Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dead Angler by Victoria Houston

First Sentence:  Dr. Osborne struggled for balance in the waist-high waters of the roiling Prairie River.
Retired dentist and widower Doc Osborn decides to rekindle his love of fly fishing with the help of fishing instructor, and the town's first female sheriff, “Lew” Ferris.  What they don’t expect to find is the body of a well-dressed woman who has had all her dental fillings removed.  Enlisting Doc, and his friend Roy, to help, Lew is determined to find the killer.
Houston perfectly describes fly fishing and the nature of those who love it—“No sport, except fly fishing, can take you so close to the heart of the water.”—or the inherent sexism—“Sure, she held a man’s job but still…learning to fish from a woman? He couldn’t get over it.”
The author’s voice brings her characters to life—“Why am I doing this? He had badgered himself as he hurried to keep up.  Isn’t a 63-year-old retired dentist entitled to a life of grace and dignity?   Dignity was out of the question as he plopped around in his boxy waders...”  Each of the characters is introduced in such a way that we have a feel for who they are and their backgrounds.  The one rather unfortunate aspect is that the author chose to present the late wife in such a negative fashion.  In fact, one has the sense that the author doesn’t seem to like many of her characters.
One rather unusual, yet important, point in the plot is the existence of the telephone party line.  Yes, a few do still exist in rural and/or isolated communities.  It does add an amusing element to the story.  And, on another element, what book focused on fishing would be complete without a recipe for cooking fish?
Good twists add a more serious note to the plot, and one introduces an element very relevant to current affairs. 
Dead Angler” is a very enjoyable read with increasing suspense.  The ending is a bit pat, but the story definitely holds one's interest.

DEAD ANGLER (Trad Mys-Paul Osborn/Lewellyn Ferris-WI-Contemp) – Good
      Houston, Victoria – 1st in series
      Berkeley – April 2000

Monday, September 26, 2016

Manitou Canyon by William Kent Krueger

First Sentence:  In the gray of early afternoon, the canoes drew up to the shoreline of the island.
Two years ago, John Harris disappeared at while fishing with his son and daughter.  Although an exhaustive search was done, of which PI Cork O’Connor was a part, nothing was found.  Now Harris’ children are back, claiming the grown son had a vision which involved Cork’s son Stephen, and want Cork to help them search again.  In spite of it being only days before Cork’s daughter’s wedding, he agrees, and Cork and the daughter head into the Boundary Waters where they encounter danger that risks not only their lives, but the lives of countless others.
No prologue here.  Instead, we have an opening that extremely effective, and very worrying, before switching to introducing Cork, and explaining why the month of November is one which Cork dreads—“She knew his history with that month…”Ghosts,” she said.  “You need to let them go.” 
Krueger has established a wonderful community of characters which includes Henry Meloux who brings an element of wisdom and a strong metaphysical aspect into the story—“The heart knows much that the head ignores.  If we pay attention, our hearts speak to us.  Stephen O’Connor as always listened.”—as well as a look into the culture of the Objibwe Indians.  The use of the native language, followed by translations, adds realism and is very effective.  Cork’s sister-in-law, being Catholic, does bring an aspect of religion to the story, but it doesn’t overwhelm the plot, nor become too preachy but is simply an aspect of the character.
The action is split between locations, which heightens the tension and suspense as well as the sense of threat.  There are several, well-placed and very effective plot twists.  The climax is exciting, even though the logic of it working seemed improbable.  However, it is, in many ways, a very spiritual book which causes one to stop and consider.
Manitou Canyon” is an exciting, engrossing story with excellent characters, and a wonderful ending.  

