Monday, October 31, 2016

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd by Alan Bradley

First Sentence:  The winter rain slashes at my face like icy razor blades, but I don’t care.
Flavia returns from Canada to find her father is in the hospital unable to have visitors, and only Dogger, family employee, to greet her return.   Unable to visit her father, and to keep busy, Flavia runs an errand for the Vicar’s wife, but finds the reclusive woodcarver’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door, with only a cat to keep him company.
What an intriguing opening.  Even with a sense of threat, one has to smile at the anthropomorphizing of her bicycle—“Gladys’s wheels groan horribly beneath us.  The biting cold has penetrated her steel cones and seized the tendons of her brake cables.” 
It’s also nice to have a brief introduction to the members of her family.  Bradley conveys emotions so well; Flavia’s hopefulness, her restraint and regret, and finally, her concern and guilt.  One can’t help but love Dogger, the family's handyman, as he is the one person who seems to really care for, and understand, Flavia.
Flavia makes one stop, wonder, and research—“The human brain performs more efficiently when taking in humid air than it does in hot or cold dry weather.”  Hmmm.  Twelve-year-old Flavia is unique.  One either loves her, or is terrified and repulsed by her.  She has clearly spent much of her life being bullied, and has found her own way of surviving within her family.  Either way, she is a curious and unique character—“I’m sorry if I seem to digress, but that is what I was thinking at the moment.  It’s the way my mind works.  Things are not the same in real life as they are in, for instance, the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes.”
Bradley has such a wonderful voice and use of language—“I know that there are people who are as barmy about books as Father is about postage stamps.  My sister Daffy, for instance, can prattle on about flyleaves,  colophons, and first editions not only until the cows have come home, but until they have put on their nightcaps, gone to bed, switched off the lights, and begun snoring in their cowsheds.”  The references to actual historical figures provide a sense of time and social strata.       
Flavia is a combination of amazing self-confidence and a audacity, underpinned by her intelligence, imagination and love of learning—“The falling snow and half-light of the low-hanging, leaden sky made the street seems as if it were located in some far-off mythical underground kingdom, and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Dante, or even old Odysseus himself…”  Yet for all her eccentricity, she understands what it is to be bullied, and “adopts” fellow outsiders, not always wisely.
Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’dhas an excellent twist, and such a clever plot; so much so that we only realize it as it unfolds.  Flavia is, indeed, a unique and wonderful character.

THRICE THE BRINDED CAT HATH MEW’D (Trad Mys-Flava de Luce-England-1950s) – VG
      Bradley, Alan – 8th in series

      Delacorte Press – Sept 2016

Thursday, October 27, 2016

False Positive by Andrew Grant

First Sentence: “I lied.”
Det. Cooper Devereaux has been called back from suspension to partner with relative newcomer Jan Loflin, investigating the disappearance of a 7-year-old boy.  Did the parents murder the boy?  If he was kidnapped, why have there been no ransom demands?  While the case brings up events in Devereaux’s own past, Loflin seems to be investigating both the case, and her partner.
The book starts with very short chapters that jump between characters, and file information meant to discredit Devereaux that has been sent to Loflin. There are also cliff-hanger chapter endings.  Fortunately, the last does improve as we get further into the story.
The characters are interesting; Devereaux who carries a lot of past around with him, Loflin whose motives are suspect.  They are an interesting combination, but somewhat stereotypical.  While Jan seems to be a “by-the-book” cop, Devereaux style is more “what book?”.  However, Jan’s insecurity and gullibility does become a big tiresome until you understand what motivates it.  Each develops and becomes both more complex, and more interesting, as they story progresses.  One can appreciate who Devereaux’ PDST is woven thru the story.

Devereaux is very much in the macho-man, marches to his own drummer, style of protagonist that men might like to be, and women think they'd like to find...but only for a short time if one were honest.  There are aspects of him to be admired, but others at which one is inclined to roll the eyes.  But, hey; that's what fiction's for.  
Grant does have a good voice—“Devereaux had always thought of the fourth floor conference room as the place where enthusiasm went to die.”  He also does do a very good job of conveying the stress under which the parents of a missing child would be.
False Positive” is an exciting read, full of wicked twists all the way to the end, although the final twist was rather predictable.  Still, if you’re looking for an escapist read for a weekend, or airplane trip, here it is. 

 FALSE POSITIVE (Pol Proc-Det. Cooper Devereaux-Alabama-Cont) – G+
      Grant, Andrew – 2nd in series
      Ballantine Books – Jun 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  I tried to think how many times I’d kneeled down on asphalt to read the signs, but I knew this was the first time I’d done it in Hulett.

