong as a pounding heart, as light as a fluttering eyelash.  But it can be swept away by a gust of wind and never come at all.”  de Giovanni does a wonderful job of linking traditions of the present to those of the distant past, and of teaching us that about which we may not have known, such as the symbolism of, and meaning behind each figural element of the nativity.  
And, of course, being set in Italy, there is food—“boiling posts of the maccaronari, or macaroni vendors, and the posts of oil for the fried-pizza man, who also fried piping-hot panzarotti turnovers and potato croquettes…”  Yet, there is also a wonderful definition of faith—“Our faith wasn’t made to erect barriers, walls, or iron bars between us and love; it was made to increase the presence of love in our lives, so that we can give of ourselves and live in a state of communion…”
By My Hand” is a more serious book than its predecessors as it relates to the politics of the time: one senses the changes and coming threat with each book.  It is also a very good murder mystery/police procedural.  However, at its heart it is a book about people and relationships, and motives.  The motive here is a sad one, yet the resolutions of the conflicts related to the principle characters will warm your heart, and make you anxious to read the next book.  

BY MY HAND (Hist Mys-Comm. Ricciardi/Brig. Maione-Naples-1931) – VG+
      De Giovanni, Maurizio – 5th in series
      Europa Editions, Aug 2014