Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

First Sentence:  Red and blue police lights splash off the chipped chrome letters spelling ICE MACHINE.
Professor Theo Cray uses computational science and applies it to biology, including the study of DNA.  On a field trip, staying in a small town in northern Montana, he is taken in for police questioning related to recent deaths of women.  One set of photos stands out.  A young woman, one of Theo’s former students, had been involved.  Theo ends up with a vial of her blood that also contains a strand of hair, and even though the bear has been killed, something doesn’t seem right to Theo.    That instinct ends up putting him in extreme danger.
We begin with a very good, creepy, scary, and ultimately deadly opening.  Mayne is so good at setting the scene and making it dramatic.  He then adds a bit of irony to it, while completely capturing our attention.  He also provides an interesting assessment of grief—“The trouble is we expect the emote part of emotion.  Humans are social primates, and our experiences have to be externalized to be acknowledged by others.”
There is nothing better than an author who entertains and makes one think.  Mayne succeeds at both.  He both makes the science, such as the two types of DNA, comprehensible and interesting but raises other questions that make one stop and consider; did Christians steal the story of creation from the Greeks?
Detective Glenn is an interesting character.  The reversal of roles is nice, where Glenn is the understanding, sympathetic cop, and the woman Sheriff Tyson is hard-nosed, just wants answers.  But it’s Cray who is the focus; a seemingly stereotypical scientist who is brilliant at somethings and completely naïve about others.  Yet, one can’t help but enjoy the bits of humor—“I’m such an idiot.”  “Not everyone can be a rocket scientist.”  “CalTech’s program actually accepted me.  But I turned it down to study biology at M.I.T.”  There is a very good transition, with the help of a friend, that takes Cray beyond his role—“I’m done being the crazy guy showing up in police stations with a wild story about a killer who makes crimes look like animal attacks.”  All the characters are smart, capable, and strong in the best sense.
The story is well plotted.  There are some good twists one should have seen coming but didn’t, which is always good.  Mayne builds the suspense to an almost unbearable pitch, ensuring that one won’t stop reading until the final page.
The Naturalist” is one fascinating, intense, un-put-downable read.  Mayne really knows how to tell a gripping story.  Best of all, it appears to be the start of a new series.

THE NATURALIST (Ama. Sleuth-Prof. Theo Cray-Montana-Contemp) – VG+
      Mayne, Andrew – 1st in series
      Thomas & Mercer (Oct 2017)

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

First Sentence:  The noise was the worst.
A raging fire has destroyed part of London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.  In the remains is found a body.  Not a victim of the fire, but someone who has been mutilated and with his thumbs tied together behind his back:  a sign of those who committed Regicide by signing the death warrant for Charles I.  Richard Marwood, a reluctant government informer and son of those who committed treason, is charged with finding the killer. Cat Lovett, whose missing father was also part of the treasonous group, desires to be an architect but instead is struggling to survive.
The author’s notes at the beginning of the book are not only important to understanding the background of the story but are also quite fascinating.  The story’s opening is evocative, visual and immediately captivating.  Into the midst of it all, we are introduced to our first surprise followed by a revelation about one of our two protagonists.
Taylor creates fascinating characters and intermingles them with actual historical figures, yet without ever allowing the fictional characters to be overshadowed.  As well as carrying the story, they facilitate the conveying of historical facts about which we may never have heard, such as the group known as the Fifth Monarchists.  Still, it is Richard, Cat, Mrs. Alderley, Master Hakesby who play critical roles.  Mrs. Alderly, in particular, is an interesting character.  There is much more to her than we first believe.
There is always the sense that much is going on behind the scenes of which neither we, nor our protagonist, is aware.  Although the fire is not a major focus of the story, the destruction of whole areas, and the impact on people’s lives, as well as the planning of rebuilding does play, in part, an important role.   We are also reminded that some things haven’t really changed in 600 years; women are still held responsible for men’s indiscretions, and that environs of sanctuary are not a new concept.
Taylor moves seemlessly between the storylines of Richard and Cat.  He brings the two tantalizingly close, then separates them, then a bit closer still.  When the two threads do meet, it is tense and very dramatic. 
The Ashes of London” is a very good read filled with “ashes and blood,” history, excellent characters, startling revelations and a twist one doesn’t see coming.

