Monday, August 28, 2017

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

First  Sentence:  “State your name, please.”
It is a very hot July day in Montreal and Chief Inspector Gamache is testifying in a murder trial.  The previous Halloween, a figure in a black robe and mask has stood for several days on the green.  It didn’t speak, rarely moved, and finally disappeared.  The decisions and actions of Chief Superintendent Armand Gamache will impact far more than the people in the courtroom. 
The story opens in a courtroom.  What is interesting is that we have no idea as to who is on trial or for what crime they are being tried.  Yes, there is a murder, but not until we are a fair way into the story.  What we do know is that more is happening than what seems to be—“Maureen Corriveau was new to the bench.  … She could have absolutely no idea that she’d drawn the short straw. That a whole lot of unpleasantness was about to come her way.”  The courtroom scenes are very well done and have a tension of their own.
The more we learn of Gamache, one realizes he is the person one should aspire to be.  He is one willing to take great risks that may result in him paying a high price, but necessary to achieve a goal—“Never lose sight of the goal,” he said, returning his gaze to his subordinates “Never.” The relationship with his second-in-command and son-in-law, Jean-Guy, is strong and enviable, hasn’t always been smooth, and neither is it here.  What it is, is real; human.
With the story moving back to Three Pines, we meet/are reacquainted with so many wonderful characters.  Penny’s characters become real; individuals we would like to know, with whom we’d like to spend time. With each book, we learn a bit more about them and their perspective on life. We come to realize how multi-layered they are.  Ruth, for example, for all her eccentricity, is a crone; a sage in the best sense.  We are also made aware of the robed figure which projects a decided menace with the imagery of a bell jar being particularly effective—“I thought it was Death,” said Armand Gamache.”
 Managing two different time periods can be challenging, and often irritating for the reader.  Penny manages it flawlessly.  Her writing is so visual, it is as though they are film cutaway shots, leaving the reader with no question as to where they are when. 
If one is going to have realistic characters, one must also have excellent, natural-sounding dialogue.  Penny often catches one completely off guard with her humor making us laugh such as with the running joke about Jean-Guy’s glasses, or the unexpected comparison—“Jean-Guy and Ruth were much alike, actually, though he’d never, ever tell his son-in-law that he resembled a drunken old woman.” One of the best instances is also with Jean-Guy regretting not learning meditation.  But one should discover his mantra for one’s self. 
The plot is compelling and very current, the story keeps one so involved that losing sleep in order to finish the book is quite likely, and the originality in the story’s structure only adds to the overall quality.  There are twists and important questions which are raised.
Penny’s books are psychological studies, lessons in philosophy, and labyrinths of courage and the human spirit. They are also civics lessons in the causes of bigotry and the human cost of the drugs trade. Penny reminds us of lessons we should have learned but that we are inclined to apply to others rather than ourselves.  Her understanding of humankind, its strengths and weaknesses, only adds to the remarkable nature of her writing—“And a conscience is something one cannot escape.”
Penny’s writing is so good there are times one literally finds one has stopped breathing and must consciously catch one’s breath.  Even so, Penny never loses sight of the fact that the book is also an excellent, and ultimately highly suspenseful, expertly crafted mystery with twist upon twist upon twist. 
With “Glass Houses,” Ms. Penny has taken another step forward as one of today’s most remarkable writers.  Just when you think she can’t get any better, she does.  Just when you think her new book can’t be better than the last, it is.  If you’ve not read her before, you really should.

GLASS HOUSES (Pol Proc-Armand Gamache-Montreal/Three Pines, Canada-Contemp) - Ex
      Penny, Louise – 13th in series
      Minotaur Books – Aug 2017

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sulfur Springs by William Kent Krueger