MANITOU CANYON (Pol Proc-Cork O’Connor-Minnesota-Cont) – VG+
      Krueger, William Kent – 15th in series
      Atria Books – Sept 2016

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Revenge in a Cold River by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  William Monk stepped out of the boat and climbed up the stone steps from the river, leaving Hopper to tie the vessel to the bollard and follow him.
Only a few people know that Insp. William Monk lost his memory in an accident years ago.  One who apparently knows seems determined to use Monk’s past against him. When a man dies while Monk was trying to save him from drowning, can a jury be convinced it was actually murder?  It’s going to take his colleagues, friends and family to save Monk from being hanged.
Even before finishing the first section, the tension is palpable. Perry’s plots and characters draw you in so completely.  Her writing keeps you reading until the wee small hours, unable to book down.  Her observations are so astute –“Monk…never wanted power other than that which gave him safety for work and let him owe no one. …Great wealth tied you to its service, whether it was land, trade, or gold.”
Perry makes painfully clear how powerless women could be, especially those married to powerful men.  Her depiction of this time is exacting, down to the customs, food, and dress—“She dressed in black, of course… She wore the traditional jet jewelry.”  Her descriptions of California during the Gold Rush days are an excellent contrast from the London setting.
What a wonderful cast of characters.  From Monk and Hester, to Scruff, a street orphan who adopted the Monks; from the lawyer Rathbone to the widow Beata York, we find ourselves invested in their lives and feeling as though we know them, or would like to.
One thing that has been a mystery through all the previous books is finally being revealed.  Both the method of revelation, and the result are fascinating.  The trial, and the process due to the period, is engrossing; Grisham couldn’t do better.

"Revenge in a Cold River" is yet another masterful book by Anne Perry, filled with excitement, suspense, twists, and an exciting ending.

REVENGE IN A COLD RIVER (Hist Mys/Pol Proc-William/Hester Monk-London-1800s) - Ex
      Perry, Anne – 22nd in Monk series
      Ballantine Books – July 2016

Monday, September 19, 2016

The English Boys by Julia Thomas

First Sentence:  The Book of Common Prayer, as any good member of the Church of England knows, if rife with dark and fearsome parts.
Tamsyn Burke is murdered moments before she was meant to walk down the aisle of her wedding.  Two men loved her; Hugh Ashley-Hunt, her fiancée, and Daniel Richardson, his best friend.  Daniel can’t let it go and end up joining forces with Tamsyn’s sister, Carey, to find the killer.  Their investigation reveals long-hidden secrets.
We begin with an interesting comparison—“…one line in The Solemnization of Marriage, which called forth the “dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed.”  It is also so much improved over the usual portent to which some authors subject the reader.
In addition to the aforementioned characters, one is also very intrigued by DCI Gordon Murray, and DS Ennis.  Thomas does have a wonderful way of introducing characters through their personalities.  There is a nice balance between the characters, as well as time spent in the past and present.  There is also a nice balance of the investigations done by the civilians and the police.
It is also good when an author makes you stop and think.  Descartes’ Cartesian Circle, and The Theory of Chaos vs. Determination aren’t often detailed in a mystery, but the information is fascinating.  Some of Thomas’ observations are certainly unique and inclined to say with one—“He watched as a couple pushing a pram with a freakish plastic cover went by; he tried to imagine zipping a child into what seemed an airless prison, cut off from all humanity by a torrent of rain.”  
      And then we get to the end when things rather fall apart and things happen which make no sense at all and were completely unnecessary.  In fact, the more one think about it, the more annoying it is.  It was incredibly disappointing that the author made the choices she did.  Making some changes would not only have provided a wicked-good twist, but have been more much suspenseful.  It also could have led to a very good ongoing series with more interesting characters, should the author have wanted.
The English Boys” is a decent debut book and it was a completely engrossing story that was very well done, up until the end.  However, the end will cause this review to approach the author’s next book with caution.

