Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths

First sentence:  He shouldn’t really be driving:  they all know that.
DCI Harry Nelson has a new boss, with whom he’s not best pleased, and a missing person to find.  Could she have disappeared into one of the many chalk-mining tunnels beneath Norwich.  She wouldn’t be the only thing hidden there.  Anthropologist Ruth Galloway has been asked to investigate a set of human remains.  They’re not old, but they do appear to be the result of the body being boiled.
Griffiths does do a very good job of introducing one to most all of the relevant characters and their personalities.  How can one not love her descriptions—“From his name Ruth expected Quentin Swan to be camp and at least sixty.  In fact, the man who comes bursting in through the Guildhall doors is youngish and dark with horn-rimmed glasses.  He looks like a cross between Harry Potter and Dr. Who (David Tennant era).” [Reviewing from an early ARC, one hopes the correction was made to “Doctor Who”.]
It is nice to have odd bits of history included as it provides those lovely “ah-ha” moments and creates a bit of a pause before the action ramps up. …and then the murders begin.
Relationships play a significant role in the story.  Within the police, it is appreciated that they work as a full team, each with their own responsibilities.
The plotting of the actual mystery is well done.  There are very good connecting threats.  The theme of underground cities is fascinating as they have existed around the world throughout history.   One might, however, wish future stories to focus more on Ruth and her work.
Ruth is an appealing character living a complicated life.  Yet it is her moments of decisiveness and strength that shine through—“Joe decides her.  ‘Stay here,’ she barks at Ruth.  That does it.  Ruth isn’t going to be bossed about by a woman in tight trousers who things she’s Helen Mirren playing Jane Tennison.’ 
The Chalk Pit” is well done, although it spends nearly as much time on the various and complicated relationships as on the case and the resolution seemed very rushed. 

THE CHALK PIT (Pol Proc-Harry Nelson/Ruth Galloway-England-Contemp) – G+
      Griffiths, Elly – 9th in series
      Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – May 2017

Monday, June 26, 2017

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper

First Sentence:  His skin told his history in tattoos and knife scars.
Nate McClusky is about to be released from prison.  Rather than being forced to be a soldier on the outside for the Aryan Steel, he ends up killing a high-ranking member and having a warrant to greenlight his murder, as well as that of his ex-wife, her new husband, and his 11-year-old daughter Polly. He is too late to save the first two, but he is determined to do everything possible to save Polly even if it means putting her in extreme danger.
Polly is one of those characters one can’t help but like from the very beginning.  Everything about her is unique and special—“She moved the bear with practiced hands so he stood on her lap and looked around.  She had practiced with him for hours and hours so he moved with a liquid sort of grace, like a true and living thing.”… “Poly read about this pearl planet with a storm inside it and the thought burped full-formed out of Polly’s brain:  I’m from Venus. That was the way Poly felt, that outside she was quiet and calm, but inside her acid winds roared.  She’d never known why she’d been that way, so quiet on the outside but inside so scream loud, but now she knew. I’m from Venus.”  Yes, she did make me think a bit of Flavia from Alan Bradley's series, but only in the sense that both characters are the same age, and both have found ways to cope with being different from those around them.
Nate, too, is unusual.  Rooting for the anti-hero, the ex-con, isn’t a position in which one usually finds oneself.  Yet here, one does.  He knows who, and what, he is.  He has a true awareness of self, and a focused determination.  Detective Park is equally rare; a cop who is willing to change his focus and is committed to the case even after everyone else has lost interest—“The media has lost interest the second week.  A starlet found floating facedown in a Hollywood Hills home had grabbed the spotlight.  The media was a living organism, and it ate beautiful dead things.”
With each character, especially Polly, one can’t help but feel a bit of sorrow and regret, no matter what happens.  Harper takes one into a world you know exists, but not in detail and one hoped never to be known personally.  He shows you the details so one will never be able to quite forget them—“That soon as you found something to live for, you found something to die for too.  But he guessed in the end it was a good trade.”
There are simple statements of truth—“Some things get replaced, she thought, and some things never will.”—and bits of information; i.e., how felons communicate with the outside, and bullet wounds.  These are things, thankfully, outside most people’s lives, but are part of reality.
Harper has such a fine writer’s voice.  He conveys both actions and emotions in simple sentences—“Park hit the apartment complex at speed. … He left the car in the fire zone, fuck-you-I’m-a-cop style.  He double-timed the stairs to Carla’s apartment.  Bam bam bam on the door, fuck-you-I’m-a-cop style.” Harper doesn’t rely on cliché tricks or even on plot twists.  Instead, there are small surprises that alter the trajectory just slightly.  There is violence and brutality, but it is never gratuitous.
She Rode Shotgun” is not an emotionally easy or comfortable book to read.  One is acutely aware of the “what if’s” associated with each character, especially Polly.  It is, however, an exceptional book with remarkable characters.