First Sentence:  In the balance of who we are and what we do, the weight of history is immeasurable.
Cork O’Connor and his bride Rainy are about to celebrate the Fourth of July when Rainy receives a frantic and disturbing voice message from her son Peter, who is in Southern Arizona working at a drug rehab center.  Being unable to reach him, Cork and Rainy fly to Arizona only to learn that Peter hasn’t worked at the center in months and no one knows where he is.  On the message, Peter gave the name Rodriguez, head of a drug cartel.  In what danger is Peter, and is he still alive?
It is a well-done opening that provides a succinct, yet surprisingly emotional, summary of Cork and his history.  This will be appreciated by both new and returning readers of the series.
Krueger is one of a special group of writers who impart small truths and wisdom that fits the story, but also make one take note wanting to remember them—“I understood that the past is never really past.  We live our history over and over, the worst of our memories right there alongside us, step by step, our companions to the grave.”  It is doubtful anyone has ever defined better the concept of trust—“Trust.  An easy word to say. … But putting it into practice?  … You hold a place inside that’s only for you and that you never let anyone else into.  Hell, after she died, we found out even Mother Teresa had secrets too dark to share.”
Krueger makes us think, too, of important issues of today such as bigotry.  Yet the manner isn’t one of preaching or berating, but of opening our eyes and being educated.  His use of language and imagery is always a joy to read—“The demons that plague you are patient horrors. …They are always with you. And why? Because they’re not things separate from you.  They are you.”
The way in which the author constructs his characters makes them real to us.  Although Cork and Rainy take center stage, there are several excellent supporting characters, particularly Jocko, the old miner.  We feel their emotions.  We have a real sense of who they are. 
Just as strong is the sense of place.  Those who have been to the high desert will recognize it.  Those who have not will feel as though they’ve been there.  Krueger’s description of monsoons in the desert is vivid and real.  The threat is as if another character.
Sulfur Springs” has a beginning which seems straightforward, and then builds the sense of danger and suspense layer upon layer, with twists and a bad guy you don’t see coming.

SULFUR SPRINGS (Unl Invest-Cork O’Connor-Arizona-Contemp) - Ex
      Krueger, William Kent – 16th in series
      Atria – Aug 2017

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Hostage Taker by Stephanie Pintoff

First Sentence:  What are you guilty of?
It’s Christmastime in New York City, and almost time for the tree in Rockefeller Center to be lit, but it’s going to be late this year.  Across the street, a woman is shot in front of the doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Rather than random violence, she has been planted there by someone who has taken over the landmark Cathedral, sealed it off, and is demanding that FBI agent Eve Rossi bring him five “witnesses” or he will kill more hostages and destroy the church.
If one is looking for a tense, exciting opening, one will find it here.  Moreover, it is tension that does not let up.   Both the plot itself and “News Updates” keep the pace throughout the book.    

The ensemble cast of characters is an unusual mix.  Led by Agent Rossi, her team of ex-convicts may not play well together individually, but they have the skills to get the job done.  While it seems over-the-top, what makes it work is the fact that the team is based on Sûreté
(later the Sûreté Nationale) employing ex-cons as his subordinates.  Eve’s team of four are more than well-suited to today’s crimes and we meet them, as well as Eve and her boss, through a team file record on each of them.

Another clever device is the inclusion of a first-person narrative by the “hostage taker” providing one with a bit of insight—“I’ve never liked bullies.  I’ve also never liked standing by and ignoring a problem… that’s how I live my life, I take matters into my own hands.  The fat girl was a little brat, but I took no pleasure in hurting her.  It wasn’t about that.  There are no good options in a bad situation.  But inaction is still a form of action.  Indecision is still a decision.  And justice is in short supply these days.”

In some ways, St. Patrick’s becomes another character.  The analysis file is fascinating even to those who have been there as it provides information of which most are unaware.  The floor plan is an excellent added touch.  Not only does it provide an orientation, but it helps make one feel they are part of the action.  And maps are always good.

The plot is filled with coincidences and a stereotypical bureaucrat, but it also has tension that is palpable.  It definitely keeps one reading.

Hostage Taker” is one exciting read filled with twists and red herrings. 

HOSTAGE TAKER (Pol Proc/FBI-Eve Rossi/Vidocq Team/NYC/Contemp) – G+
      Pintoff, Stephanie – 1st in series
      Bantam, 2015

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Betrayal in Iga by Susan Spann