Sheriff Walt Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear travel to Hulett, Wyoming.  Walt is there to assist in the investigation of a hit-and-run accident.  Henry is there to test himself, and his motorcycle, at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  Neither of them planned for the accident victim to be the son of Lola, the very flesh-and-blood woman for whom Henry’s ’59 Thunderbird was named.  Is he more than that?  Biker gangs, the ATF, and a military-grade vehicle all add to the activity.

How can one not like Walt Longmire—“I shrugged and glanced at Dog, the hundred-and-fifty pound security system. “Stay. And don’t bite anybody.”…”Is he mean?” “Absolutely.”  As I said this, he reached his bucket head over the side door and licked her shoulder with his wide tongue, “Well, almost absolutely.”--Henry Standing Bear, Vic Morelli, and Craig Johnson’s crisp dialogue with wonderful wry humor.  However, one does have to pay attention in order to follow who is speaking when.
The interaction between Walt and Henry regarding the danger of motorcycles—“Why do people ride these contraptions, anyway?...T.E. Lawrence died on a motorcycle.  You know what I make of that?”  “He should not have left Arabia?” and Henry’s quoting Walt’s copy of Sherlock Holmes—“The game is afoot.”—speaks to their friendship.  The information Johnson includes on both the area and on motorcycles is quite interesting.
The books are feeling "less than" the original Longmire books, and a bit formulaic.   There's not the same level of intensity as once was.  The plot here is well done, but the book is definitely character-driven and has a lighter sense to it than previous books.  One note that felt off was Henry’s reaction to the victim. 
An Obvious Fact” is an enjoyable read, and would be a perfect airplane book. 

AN OBVIOUS FACT (Pol Proc-Sheriff Walt Longmire-Wyoming/SD-Contemp) – G+
      Johnson, Craig – 12th in series
      Viking – Sept 2016

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Presumption of Guilt by Archer Mayor

First Sentence:  Tony Farnum waited until he saw Barry’s face in the driver’s-side mirror before motioning him to back up, looking over his shoulder to make sure the concrete mixer’s rear wheels didn’t hit the staked wooden form bordering the pour site.
The Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant has been decommissioned and parts, including a large concrete slab, are being dismantled.  Works comes to a halt when a skeleton from 40 years ago is found within the concrete.  First they need to identify him, then Joe Gunther and the Vermont Bureau of Investigation team need to find his killer.  Are we talking the Mafia and money laundering, or something more personal?
Mayor’s dialogue is always real—“How’d we get the call?” he asked.  “Through the state police. …” Joe nodded. “Okay.  Given how that plant’s been a publicity shit-magnet since before it was plugged in, you better call the state’s attorney while I let our esteemed director know at HQ.” 
Introducing us to the investigative team is essentially done in one, very effective and efficient paragraph.  However, we not only know the investigators, but get to know their families and partners as well.  There is even a romance aspect.  Although it is an adult, sexual relationship, it’s behind closed doors so no one’s sensibilities are disturbed.
It is also not very often a police procedural includes a likable, very well spoken, crook.  Plus, we’re given insight into the operation of different sheriff’s departments.
The plot is very much a police procedural; a matter of brainstorming followed by chasing down leads with the occasional injection of suspense and excitement.  It’s an investigation with a lot of possibilities and twists.
“Presumption of Guilt” isn’t a single-man, hot-shot cop story, but a really solid police procedural with an excellent ensemble of characters, and a very good, solid plot that leaves you guessing all the way to the end.

PRESUMPTION OF GUILT:  A JOE GUNTHER NOVEL (Pol Proc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) – VG+
      Mayor, Archer – 27th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2016

Monday, October 17, 2016

Blind Sight by Carol O'Connell

First Sentence:  If they knew why he had come here, all these men would turn away.     
A Catholic nun and a young blind boy, Jonah Quill, have gone missing; vanished in front of a sidewalk full of people.  The nun’s body, along with three others, turn up on the front lawn of Gracie Mansion, home to the mayor of New York City.  But where is the boy; a boy who is the younger brother to the nun.  Mallory will dig through all the lies, including those of the mayor, in order to find this lost child.
Carol O’Connell’s use of imagery never fails to impress—“The stall was shallow, sized to fit a narrow sidewalk that was choked with sneakers and sandals as the walking tour walked on.”  Her descriptions of people are immediately recognizable—“The mayor’s aide, Samuel Tucker, was puffed up with all the importance of an entitled far boy from some college of fastidious twits.” Part of what makes Mallory such a captivating character is her complete disdain for artifice. 
Mallory truly is one of those rare, completely unique characters who makes one extremely uncomfortable, but fascinating.  It is the “humanness” of those around her who make her acceptable, even though she forces the world to deal with her on her terms.  It’s not out of cruelty, but because it is the way she can control her world.  Yet, one should not overlook the tiny “easter egg” O’Connell provides.
And then there are those around her who, in a sense, inherited her.  Her partner Riker, her superior Coffee, and all the others; particularly Charles, who is the antithesis is of Mallory.  Although readers would really need to go back to the beginning of the series in order to fully understand these relationships, O’Connell does a good job of allowing new readers to step in and have a good sense of who they all are
The plot is as complex and unique as are the characters, which is what makes this such a strong and compelling read.  The times away from Mallory, and through Jonah, are where one really sees O’Connell’s ability to convey emotion.
With O’Connell, it’s not the crime or the investigation that holds you, although it has suspense that peaks, then levels, then peaks again.  It truly is the characters; both those who are continuing throughout the series, and those who are part only of this story.  But most of all, it has the incomparable Mallory. 
Blind Sight” is an excellent read.  But above all, it is the writing and O’Connell’s ability to create something truly individual that draws one in and keeps one there to the very last word. 