SHE RIDES SHOTGUN (Susp-Polly/Nate McClusky-California-Contemp) - Ex
      Harper, Jordan – 1st book
      ECCO – June, 2017 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What the Dead Leave Behind by David Housewright

First Sentence:  The way he paced recklessly in front of me, bouncing off the furniture, tripping on the throw rug/ the way he looked at me with unblinking eyes—I decided the kid was messed up.
Former police detective, now unlicensed investigator, Rushmore McKenzie is asked for a special favour; find out her killed the father of a friend.  But nothing is simple and one case leads to another unsolved murder and a particular group of friends.
Housewright is very good at the concise; from the very beginning, we know who are the primary characters.  We also have background on McKenzie and, through his internal voice, how he thinks and who matters to him. Knowing these things is of particular advantage to those jumping into this series for the first time.  

In addition to MaKenzie's investigative talents; he cooks—“braised boneless pork ribs simmering in gravy laced with chili powder; mashed potatoes seasoned with onion salt, black pepper, butter, cream cheese, sour cream, and chives; plus green beans and pecans sautéed in chicken broth and maple syrup.”—cautions one to not read when hungry and reminds one a bit of Robert Parker’s Spencer.  
Housewright’s dialogue is easy, natural, and, at times, quite delightful—“Do you think that the killer might be at the party?” she asked. “That is so Agatha Christie.”

The plot is very well done.  There are plenty of twists to keep one off guard and surprised.  The unexpected is always a very good thing.
What the Dead Leave Behind” has an excellent protagonist and a very well done plot that goes unexpected places.  Learning where everyone ends up is very refreshing.

WHAT THE DEAD LEAVE BEHIND (Unl. PI-Rushmore McKenzie-St. Paul, MN–Contemp) - VG
      Housewright, David – 14th in series
      Minotaur Books – June 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

Felony Murder Rule by Sheldon Siegel

First Sentence:  The waif-thin woman eyed me nervously from the swivel chair opposite my gunmetal gray desk.
As co-head of the Felony Division, DA’s Mike Daley rarely tries cases himself.  Melinda Nguyen’s son Thomas is on trial for murder even though he was not an active part of the actual crime that resulted in his friend being killed by a convenience-store owner.  But how can Mike turn his back on a woman who may have been married to his brother they thought died in Vietnam’s China Sea, and the boy who may be his son?
It is always interesting to learn about an obscure law that can have a major impact.  Although the information is interesting, it is the revelation related to those the laws will impact that truly captures one's attention.
Siegel does an excellent job of providing background on Daley, his ex-wife Rosie in a very concise manner without interrupting the flow of the story.  And what a good assembly of characters it is.  It is the relationships that bind the story together.
Daley’s internal narrative could be annoying but isn’t.  Instead, it again exemplifies Siegel’s writing style which is efficient and informative.  It provides more insight into the related events without being verbose. 
References to other authors are always enjoyable—“Her bookcases were jammed with legal treaties, Federal literature, and Donna Leon.”  For those who are local, the rundown of San Francisco’s famous/infamous characters can make one smile.
Dialogue is so important to the flow of a story and Siegel writes dialogue exceptionally well.  It’s quick, sharp, and very natural.  His wry humor provides a nice bit of light to the darkness of the case.
This is not a book to read when you’re hungry.  The food may not be fine dining, but there is a lot of it—“My brother always said the most important attributes for a P.O. were patience, perseverance, and a low-maintenance digestive system.
Felony Murder Rule” corrects any misconception one may have that a legal mystery isn’t suspenseful.  Not only is it, but it’s one with a very affecting and emotional ending.

FELONY MURDER RULE (Legal Thriller-Mike Daley/Rosie Fernandez-Bay Area, CA-Contemp) – Ex
     Siegel, Sheldon – 8th in series
     Sheldon M. Siegel, Inc. – February 2017

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Less Than a Treason by Dana Stabenow

First Sentence:  The body had been found early on by a raven, that inevitable first responder to carcasses in the wild.
Kate Shugak may have gone missing from all her friends and those who love her, but she knows where she is. Unfortunately, she is found by a woman who wants her to find her missing husband.  A geologist working for the Suulutaq Mine is known for going off on his own, but this time he has failed to keep a meeting with his wife.
Once past the first, relatively unnecessary chapter, the story begins with a dramatic and emotional opening which is an immediate pickup from the previous book.  It also leaves one with more questions than answers and an element of dread. 
However, we then settle into learning about the village and its residents. For series readers, all the favorite, and not so favorite, characters are here but one.  For new readers, this may not the place to start as there are a lot of characters.  Although some background on them is provided, it can become confusing.
Stabenow does provide wonderful descriptions—“A beautiful night, clear and cold, the Milky Way a smear of confectioner’s sugar, the moon and ethereal, almost translucent crescent.”
Kate is a character to be greatly admired.  She is smart, strong, independent and self-reliant; almost too much so.  Anyone in the medical field may do a major eye roll, however.  But she inspires loyalty and respect from all who know her.
There are a lot of plot threads to follow as well, but trust the author.  The threads do become whole cloth.  Even so, it is a bit frustrating that the two major reunions for which waits are late into the book, one not until the very end. 
 “Less Than a Treason” is not the best book in the series but the story builds well as the pieces fit together to a perfect ending.