First Sentence:  Hiro Hattori leaned into the wind that swept down the hill and across his face.
Master ninja Hiro Hatori and Jesuit Father Mateo have come to the house of Hattori Hanzō where a gathering of Koga emissaries have come for peace negotiations.  When one of the Koga clan dies an unnatural death at dinner, Hiro and Father Mateo are given three days to identify the murderer.
A quick note:  There is a very needed and useful Cast of Characters provided.  However, it is at the very end of the book, rather than the beginning where it would be most apparent and useful.
There is no waiting for someone to die.  Spann kills off the victim very shortly, and dramatically, into the story.  The three-day deadline to solve the crime immediately adds a sense of ticking-clock pressure.
Dialogue is so important to the enjoyment of a book.  It is that, more than anything, which brings characters to life.  From the first page, we are treated to wonderful dialogue which also tells one quite a bit about the relationship between the two protagonists. It also serves to tell us a bit about the relative heights of characters themselves—“we left our winter kimono in Kyoto.” … “What about you?” the Jesuit asked Hiro. “Mother left my old ones in the cabinet, but they’d barely reach your knees.”  The wry humor is so well done—“Your god never had a woman stab his thigh,” Hiro started up the hill toward Hanzō’s mansion. “True enough. But a spear did pierce his side.” No, this is not a religious book, but the comment is a reflection on the character of Mateo.
The seemingly small informational facts—“Hiro and Father Mateo followed Akiko down a narrow passage lined with paneled sliding doors and covered by a low, carved ceiling designed to prevent the use of swords.”--make such a difference in setting the time and place for the story.  At the same time, they feel as though they are bits one should store away just in case one has the opportunity to visit Japan.
As well as the protagonists, there are several really wonderful secondary characters; Hiro’s grandmother Akiko, the mute girl Tane, and Father Mateo’s housekeeper Ana amongst them.  Each of them serves to enrich the story.
"Betrayal in Iga" is very well done.  There are suspects and bodies aplenty and an excellent last line.
BETRAYAL IN IGA (Hist Mys-Hiro Hatori/Father Mateo-Japan-1565) – VG+
      Spann, Susan – 5th in series
      Seventh Street Books – July 2017 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Awkward Way to Die by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  The telephone set jangled on the corner of Cyrus Barker’s desk, and we both turned our head to stare at it.
The personal tobacconist to Private Inquiry Agent Cyrus Barker has died.  He was murdered in his shop.  His body found in his humidor.  It is up to Scotsman Barker, and his Welsh assistant Thomas Llewelyn, to find the killer.
If one has not previously read Will Thomas, this is an excellent introduction to his wonderful Barker and Llewelyn series.
Thomas’ dialogue and subtle wry humor are always a pleasure to read—“Someone had died,” I stated. “Aye,” the Guv answered, “It is Vasilos Dimitriadis.” “Your tobacconist?” “The same.” “Isn’t he the one who blends your tobacco for you but won’t say what is in it?” “Not ‘isn’t,’ Mr. Llewelyn.  ‘Wasn’t.’ Scotland Yard has required our presence immediately.  Come along.”
Thomas cleverly calls out the dismissiveness toward women and prejudice towards foreigners—“It was always easier to blame a foreigner, as if England had no criminal class of its own.”—demonstrating that little has changed over time. 
An Awkward Way to Die” is a clever story with the solution proving that it’s all about noticing the details.  It is a delight to read.

AN AWKWARD WAY TO DIE (Hist Mys/SS–Barker/Llewellyn–London-Victorian) – VG
      Thomas, Will – 13th in series (Novelette)
      Minotaur Books - July 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nothing Stays Buried (A Monkeywrench Novel) by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence:  Something horrible was going to happen to Marla.
Minneapolis police Detectives Magozzi and Rolseth are working to find a serial killer whose trademark is a playing card.  In a southwestern Minnesota farming community, Grace McBride and the Monkeywrench Software gang agree to work a missing-persons case.  Could the two cases be related?
There’s nothing quite like an evocative description—“There was no moon tonight, and the darkness seemed to swallow the beams of her headlights as if she were shining them down the throat of a monster.”—except an interesting cast of characters.  Although this is the eighth book in the series, one needn’t have read the previous books as Tracy does a wonderful job of introducing the characters and providing their backstories.  The introduction to Harley is particularly touching, and Walt Gustaufson, the father of the missing person, is very real—“Death is a part of life.  Always has been, always will be.”
Tracy is very good at conveying the understanding cops have for the families of the victims and how hard working homicide can be—“There were too many goddamned idioms in the English language with the word “dead” in them.  Dead end. Dead ringer. Dead reckoning. …”  She also has a deft touch at injecting wry humor and analogies into a scene—“Five miles off the freeway, Harley turned his Hummer onto a washboard dirt road and rattled their teeth for ten minutes before easing into a driveway with potholes slightly smaller than the Grand Canyon.”
The plot consists of multiple threads, increasing one-by-one.  The suspense and tension are ratcheted up at an increasing pace to where even the weather plays a critical role.  The ending may be a bit improbable, but it’s very gratifying.
Nothing Stays Buried” is exciting, and dramatic, but it also touches one's emotions.