THE ENGLISH BOYS (Novel/Pol Proc-Daniel Richardson-England-Contemp) – Good
      Thomas, Julia – 1st book
      Midnight Ink – 2016

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Shattered Tree by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  He crawled as far as the shattered tree and lay there, faint from the effort.
WWI field nurse Bess Crawford treats a soldier brought in with severe laceration to his feet, blood loss and exhaustion.  Although he claims to be French, Bess wonders whether he is, in fact, German, but he’s transferred to a hospital in  Paris before she can investigate further.  When Bess is wounded, she is also sent to Paris to recuperate, but she is also determined to find out the truth about the soldier.  Can she do it without losing her own life in the process?
Todd skillfully introduces us to Bess and the supporting characters in such a way that we know who they are and how they are associated with one another.  Certainly Bess’ family connections help her along, and there are a few too many coincidences.  They do help move the plot along, but it is a bit overly convenient. 
Todd is very good about portraying the horror and hardship of war without being overly graphic.  A very strong sense of time and place is established.  Rather than the usual mouth-watering descriptions of food we’d expect in France, we are made aware of the extreme food shortages of the period—“The food shortage was no laughing matter.  What passed for coffee would have made Paris ashamed in any other situation, there was no tea at all, and the wine had been watered.  Even the bread, always  such a wonder compared to anything  England could offer, no longer had that crisp crust surrounding such lightness.  Instead it was heavy and the crust darker than the usual golden color."
For those of us who’s knowledge of history may be lacking there is a brief summary of the was in France and Belgium, and of how civilian nurses came into being, as well as about the Paris Gun.  Such information adds both interest and veracity to the story.
Bess is a wonderfully drawn, fully dimensional character.  She’s an excellent representative of all those women left behind who then used their skills and strength to help win this, and all, wars.  One cannot help but admire her for her strength, intelligence, determination and her moral resolve.
The Shattered Tree” is a very good, albeit somewhat complicated story, with several very effective twists.  It is well plotted with everything neatly tied together at the end.

THE SHATTERED TREE (Trad Mys-Bess Crawford-France-WWI/1918) – VG
      Todd, Charles – 8th in series
      Willliam Morrow – Aug 2016

Monday, September 12, 2016

Fatal Pursuit by Martin Wakler

First Sentence:  The lunar calendar said that the new moon made this a good day to plant broad beans, arugula and spinach, just as the previous days of a waning crescent moon were said to be the time to weed and to start a new compost heap.
An elderly local scholar is found dead, presumably of a heart attack.  Things just don’t seem quite right, however, to chief of police Bruno Courrèges, who asks for an in-depth autopsy.  The annual St. Denis fête includes a car rally and luxury car show, including a Bugatti owned by a young Englishman.  With it is a story about a Bugatti lost during WWII which, if found, could be worth millions.  To complicate Bruno’s life further is a property dispute between the Englishman and his French family neighbors, as well as a possible international crime which brings Bruno’s past lover to town.
Walker tells us so much about Bruno from the narrative of the first chapter, including his friends, his town and its history.  He has a way of drawing the reader in and making them feel part of the story.
The inclusion of the car show and rally is both interesting, and a certain indication of things to come.  And then, there’s the death…
Walker creates such a strong sense of place—“He looked down at the familiar value of the Vézère River, still shrouded in the early morning mist…Stray tendrils were rising like wisps of steam as the first, hesitant rays of the sun peeked above the ridge and began to warm the most away.  The spire of the old church and the houses that clambered up the hill seemed to float weightlessly in the sky.”  He also invites us to pause, and consider—“There was an old Périgord proverb about love being like food:  it changed with the time spent cooking.”
Just as no actual policeman would have one case on which they are working, Martin creates multiple threads.  This adds veracity to the story.  Bruno is an example of community policing at its best.  He doesn’t always follow the letter of the law, but focuses on what is best for the individuals concerned.
Being set in France, food is always a significant element, from simple fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden, to a  dinner of belinis with caviar, écrevisse à la nage (crawfish in broth) and zabaglione with, of course, the appropriate liquors and wines.  One would be advised to not be hungry when reading Walker, but he does include general instructions and tips for preparing some of the food.