LESS THAN A TREASON (Myst-Kate Shugak-Alaska-Contemp) – Good
     Stabenow, Dana – 21st in series
     Head of Zeus – May 2017

Monday, June 12, 2017

An Easy Thing by Paco Ignacio Taibo II

First Sentence:  “One more, Boss,” said Hector Belascoarán Shayne.
What’s a PI to do when he needs money?  He accepts three separate cases.  In the first, he is hired to search for Emiliano Zapata, the nation’s folk hero and leader of the Mexican Revolution thought to still be alive.  The second involves a killing in a corrupt factory.  The third is to find who is sending threats to the daughter of a former porn starlet. 
What seems to be a stereotypical beginning turns out to be anything but.  How can one not be compelled to read on?
Taibo’s use of language is such a pleasure to read.  His use of metaphors—“After hesitating for a moment, he got up from the bed and walked wearily, like a man with a pair of incompatible ideas crowding the space inside his head.”—and observations—“if there’s one thing this country won’t forgive you for, it’s that you take your life too seriously, that you can’t see the joke.”—both delight and give one pause to consider.  Even his use of chapter headings is perfectly done.
Hector is a character one recognizes but isn’t one of whom one is tired.  Taibo has a fascinating way of working in bits of Hector’s background as we good.  The more we learn, the more intrigued one becomes to know him better—“…it occurred to him that what he liked to call his professional demeanor was no more than a reflection of the confused state of his own life.”  Hector’s office mates, and the nighttime radio DJ, add further to the interesting dimensions of Hector’s character.
There is nothing like a climactic moment one probably should have seen coming but didn’t.  The events which follow are extremely gratifying. 
“An Easy Thing” is one of those wonderful books that make one wonder why you’ve not read this author sooner, but makes one determined to make up for that lapse.

AN EASY THING -(PI-Hector Belascoarán Shayne-Mexico-Contemp) – Ex
      Taibo II, Paco Ignacio – 1st in series
      Poisoned Pen Press – March 2002

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Templars' Last Secret by Martin Walker

First Sentence:  Bruno Courrèges, chief of police of the small French town of St. Denis, awoke a few seconds before six, just as the dawn was breaking.
A centuries-old religious artifact, thought to be hidden within the caves under the former Knights Templar stronghold Château de Commarque, brings murder and terrorism to the normally peaceful village of St. Denis. 
 A map!  There is a special place reserved or authors and publishers who provide a map.  Not only does a map provide clarification of the setting, but allows the readers to be part of the community and area in which the story is told.
 There are wonderful descriptions of the lovely bucolic setting which are then shattered.  The beginning deals with such a relevant and painful topic, but it also serves as a good introduction to Bruno and his life, including his past—“Anyone could take one glance at my wardrobe, he mused, and tell the story of my life:  the army and then the police, all the signs of a man more at home in uniform than in civilian dress.” 
Bruno is an excellent character; fully-dimensional and the type of leader for whom one would wish.  He knows his town and those who live there, and is well respected.  He is no light character, however, as his military background proves.  What is particularly well done is that he is surrounded by characters who are as interesting and well-developed as is he. 
Walker works the history of the area seamlessly into the plot.  There is fascinating information about French labour laws, the Paleolithic figures and the various theories related to them.  He joins the past to the present and makes both come alive in comparing the weekly market of today to how it might have been 700 years ago.  Add to that the technology which provides an identity for the murder victim and one is brought sharply into the present, including a discussion of fake news--“It doesn’t have to exist in reality as long as people give it a kind of reality by talking and writing and arguing about it.”
Set in France, one knows there will be food and wine—“He planned fish soup, followed by blanquette de veau with rice, salad with cheese and pears poached in spiced wine for dessert.”  There are even descriptions of how the dishes are prepared.
 “The Templars’ Last Secret” is definitely not a cozy.  It deals with terrorism and fanaticism.  It is a book that has it all; mystery, danger, history, and good food—all of it fascinating.

THE TEMPLARS’ LAST SECRET (Pol Proc-Bruno Courrèges-St. Denis, France-Contemp) – VG+
      Walker, Martin – 10th in series
      Knopf – June 2017