NOTHING STAYS BURIED (Pol Proc/Lic Invest-Dets Magozzi & Rolseth/The Monkeywrench Gang-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG
      Tracy, P.J. – 8th in series
      G.P.  Putnam’s Sons – Aug 2017

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cast the First Stone by James Ziskin

First Sentence:  Sitting at the head of runway 31R at Idlewild, the jet hummed patiently, its four turbines spinning, almost whining.
Los Angeles.  1962.  Tony Eberle, a boy from upstate New York, is about to appear in his first Hollywood film and small-town reporter, Ellie Stone, has been sent West to do a story on Tony.  One problem; Tony is missing, the director is desperate, and the producer has been murdered.  Can Ellie solve the murder and find a hopefully innocent Tony?
Ziskin has truly captured the time and details of the early 1960s.  How refreshing to not have cell phones, GPS, the internet, and all the rest of today’s technology.  Instead, there are pay phones, telegrams, Thomas Bros. Guide maps, and good, old legwork.  While the twenty-five cent tips is an element that is overworked, there are excellent cultural references to the music, actors, and locations of the time, as well as emerging stories of the homosexuality of Rock Hudson, Tony Perkins, and others.
Ellie is a really well-drawn character; she’s smart, clever, independent, and resourceful.  As she is also the author’s narrator, she is also the voice of some great lines—“”The same waitress from the day before asked me how my fairy tale had worked out.  I shook my head and said it had turned grim.”
Cast the First Stone” has a very good plot with unexpected twists, including a killer one doesn’t predict.  What was particularly nice was that there was never an obvious suspect, and the ending was delightful.

CAST THE FIRST STONE (Lic Invest/Jour-Ellie Stone-Los Angeles-1962) – VG
      Ziskin, James W. – 5th in series
      Seventh Street Books – July, 2017

Monday, August 7, 2017

Adrenaline by Jeff Abbott

First Sentence:  Once my wife asked me:  if you knew this was our final day together, what would you say to me?
CIA agent Sam Capra deeply loves and believes in his pregnant wife.  However, his life turns into a nightmare when his office is blown up killing everyone but him due to a call from Lucy telling him to leave the building, and she then disappears.  The CIA accuses Sam of treason and murder, yet he remains determined to prove both his, and Lucy’s innocence.  But first, he needs to find her and their child.
It is sometimes hard to start a book with a rather sad opening.  It requires the author to have a strong voice and the making of an interesting character.  Abbott has both.
To have a protagonist who does Parkour; aka extreme running, is not something we’ve seen before.  What is even better is that the author truly gives one a sense of it, of the movement.  But then, Abbott is a very visceral writer. He doesn’t just make one see, he makes on feel. While this is a very good trait, it can also be painful for the reader.  The descriptions of the interrogation are real, uncomfortable, and disturbing as you know they are utilized. 
The information on nanotechnology—the study of the control of matter on atoms at the molecular level—is fascinating and frightening.  The inclusion of Patty Hearst and the techniques of the Symbionese Liberation Army brings one back to a terrible period in time.
Abbott has a very good voice and uses humor in a subtle, wry manner to offset the darkness of the plot—“Then he flicked open a switchblade.  A switchblade? The eighties want their weapon back.”—and shades of the television show Sherlock Holmes—“She’s not a traitor.”  “I should get you a T-shirt with that on it,” Mila said. “And then my Christmas Shopping is done.”  The sense of place is always apparent—“The Grijs Gander wasn’t just a dump bar.  It was a karaoke bar.  That made it about a thousand times more evil.”
 Sam Capra is an interesting character whose background is very neatly provided to us as he finds himself in various situations.   He is neither an amateur nor a professional at dealing with his situation.  Although he has some actual experience in what he must do, he is not a fully-trained field agent.  This heightens the suspense.
The plot is definitely one of high action and suspense.  However, it is unfortunate that there needs be the stereotypical bad guy.  The story is filled with very effective plot twists, yet it is still fairly predictable.  Even so, Abbott statement about mankind is true and quite pitiable--“God or nature of biological accident gives us these awesome brains and this is what we do with them.  We think of better ways to kill.  Ways that make murder as easy as taking a breath.”
Adrenaline” is an exciting, sometimes painful, read with an ending that leaves one anxious to read  the next book.