In spite of the food, cars, and setting, plus the fascinating history we learn, this is a mystery, and a very good one, complete with red herrings, twists and excitement.   
Fatal Pursuit” is a very good, traditional police procedural which includes a very timely theme, and a touch of possible romance
FATAL PURSUIT (Pol Proc-Comm. Bruno Courrèges, St. Denis, France-Contemp) – VG
      Walker, Martin – 9th in series
      Alfred A. Knopf – 2016 

Friday, September 9, 2016

No Stone Unturned by James W. Ziskin

First Sentence:  The story I heard was that Fast Jack Donovan was chasing a rabbit through the woods when he tripped in the wet leaves.
The body of a society girl is found half-buried in the woods. Reporter Ellie Stone hears the report on her scanner and heads to the scene with her camera.  Determined to boost her struggling career, Ellie pursues the investigation on her own.  The more secrets she uncovers, the greater her risk, perhaps even to her own life.
Delightful period references though the story; i.e., “Butterfield 8” and singing along with Mitch Miller, cement the sense of time, although they may not be recognized or appreciated by younger readers.  The period details are very well done, from the smoking, to all the blatant sexism with which Ellie must deal—“Mr. Short didn’t want an assignment this important handled by a greenhorn, and a girl besides.  Why don’t you go brew us a port of coffee?  Then you can buff your nails till suppertime.”  But the author’s wonderfully wry voice is nicely done—“For weeks, we’d been flirting through the teller’s window as he scribbled entries into my passbook and dealt me my withdrawals with the panache of a seasoned croupier.”
For all the lightness of the protagonist’s voice, there are also moments for one to consider—“I put the album down and thought with irony that the photographic record of Jordon Shaw’s life ended as it had begun.  My pictures of a muddied, naked corpse—as naked as the day she was born, as naked as the day she posed on a baby blanket—closed the book on her brief, privileged existence.”
Ziskin does a very good job of ratcheting up the danger to Ellie.  One does, however, wonder where the police are and how they came to give 20-something Ellie so much latitude and cooperation. The story does seem a bit overly complicated at times. The plot had a few too many red herrings, and seemed over-thought.  Still, it is the first book, and the quality of the writing merits reading the next book by this author.
No Stone Unturned” has an excellent protagonist; a number of very interesting secondary characters, and an increasing level of suspense that definitely holds one’s interest. 

NO STONE UNTURNED:  AN ELLIE STONE MYSTERY (Lic Inv/Report-Ellie Stone-Upstate NY-1960s) – Good
      Ziskin, James W. – 2nd in series
      Seventh Street Books – June 2014

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Gold Buys by Ann Parker

First Sentence:  It was hard to find somewhere close by the crowded silver mining boomtown to practice killing a man, but Antonia was nothing if not determined
Inez Stannert and her husband, Mark, are back in Leadville.  The wife of their friend and partner in the Silver Queen Saloon is due to deliver their first child but is distressed by the words of fortune-teller Drina Gizzi.  Drina’s child, Antonia, has been posing as a boy, Tony, to get work but Inez isn’t fooled.  When Drina’s mother is murdered, and her body disappears the question is whether she is still alive, or was she stolen by a resurrection man? Inez is determined to keep Antonia safe and help find the killer.  
Stories that are more than one note are so much more interesting, and Parker has given us a full symphony.  That there are multiple threads doesn’t cause the plot to be confusing.  It, instead, creates a rich, multi-dimensional cloth.  Sorry for the mixed metaphors; blame enthusiasm.  However, it’s not often a book opens with the planning of a murder, and you find yourself rooting for the potential killer. 
Parker does a very good job of bringing readers, new and previous, up to speed on the characters and the state of life in Leadville.  The numerous relationships, with their conflicts and complications, make this a fascinating story.  We truly see life as it was during this time; not of the wealthy, but of the scrappers and survivors, those who have made their own way, from Inez down to the kids on the street.  One can’t help but admire the “newsies.”  They are the ragtag kids—some orphaned, some not—who sell broadsheets and work the clean-up jobs, but how help one another survive.
Although all the characters are effective, it is to Inez and Antonia we gravitate.  Inez is intelligent, independent, strong and capable, and we see those same attributes in Antonia.  They’ve learned the hard way that they need to depend on themselves, and friends, to get by.  Inez also knows, and accepts, who she is, without underestimating herself or women in general.
Where some books may include descriptions of food, as Inez owns a saloon, we learn more about alcohol.  One will now know the ingredients of a hot Scotch whisky sling.  Yet food wasn’t always cheese biscuits or poor fare—“We’d start with soup, fresh oysters in chicken broth….Then, baked trout, turkey and quail pie, prairie chicken on roast, green peas.  Potatoes, lobster, nuts, coffee and pound cake.”  And that’s just dinner for two.  And then, there are the details about the clothing of the time, which is quite fascinating.
Beyond all the well-researched period details is a very well-written story of relationships, gamblers and philanders, of spiritualists and murder.  There is very good suspense which builds well throughout the story.
What Gold Buys” is an excellent historical mystery with a very exciting climax and an intriguing ending which leaves readers wanting to know what happens next.  

