Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Guilty Dead by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence:  Gus Rankin sipped from a bottle of water as he surveyed Trey's living room.
Gregory Norwood died of an accidental drug overdose.  Or did he?  On the one-year anniversary of his death, his father commits suicide.  Or did he?  What is the connection to an even greater threat that could kill hundreds of lives?  It's up to the police, working with the experts of the Monkeywrench team, to find the answers.
The story opens with a prologue that that works as it is an example of "show, don't tell."   It provides background to the events, people, and connections which form one of the two story threads. From there, Tracy quickly draws one into the main story, introducing the rest of the characters and clarifying relationships along the way. 
It doesn't take long before Tracy's trademark plot twists and wry humor become evident—"There was a gate and a gatehouse inhabited by two armed guards who possessed all the charm of North Korean border-control agents."  The other side to humor is tears.  Tracy also understands—"…that grief was the cost of love and it pillaged everybody in exactly the same way, regardless of socio-economic status.  It was the great equalizer."  The dialogue is wonderfully done, particularly the repartee between Magozzi and Rolseth.
All the characters regular readers have come to know are here, with the extra feature of an extremely pregnant Grace.  Those new to the series need not worry, however, as each is reintroduced in a casual manner, with backstories provided.  However, there are a lot of links between the secondary characters, not to mention similar names in the beginning, which can be confusing. 
Tracy creates a real sense of atmosphere, which is something very different from place or time.  It's a skill which can make one stop and really consider—"Norwood's body was gone, but the pervasive stench of death wasn't.  Its malignant presence had even penetrated the upstairs rooms in the big house.  "There were companies that specialized in sanitizing the aftermath of crime scenes – 'trauma cleaning' was the polite term for it – but Magozzi had always wondered if it was possible to scour a place entirely of death's effrontery."
The escalation of suspense is very well done, but the reliance on coincidences is a bit heavy-handed, in spite of the clever exchange on the subject—"…"'We asked a buddy tonight if he believed in coincidences.' She arched an over-plucked brow. 'And what did he say?' 'He said no.  But sometimes coincidences happen.'"
It is a bit unusual, in a good way, to have a bad guy with a conscience, and the motive comes clear as does the intended target.  It is a circuitous route, but an interesting one.  Even so, the exposure of the villain is hard to believe, and the ending, which includes a predictable scene, rather abrupt.  This is the first book written solely by Traci since the passing of her mother P.J., and it does show, yet one should have faith that she'll hit her full stride soon.
"The Guilty Dead" is exciting and suspenseful with twists galore and plenty of bodies.  Whatever else, it's a fun way to spend a few hours with an entertaining group of characters, and that's not a bad thing at all.

THE GUILTY DEAD (Pol Proc/Tech-Monkeywrench Gang/Magozzi/Rolseth-Minnesota-Contemp) G+
      Tracy, P.J. – 9th in series
      Crooked Lane – Sept 2018 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan

First Sentence:  Do you know me?
Journalist Mercer Hennessy struggles daily with the loss of her husband and child who died in an automobile accident. Reminiscent of the Casey Anthony case, Ashlyn Bryant is about to go on trial for the murder of her daughter Tasha Nicole, yet she swears she is innocent.  Believing Ashlyn is guilty, Mercer accepts the assignment from her editor Katherine Craft to watch a live courtroom feed and write an "instant book" about the trial to be released as soon as the verdict is pronounced. When events don't go as planned, Mercer attempts to learn what is true.
Breaking this book down by the elements and beginning with its hook, there is no question but that the opening captures one's attention.  The pain and grief conveyed in the opening are palpable and relatable to anyone who has experienced extreme loss, as well as the pain of being left behind—"Dex will never be thirty-six.  Sophie will never be four.  Tasha Nicole Bryant will never be three.  I'll keep changing, though.  And keep wondering why." More than that, one is able to empathize with Mercer and the stages through which she goes throughout the story.   Ryan's perspective on the balance of life rings so true—"We live in such a fragile equilibrium.  When one thing changes, everything else has to readjust, same as when a new person steps onto an elevator.  People move, shift positions, make sure that the remaining room is properly allocated." 
What is nice is that in the midst of the sorrow and drama, there is Voice; this character who is only heard, never seen until the very end, who provides touches of light amongst the darkness, and normalcy within the drama—"'You need coffee?' Voice asks.  As if he's talking to me. 'Praise this morning's delay, team, you've still got fifteen minutes.'  'Thanks, Voice,' I say.  'Good idea.'"
This truly is a book of two parts.  In the first part, Ryan once again proves that well-written courtroom scenes can be as suspenseful as any other type of confrontation.  What sets these scenes apart is that the protagonist is neither in the actual courtroom nor personally involved with the hearing.  Yet while Mercer is watching the trial remotely, one is envisioning it, and it works.  Although the end of Part 1 is rather expected, it does leave one wondering as to where the story is headed.
Part 2 takes a major turn and one quickly realizes how subjective is the truth, and how effectively Ryan has done her job.  Even Mercer muses that--“Maybe we never know that truth, since it’s so inescapably transformed by our own point of view.” True to the title, one has incorporated Mercer's views into one's own despite the internal thoughts of "But wait" creating doubt.  Ryan has caused one to not want the answers to those doubts even though they are necessary.  The bigger question is whether one can "trust" the author.
There is so much which cannot be said for fear of any spoilers.  What can be said is that the story within the story is incredibly twisty.  Part 1 is approximately the first half of the book and it's excellent.  Parts 2 and 3 take one down the rabbit hole as we start to lose faith in the protagonist.  We know she is vulnerable; we don't expect her to be naïve.  There is also quite a bit of redundancy.  Does the story seem overly long?  Yes; 50-100 fewer pages might have increased the tension of the story.  Still, the book is a fairly quick read, although one may find oneself skimming a fair amount in the latter two parts.   
Was the ending satisfactory?  It depends.  There is a major thread left dangling.  For those who prefer feeling justice has been served, as usually found in most police procedurals, traditional, and cozy mysteries, and although one knows justice isn't a given, the end is frustrating. However, it may not bother those who enjoy psychological suspense and don't mind an unresolved or ambiguous ending. 
"Trust Me" is twisty, psychological suspense.  It's not perfect, but the very end and the epilogue make up for quite a lot.
TRUST ME (Psy Susp-Mercer Hennessy-Boston-Contemp) - Good
      Ryan, Hank Phillippi - Standalone
      Forge Books – Aug 2018

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Desolation Mountain by William Kent Krueger

First Sentence: He watches the boy on the steep rise above him.
A private plane crashes on Desolation Mountain.  Among those on board were Senator McCarthy and most of her family.  Getting to the crash site and investigating the wreckage isn't as routine as normal. Barriers are erected, first responders disappear, and it appears to Cork O'Conner and his son Stephen that something darker is at work.  Cork meets up with private security consultant Bo Thorson, but even his motives become questionable as they find the danger at hand is far greater than imagined.
To begin with a conversation between Stephen O'Connor and Ojibwe Henry Meloux, is to begin with wisdom and beauty.  Henry's philosophies are ones from which we could all learn.   This is in spite of the ominous nature of the vision Stephen had, the latest of visions he has had all his life.  One can only imagine how terrible it would be to experience visions which foretell only terrible things and which come to pass.
Krueger's character descriptions can be unusual, yet very visual—"Monkey Love looked like the Devil had walked all over him, the result of years of addiction to booze and drugs. …He had unusually long arms and fingers—he'd been called Monkey all his life--…"  Although Bo Thorson was in a previous book, the author wisely doesn't assume readers will have read that book, nor remember the character.  Instead, he provides a well-done introduction to Bo, and to Bo's pragmatism which is both admirable and sad.
It is hard to explain the wisdom conveyed by Krueger through his characters except to say it rings more true than anything one is normally taught.  It truly makes one think about everything by which we are surrounded.  Even so, the question is raised as to who can be trusted.
Krueger is very good at creating a sense of danger, especially at points of calm.  When action does occur, it is very effective.  Such good suspense is created by taking one up to a point of resolution and then introducing a complete plot twist. 
As is known from recent events, there are none more destructive than those who believe they know better than others.  At the end is a statement those who follow the series will acknowledge as being true, although a sadder fact has rarely been written.  Yet, there is a contrasting truth to which one must hold strong. 
"Desolation Mountain" is yet another wonderful book by Krueger.  It is suspenseful and exciting, as well as thought-provoking. It exposes things which are painful while creating hope.