THE ASHES OF LONDON (Hist. Mys-Richard Marwood – London – 1666) - VG
      Taylor, Andrew – 1st of trilogy
      Harper Collins – Jan 2017

Friday, October 20, 2017

Old Scores by Will Thomas

First Sentence:  I suppose it all began with the garden.
A delegation of Japanese diplomats is in London to discuss opening an embassy.  Enquiry Agent Cyrus Barker, who lived in Japan, is asked to show the gentlemen his garden.  When Ambassador Toda is murdered later that night, and Barker found across the street, he is arrested, interrogated, and finally released.  Scotland Yard isn’t convinced of his innocence, but the new Japanese ambassador implores Barker and Llewelyn to find the real killer.
One would be hard-pressed to find a more delightful story narrator than Thomas Llewelyn—“’Is there anything I can do?’ I asked, … ‘I could help with the penjing trees…’  ‘No, no, lad, you just go ahead and read.’  Very well, so I’m not an expert gardener.  Some wag, probably our butler, Max, expressed the belief that bonsai (to give them the Japanese name) Scream at the mention of my name.  England has been called a nation of gardeners, but no one said anything about Wales.”
The author is very good at providing background as one goes and throwing in very effective plot twists.  He also tosses in small bits of philosophy and/or perspective--
Berker gold me once that when someone criticizes you, you must take it to heart, and try to see yourself from his or her point of view.”
We are given a look at Japan’s politics during an interesting time in history, and politics between the traditionalists and the progressives.  As usual, it was the US which threw things into turmoil.
The dialogue is wonderfully done.  One looks forward to the humorous—“’How do we know anything without asking’ “Seen and ye shall find:  knock and the door will be opened unto you.’ Barker smiled. ‘Well, well,’ he said ‘So he can quote scripture.’ ‘As Shakespeare said, ‘The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.’”
There are a couple of characters those who follow the series will be pleased to see; Rebecca Cowan, Llewelyn’s intended, and Fu Yung, Barker’s ward.  The meeting between the two women is delightful.  Moreover, it’s a pleasant reminder of how well-developed are all of Thomas’ characters, include those who are female.  Barker’s story of his time in Japan is enlightening and tragic.  It explains quite a bit about the character.  Thomas is someone followers of the series have seen grow and change.  This is not a series where the characters stagnate.
Between Barker’s French-trained chef, and his Chinese friends and restaurant owner Ho, food always plays a role.  From eggs in truffle butter, to bacon sandwiches, noodles with prawns, and even fugu, the poisonous puffer fish, it is delectably described.
Just when one may think there is a lot of talk and not a lot of action, one is proven very wrong.  There is a nice twist in that the bad guys don’t always die.  Too, there is a wonderful reference to the Battle of Culloden. 
Old Scores” is a pleasurable balance of well-done characters, dialogue, and suspense along with fascinating lessons of history.

OLD SCORES (Hist Mys-Barker and Llewelyn – London – VG
      Thomas, Will – 9th in series
      Minotaur Books – October 2017

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

First Sentence:  Lieutenant Morrison died as dawn broke on the Friday morning, a casualty of war.
Field nurse Bess Crawford treats Captain Travis, a patient disoriented from a head wound.  He believes Lt. James Travis, a distant cousin and Englishman, deliberately shot him.  Released, he is brought back, wounded a second time and still insisting on the same story.  Upon Bess’ return to England, she finds the captain strapped to a hospital bed and being treated for a brain injury.  Bess enlists the help of Sgt. Major Simon Brandon to unravel Travis’ story and find the truth.
From the very start, Todd touches one’s emotions.  Although it’s coming to the end of the war, it is still very active and provides an interesting perspective on events and even the attitudes by some regarding providing medical treatment to captured German soldiers.
At first, one may believe one knows where the story is going.  As it progresses, things do change and a twist makes things all the more interesting.  As they say, the plot thickens even more.
Bess is such a strong character.  Her nature is well-explained, as is her dedication. One can’t help being attracted to Sgt. Major Simon Brandon.  He is steady, supportive, and never dismisses or talks down to Bess.  With the war ending, will we finally see something happen between the two of them?
The story does read a bit like a melodrama at times.  However, it turns out there is a very clever, and well-hidden, motive.
A Casualty of War” takes one from the battles of France to London and to a small English town, all in search for truth.  With the war coming to an end, it is going to be interesting to see where the series will go from here.