 BLIND SIGHT (Pol Proc-Det. Mallory-New York City-Contemp) - Ex
      O’Connell, Carol – 12th in series
      G.P. Putnam’s Sons – Sept 2016

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death: The Grantchester Mysteries by James Runcie

First Sentence:  Canon Sidney Chambers had never intended to become a detective.
Vicar of Grantchester, Sidney Chambers, is a bachelor and battle-scared veteran of WWII.  With his backgammon-and-pint friend, Insp. Geordie Keating, and others, Sidney becomes involved in much more than baptisms and weddings; sometimes mystery is on the agenda.
What a wonderful collection of six short stories this is.  Although they are “cozy”, as in no profanity, sex, or overt violence, some of the themes are quite serious. 
Because of Sidney’s past in the war, the topic of PTSD, even though not recognized as such then, is addressed, as is racism and prejudice of several kinds.  There is certainly the theme of faith, but rather than blind faith, it is questioning and uncertain.  Sidney questions his vocation, and certainly questions his participation in some of the mysteries with which he becomes involved. 
Beside Sidney and Geordie, Ruskin has created very real supporting characters in Mrs. Maguire, the housekeeper, Curate, Leonard Graham, Sidney’s friend, Amanda Kendall, and the dog, “What the Dickens.”  They add dimension, and occasionally conflict, to the stories.
There is a delightful thread that runs through the stories of everyone assuming—“I had you down as a sherry man.”  “Most people do…but I’d prefer whisky if that’s possible.”
Ruskin‘s wonderful use of language makes this such a treat to read—“I’m not stupid, Canon Chambers.  I know how to keep secrets.  Have you heard of Tupperware?...Nothing gets in; nothing comes out.”  His descriptions are evocative—“Autumn was his favorite time of year, not simply for its changing colours but for the crispness in the air and the sharpness of the light.  And, there are nicely done analogies—“The snow had muffled the once audible cries of the world.  It was like grace, he decided, or the love of God, coming down silently and unexpectedly in the night.”
Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death:  The Grantchester Mysteries” is a collection of mysteries, but it’s also a study of humanity and faith, rather than religion, in general, as well as the question of at what cost comes pride.

SIDNEY CHAMBERS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH (Trad Mys/Pol Proc-Sidney Chambers/Insp. Geordie Keating-Grantchester, Eng-1953) – G+
      Runcie, James – 1st book of short stories
      Bloomsbury, USA – Apr 2012

Monday, October 10, 2016

Hell Bay by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  Harold Throgmorton’s face was florid.
Cyrus Barker has been asked to provide security for a secret conference being held during the house party of Lord Hargrave on a remote, private island.  Barker travels there with his assistant, Thomas Llewelyn, and his innamorato, Philippa Ashleigh, to join the Hargrave family, guests, and staff.  Almost immediately, there are two murders, the only exit from the island is gone, and the means of signaling for help has been destroyed.  How many more will die before Barker and Llewelyn uncover the killer.
Although the prologue plays into the story much later, it really could have been omitted entirely.  Doing so might have made the first death on the island even more startling and effective. 
The historical information Thomas provides is both interesting and serves to provide a sense of place.  It allows us to feel as though we are standing alongside our protagonists.  In this particular case, it also illustrates the differences in the disposition of the two protagonists.
The plot has decided overtones of Agatha Christie.  However, there is a clear difference with a reference to the danger of inexperienced individuals rushing about with more guns than good sense.
Thomas’ voice, as conveyed through the past-tense, first-person narration, is a perfect balance of often-tense scenes—“I was pressed against the closest shutter reaching across when another bullet came, striking the outside of the shutter.”—offset by occasional wry humor—“As for “Annabel Lee,” one cannot go wrong when reciting Poe.  I’ve always thought the man was one part hack and three parts genius.” 
Thomas Llewelyn is such a wonderfully drawn character.  Not only does he provide the narration, but it is through him we come to know Barker, and observe all the other characters.  He is a character that has experienced the harder side of life, and has a strong moral code. That said, he is not perfect, and one can enjoy his frustrations with Barker.
Where Barker is somewhat enigmatic, Mrs. Ashleigh, a recurring character to the series, is particularly effective here.  Being a widow of independent means, she has more freedom and strength than other women of the time—“I’m not a house of cards, to be blown over by the slightest breeze.”
The plot is very cleverly constructed.  Just when you are led to suspect someone, it becomes very clear that you’re wrong.  There is, however, one hint given one can really wish had not been included.  Conversely, there is a lovely fantasy created that we, the readers, can embrace, only to have it well, and truly smashed in a very dramatic fashion. 
Hell Bay” is a very good book.  It is filled with red herrings, surprises, danger and surprises touches of humor, all of which keep the reader satisfyingly off balance.