ADRENALINE (Thriller-Sam Capra-London-Contemp) – G+
      Abbott, Jeff – 1st in series
      Grand Central Publishing – July 2011

Friday, August 4, 2017

Paradise Valley by C.J. Box

First Sentence:  “The trap is set and he’s on his way,” Cassie Dewell said to Sheriff Jon Kirkbride.
Inspector Cassie Dewell has been hunting the Lizard King, a serial killer whose victims have included truck-stop prostitutes, runaways, and her former boss. Now, she hopes she has set up the perfect lure to get him to come to her.  Yet she is also concerned about the disappearance of Kyle Westergaard, a young man with mild fetal-alcohol syndrome, and his friend Raheem.
Box does a very good job of explaining the details of things; lot lizards, the way in which independent truckers work, etc.  The details are important, but at the same time, he does it without disrupting the flow or making one feel as though he has dumbed-down the information.
The characters are very well drawn and developed.  They are people one would like to know, one has been unfortunate enough to know, and those one hopes never to know.  Cassie and Wyatt, in particular, are wonderful characters.

There are villains, and then there are villains!  From the very first book in which the Lizard King appeared, “The Highway,” it was clear Box had created one of the most frightening villains there is, partly because the type of crimes he commits are actually happening across our interstate highways.  That said, one needn’t have read the first three books, as Box also does a good job of catching up new readers.
Box is always such a pleasure to read. He is a wonderful wordsmith with a very visual style who creates excellent analogies—“…driving an 18-wheeler was like piloting a ship on the ocean.  The captain of that ship had an entire blue-water sea in front of him and he could go anywhere on it.”  In spite of this being his 24th book, plus some short stories, there’s no sign of them being formulaic or getting stale. Each is informative and very exciting, so much so that I often forget to make review notes while reading his books.  They are that absorbing.  
Paradise Valley” is another great book by C.J. Box that is filled with excellent suspense, yet comes to a complete and satisfying ending.

PARADISE VALLEY (Pol Proc-Cassie Dewell, North Dakota, Contemp) – VG
      Box, C.J. – 3rd in series
      Minotaur Books – July 2017

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Death in D Minor by Alexia Gordon

 First Sentence:  He showed up two days after Christmas.
Conductor and violinist Gethsemane Brown loves the cottage in which she lives, and is determined to save it from the hotel developer working hard to buy it.  Were that not enough, her museum curator brother-in-law is coming for a visit hoping to buy a unique American cross-stitch sampler and dealing with the world of fake and stolen antiques.  Instead, he ends up accused of theft, and possibly of murder.  Hoping for help from her favorite ghost, she accidentally calls up the spirit of an 18th-century sea captain who once knew the girl who stitched the famous sampler.
 Gordon’s style and voice are such a pleasure to read.  She doesn’t take one’s time up with an unnecessary prologue, but starts the story at the start.  She doesn’t fill space with pages of background exposition, but provides the information as part much of the information as part of an early conversation, and as the story progresses.  Her introduction of characters makes them come to life—“Gethsemane recognized the baritone and greeted An Garda Síochána Inspector Iollan O’Reilly.  His trademark stingy-brimmed fedora pulled low against the wind, obscured his salt-and-pepper hair.”  Her introduction of Gethsemane’s brother-in-law also leads to a conversation about a letter providing background of the crime.
The dialogue is sharp, natural—“Being out here’s not so bad.  Fresh air, beautiful view.  And it could be worse.  I could be playing flunky to a megalomaniacal narcissist with the aesthetic sensibility of a toddler beauty pageant coordinator.”--and immediately informs one that this is not, in fact, a cozy, but a traditional mystery. 
For those who do any type of needlework, the story will bring joy to the heart—“Textiles belong in the fine art realm as much as paintings do, even if they don’t get nearly the same respect….People don’t appreciate the quality because the stitching was often done on utilitarian items.”  There is also an interesting comparison of Irish history to black history.  These are only small pieces of things one learns through Gordon.  One might wish Gordon to be more specific as to which movement of Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Gethsemane hears in her head as a warning of trouble, but that’s being very picky.
Death in D Minor” is a delightful read.  But then, how can one go wrong with music, murder, art, and a ghost.

DEATH IN D MINOR (Trad/Para Mys-Gethsemane Brown-Ireland-Contemp) – G+
      Gordon, Alexia – 2nd in series
      Henery Press – July 2017