DESOLATION MOUNTAIN (Susp-Cork O'Connor-Minnesota-Contemp) Ex
      Krueger, William Kent – 17th in series
      Atria Books – Aug 2018

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Soul Survivor by G.M. Ford

First Sentence:  Art Fowler came to me on the last day of January while I was sitting in my front parlor drinking coffee and watching a blizzard blow in the from the south.
Retired PI Leo Waterman is asked by Art Fowler, an old friend, to help find answers as to why his grandson would suddenly kill a city councilman and then himself.  No one can explain how Matthew got the gun, which belonged to his father, into the City Hall, and what he did during the nine minutes between when he entered and when he shot the councilman.  When Art allegedly commits suicide two days after making the request, Leo knows he can't ignore things.  Leo's questions into the matter nearly cost him his life and take him into a situation he'd never expected.
The story begins without a prologue, but with a scene which sets the stage—"Out in the orchard, the drifting snow had harlequined the trees black and white.  Looked like every apple and pear had one stubborn leaf, a sole survivor, waving like a drowning sailor as the skeletal branches were slapped to and fro by the wind."  Ford also makes a very true observation about guilt—"Guilt's a funny thing.  Sort of a phantom feeling, because you don't have to be guilty of anything in order to experience it.  You can even feel guilty about not feeling guilty, about stuff you had not one damn thing to do with in the first place.  It's like guilt's an equal opportunity abuser.  Another funny thing:  people who have the most to feel guilty about generally don't."
Ford's voice is reminiscent of 40's noir with sardonic humor.  It's not Tarantino graphic, but it is violent.  One thing which is very refreshing is to not have a protagonist who is critically injured amazingly be up and ready for action in a couple of days.  Ford handles it much more realistically, and includes both the physical and emotional recovery, reminding one of Robert B. Parker's book "Small Vices."
There are excellent and interesting secondary characters, including Leo's gang of old men, but the primary sidekick is Gabriella (Gabe) Funicello, a unique character; one becomes very glad he's there.  Yet each character plays their part, including Leon Marks, a young AP stringer, being quite heroic, and the barkeep at the oyster bar in Conway.
Ford provides an apt description of not only Everett, Washington, but of so many towns around the country—"These were the people for whom the economic system no longer functions, folks who had voted for "something else," because what they did for a living didn't need to be done anymore."  He also understands something some in politics do not—"To make it worse, he told anybody who'd listen he was a socialist, which just drove the locals and the retired military people apeshit.  Far as they're concerned, that's the same thing as a communist."
Emotion, sorrow, and anger are all conveyed well, as is gratitude.  A very refreshing change from the style of many current authors writing in short sentences and having remarkably short chapters, is to reading Ford with long, complex sentences, and realizing the entire book is split into only four chapters. 
Just when one thinks things are calm, they're not.  The tension ratchets up significantly to a level where one has to remember to breathe when we realize we are dealing with a topic, and a group, very much in today's news.  Ford's theory as to why some become involved in radicalized groups makes sense.
"Soul Survivor" presents a very different, and much darker, G.M. Ford than we've ever known.  It's not a comfortable read, but it's an honest one with several "wow" moments.  One can only hope to see more of Leo in the future.