WHAT GOLD BUYS (Hist Mys-Inez Stannart-Leadville, CO-1880) – Ex
      Parker, Ann – 5th in series
      Poisoned Pen Press – Sept 2016

Friday, September 2, 2016

Straw Man by Gerry Boyle

First sentence: The sun slipped behind the ridgetop to the West, the woods darkening at midday like Waldo County, Maine, was Alaska in winter.

 Reporter Jack McMorrow has a lot on his plate; perhaps too much. A story he is writing about private gun sales becomes much more complex than he anticipated, and results in a death. Joining his friends Claire and Lewis in doing a good deed for a neighbor results in a vicious stalker targeting his wife and child. Can Jack be who he is and not destroy his marriage?

What a perfect first chapter. Not only do we meet the primary characters of Jack, Lewis, and Claire, but we know what kind of men they are, a bit about their background, and what motivates them to take the action they do. No time is wasted, but readers are immediately taken into danger and high action, which is quickly contrasted by a light moment of our protagonist correcting the grammar on a sign. Claire, in particular, is the kind of friend one would like to have, but whose skills one would hope never to need—“I'm all for pacifism,” Claire said. “but I'm not going to die for it.” Lewis, a Marine veteran, is emotionally scarred by his time in Afghanistan and trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, yet he is written with sympathy and understanding which makes him very real.

All the characters are real and recognizable. It's nice to see a married couple whose relationship is not perfect and yet one for which we can root. Boyle is very good at presenting the conflict in a relationship; the insecurities, the differences between attitudes and viewpoints the lack of communication at times, the desire of two very different people to find a common ground, and to not let jealousy destroy a relationship.

The topic of the book couldn't be more timely. We learn fascinating information on the older order of Mennonites which adds depth to the story. Boyle is excellent at creating seemingly separate threads and tying them together neatly maximizing the tension; Sam Abrams the young Mennonite, the three thugs, private gun sales, and the violence of man.

The story provides us an interesting moral dilemma; when you know there's something bad and yet you know trying to work through the system won't really be productive and could do more harm to those who are innocent than good, is it morally right to take justice into your own hands. It is a very difficult question to ask, and even harder to answer. He is also represents an ethical dilemma--"I figured he'd been buying guns. For the two guys you busted." "Were you planning on telling anyone about this?" O'Day ask. "I was going to tell thousands of people," I said. "When I wrote about it." "And in the meantime, how many people get killed with those guns?"

The way in which Boyle employs his daughter and her friend adds a wonderful balance to the story. It's nice to be reminded that there are people who believe—“it's the principle." "People don't do stuff like this out of principle." " I do," I said. "and my friends do, too." And what a classic line--"Non violence," I said. "It isn't for the faint of heart."

Straw Man” is one very good story; engrossing and exciting, yet filled with things that make you think. Don't be surprised to find yourself looking each year for Boyle's newest book. He tends to be a must-read author.

Straw Man (Unl Inv/Journ-JackMcMorrow-Maine-Cont) - VG
          Boyle, Gerry – 11th in series
          Islandport Press- May 2016