A CASUALTY OF WAR (Hist Mys – Bess Crawford-France/England-WWI) – G+
      Todd, Charles – 9th in series
      William Morrow – Sept 2017

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

First Sentence:  ‘This woman – Jessica Lane – should have died. …”
Jessica Lane surprises her sister, a Carmelite nun, with a hot air balloon ride for her birthday.  While looking down, the balloon passengers see a man commit murder. Unfortunately, he also sees them, and a woman taking pictures with her cell phone and causes the balloon to crash killing all but one.  Alone and on the run, she is just trying to survive and find help.
This is going to be a short-ish review.  Not because the book isn’t good, but because it is so good one doesn’t want to say too much, but would rather other people read it for themselves. 

When Bolton is on mark, she is such a pleasure to read, and she is truly there with this book. 
What begins with lovely descriptions quickly turns into a horrific experience.  Bolton is very good at conveying terror and the emotions of the events, but she is equally at offsetting the grim with some excellent humor. 
Knowing the villain from the start adds to the sense of menace.  That the danger builds continually throughout the entire book keeps one glued to the story.  Yes, there are scenes that are difficult to read.  However, the story is so fast-paced, one isn’t about to stop. 
The protagonist is a fascinating character.  She’s strong and resourceful.  One of the best characters is Sister Belinda.  Who doesn’t love a nun who addicted to police dramas?
Bolton’s plotting is what truly wins the day.  Talk about a book full of twists and turns.  With each chapter or so, one learns more, yet still isn’t quite certain where the story is going. What one finds is that it is well worth going along for the ride as the story takes one places that can’t be anticipated.
Dead Woman Walking” is a remarkable, “WOW!” of a book.  It is non-stop action filled with suspense, twists, and surprises to the very last page.

DEAD WOMAN WALKING (Susp-Jessica-Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Bolton, Sharon – Standalone
      Minotaur Books – Aug 2017

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

First Sentence:  They charged from the cover of the elephant grass toward the LZ, five of them swarming the slick on both sides, one among them yelling, “Go! Go! Go!”—as if each man needed to be prodded and reminded that these were the most dangerous seconds of their lives.”
Harry Bosch is on leave from the LAPD but has been taken on as a volunteer reserve officer investigating the cold case of a serial rapist for the San Fernando PD.  However, working as a private investigator, Bosch has been hired by an elderly billionaire to find any heirs he may have from when he was a college student.  The man’s company very much wants Harry to fail.
It is interesting that we open with a reminder of the terrible cost of war.  Any war.  All wars. 
Connelly has such a clear and distinctive voice, part of which is the ever-present sarcastic humour—“You can come back now.” “Good. Any longer and I was going to jump.” She didn’t smile. …”It’s impact-resistant glass,” she said. “It can take the force of a category-five hurricane.” “Good to know,” Bosch said. “And I was only joking.”
It’s good that we learn the backstory of Bosch’s situation with the LAPD. One thing one never needs worry about is learning the history and/or backstory of people and places.  Connelly is very good and providing those, often with an interesting perspective—“Working cold cases had made Bosch proficient in time travel.”  However, one does rather wonder what is the normal rate of an officer clearing murder cases.
Another of Connelly’s many skills is outlining police procedures, and describing the impact budget reductions has on solving crimes.  This is not only informative but adds a strong element of realism.  Even so, Bosch is a character who likes to do things very much his own way.
It is nice to have Bosch’s half-brother, Mickey Haller, brought into the story.  However, there are a lot of coincidences, and the interactions with Bosch’s daughter seemed random and didn’t really add anything to the story.  Another rather irritating factor is the constant relating of driving directions. It is rather as if listing to a GPS.  It doesn't really provide a true sense of place and feels like filler. 
The plot is well done.  Connelly balances the two story threads very well.  There are good twists, red herrings, and “ah-ha!” moments.  The buildup of suspense nicely done, as is the exposure of the killer.
The Wrong Side of Goodbye” is classic Connelly.  It’s a satisfying read Connelly fans will enjoy.

THE WRONG SIDE OF GOODBYE (Pol Proc-Bosch/Haller-LA-Contemp) – Good
      Connelly, Michael – 19th in series
      Little, Brown and Company – Nov, 2016