HELL BAY (Hist Mys-Baker/Llewellyn-England-1800s/Victorian) – VG
      Thomas, Will – 8th in series
      Minotaur Books – October 2016

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Homeplace by Kevin Wolf

First Sentence:  If you listen, you will hear the wind.
Chase Ford left the small Colorado town in which he was a basketball star, to play for the NBA.  Injury, divorce and drugs ended his career and now he’s home.  Not all homecomings are joyful; the murder of a present-day basketball star, who was very similar to Chase, causes the law, and Chase, to wonder why now and why him.
There is a very real sense of tension and suspense from the very beginning of the story.  There are grievances and relationships we don’t quite understand, but know will be revealed.  One-by-one, we meet the characters.  And, as if pieces of a puzzle, we begin to see how they fit together. 
Wolf’s characters epitomize people everywhere.  They are a microcosm of humanity; the best and the worst of us.  He makes the observation that while we tend to focus on our shortcomings and sins, other may see the good in us, and the positive things we’ve done.
Wolf has a very lyrical style, almost poetic at times—“Quiet slipped into the room and took the empty chair at their table.”  At other times, it’s understandably real—“Weather coming in.  And, God, the country needed the moisture.  Let it snow.  It was a prayer, not a curse.”
Homeplace” has plenty of suspense, danger and excitement.  Although one may suspect the killer, the resolution is startling and the ending very well done.  Wolf harkens back to classic authors whose books of less than 300 pages—259 in this case—are still complex and engrossing. 

 THE HOMEPLACE (Susp-Chase Ford-Colorado-Contemp) – VG
      Wolf, Kevin – 1st book
      Minotaur Books, Sept 2016

Monday, October 3, 2016

Face Blind by Lance Hawvemale

First Sentence:  No rain has fallen here in four hundred years.
Gabriel Traylin witnesses a murder outside an observatory in Chili’s Adacama desert.  By the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared.  What is found is a bag containing a severely mutilated body.  Due to prospagnosia, a neurological condition which prevents one from being able to differentiate facial features, Gabe can’t describe the killer, or the victim, to the police, making him a suspect.  With the help of three strangers, Gabe sets out to find the killer he thinks of as The Messenger.
How fascinating to be in a setting new to most readers—“Four hundred years, not a single teardrop from the sky.  … Precipitation here was measured in millimeters, and even then it came only as an infrequent fog—and to learn about a neurological condition of which I doubt many readers have heard, let alone trying to imagine living with—“Gabe has grown up recognizing is mother by her clothing, her slender wedding band, and of course by her voice.”
Such unique characters Hawvemale has created; Gabe who can’t recognize faces, Mira and her brother Luke who can only read the words in one book, Ben the author of that one book which is the only book he ever wrote, and Vicente who is Gabe’s friend from the observatory.  Yes, there are a few TSTL (too stupid to live) moments, but they make a weird sense when you consider the characters.
The author has an interesting use of language—“Gabe closed his eyes and wove that name on the loom in his mind.  Alban Olivares. He bound the threads around the soldier’s fallen body, making him into something more than just a runner in the night.  By christening him, Gabe created  him.”—so much so one is inclined to check whether it is a translation.  The plot is highly unpredictable.  You never quite know where it’s going, but it’s filled with excellent twists.  When danger comes, it is as unexpected and shocking to the reader as if it was real.  The story has a good ending, even if a bit unbelievable.
FaceBlind” is hard to describe but completely absorbing.  It may not be the best written book, but it definitely a compelling read.         

FACE BLIND (Susp-Gabe Traylin-Chile-Contemp) – G+
      Hawvemale, Lance – 1st in series
      Minotaur Books – August 2016