SOUL SURVIVOR (Susp-Leo Waterman-Washington-Contemp) - Ex
      Ford, G.M. – 11th in series
      Thomas & Mercer – July 2018

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Icepick by Phillip DePoy

First Sentence:  Sammy 'Icepick' Franks drove his snappy black Lincoln town car up to the docks at three in the morning.
Two Seminole children were witnesses to a dog being shot and a body being dumped.  Foggy Moskowitz is Child Protection Services in Fry's Bay, Florida, so it makes sense that Officer Brady would call him at 4 a.m.  Foggy becomes even more involved when Officer Watkins identifies the body as someone he'd been friends with when he lived in the Bronx.  But nothing is ever simple after learning the children's mother, along with a number of other Seminole women, is missing, and getting her back involves trips back to New York, and on to Oklahoma with Shaman John Horse.
DePoy creates wonderful imagery—"I never knew Florida could be so cold before I came here from Brooklyn.  But with Blake Road, it wasn't so much the temperature. It was more the way a tombstone feels, or the sound of a late-night train."  With his introduction to Topalargee (the Wonder), the little girl, one receives a very good, succinct description of Foggy's background. 
Not only does DePoy write unique, interesting characters, but one can appreciate that he creates females who are intelligent and strong, regardless of their age.  The names of the children can be a bit confusing at first. The girl is Topalargee/The Wonder/Sharp and is very good with knives, while her brother is Little Cloud, an excellent tracker. John Horse is the type of character one always enjoys, especially if one likes characters who are somewhat mystical—"Some people in his family told me he was over a hundred years old.  Two told me that his body was dead but his spirit was unwilling to go along with it. What you'd call a Trickster, with a capital T."
A plot twist sends Foggy and John Horse to New York City.  The reference to Nixon's Organized Crime Control Act reminds one of the time period in which the book is set.  There are several really well-done plot twists and that feeling of never knowing who one should trust.  Trying to sort the bad guys from the really bad guys becomes a challenge.
"Icepick" has unique characters, great dialogue, humor, and a plot that keeps one guessing.  Whenever one starts to think of Foggy as relatively harmless, he proves he is anything but.  There's a bit of Kipling here, and a wonderful ending.
ICEPICK (CPS-Foggy Moskowitz-Florida/NY/Oklahoma-Contemp) – G+
      DePoy, Phillip – 3rd in series
      Severn House Publishers; First World Publication edition – Sept 2018   

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Beyond the Grave by Judy Clemens

First Sentence:  "I think it's broken."
Casey Maldonado's husband and young son were killed in an automobile accident, Trying to deal with her grief, Casey, accompanied by the figure of Death, is traveling the roads, looking for peace.  In the small town of Armstrong, Idaho, Casey is given a job and place to stay by the owner of the convenience store.  Vern's wife, Dottie, is ill, but that doesn't explain the acrimony and spiteful actions directed toward her which, Casey discovers, stems from an incident which happened 45 years ago.  Can Casey find serenity for both the town and herself?
Entitled Chapter One, Clemens opens the books with what is, in fact, a prologue.  That is unfortunate in itself.  Worse is that the scene is literally lifted from the middle of the story, and it ends with an unnecessary portent.  Although the chapter does introduce us to the protagonists, so does what follows, reinforcing that it was really not needed. 
The good news is that although this is the fifth book in the series, one doesn't feel the loss of not having read the four previous books.  The author provides enough information for new readers to feel comfortable while series readers won't feel bogged down by too much detail.
The best things about the book are the characters.   Casey is someone with whom one can empathize.  Personal pain is a hard reality of life and Clemens conveys it well.  But Casey is also a figure to be admired.  To say she can take care of herself would be understating the fact.
When done well, there is something very intriguing about having Death as a character.  Clemens does it very well, indeed.  It's not every day Death dresses in movie costumes and quotes from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," as well as providing an element of humor to the story.  
All the characters are fully-dimensional.  Vern is a kindly man who extends that kindness to others.  He loves his wife, Dottie, and is incredibly loyal to her. Sheila, pastor of the local church, Officer Maddy Justice, and Nell with the bright white hair personify those we'd like to know.  Others, not so much, but even they are recognizable. 
Clemens does capture the feel of being in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else's business and grudges are held for generations.  Unfortunately, the plot really felt as though it was working hard to work and was only a backdrop to the principal characters.
"Beyond the Grave" is a book whose greatest strength is the characters of Casey and Death.  They, alone, made the book worth reading.

BEYOND THE GRAVE (Mys/Para-Casey Maldanado/Death-   - Contemp) – Okay
      Clemens, Judy – 5th books in series
      Poisoned Pen Press 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Bed of Scorpions by Judith Flanders

First Sentence:  The summer was rumbling on the way summer usually does in publishing, and I was ready to murder someone.
Book editor Samantha (Sam) Clair learns that the partner of her friend and ex-boyfriend, art dealer Art Merriam, has just been found dead in his office with a gun in his hand.  Leading the investigation is Sam's new boyfriend, Insp. Jake Field.   After other deaths, Sam's knowledge of publishing leads to her become a target.  Can they find the killer before the killer finds Sam?
If one has ever wondered about the "glamorous" world of publishing, Flanders will burst that bubble almost immediately.  At least she does so with humor—"And so, come summer, when Frankfurt still feels far enough away that we don't have to harass our poor authors, slaving away in their salt mines (yes, I know I said they were cows a minute ago, but bear with me, I'm an editor, not a writer)… ," and her often-wry humor, in spite of dangling participles, is delightful—"Dating a detective, I discovered, could be a royal pain.  All the stuff that most people remain serenely unaware of, he picked up on right away."   Yes, better editing would have been helpful. 
Flanders also presents a very interesting look at the different perspectives on cash flow between the world of publishing and art. In addition to learning about the publishing industry, it is quite interesting learning how galleries work. 
Flanders' characters are nicely done and quite relatable.  Between Sam, Jake, Sam's indomitable lawyer-mother, her assistant Miranda, and her upstairs neighbor Mr. Rudiger, she has created a cast that is interesting and real; people one would like to know.  One of the best things about San is her normalcy.  The scene of her being in danger is very well done and the way in which she reacts is the way in which most of us would have.
Some authors' plots are constructed of threads.  Flanders writes in a Venn diagram of overlapping circles with the answer and the killer are found in the overlap. Along the way, there are some very good red herrings and a climax which is nicely done.  If one were to have a criticism it is that there is too much tell, and not enough show; i.e., too much exposition.
"A Bed of Scorpions" is a light read, and an enjoyable one. It's truly the author's voice which really keeps one reading.  Whilst the mystery may not be as strong as the writing, one may be assured that later books are much improved. 

A BED OF SCORPIONS  (Pol Proc/Ama Sleu-Sam Clair/Jake Wright-London-Cont) - Good
      Flanders, Judith – 2nd in series
      Minotaur Books – Mar 2016

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Glass Souls by Maurizio de Giovanni

First Sentence:  The young man narrows his eyes in order to accustom them to the room's dim light.
Still trying to cope with the death of Rosa, his childhood nurse then housekeeper, Commissario Riccardi agrees to unofficially look into a case that has been closed.  The husband of Bianca Palmieri, countess of Roccaspina, confessed to a murder she is certain he couldn't have done.  In spite of the risk to his own career, Riccardi, with the help of his second, Brigadier Raffaele Maione, agrees to look into the case.
Some series are such that one can start anywhere.  This is not such as that.  De Giovanni's series, although each book deals with separate crimes, is a part of the whole.  Although meant to describe just this entry, La Reppublica describes the series best "It's like a very sophisticated mosaic in which each protagonist occupies precisely the right amount of space. The powerful rhythm with which the plot develops will surprise readers at every turn."
The opening in "Glass Souls" is quite different from previous books yet de Giovanni creates such an evocative scene which perfectly conveys melancholy and sorrow, as well as deep loss.  In complete contrast, we then move to elation.
It takes a bit to become used to there being multiple threads, yet each is distinct and holds its own weight.  What is remarkable is that one never feels a preference for one over another.  The thru thread is the investigation into the murder and trying to prove the innocence of Bianca's husband, in spite of his insistence that he is guilty.  Those threads which deal with Riccardi's personal life tug at our heart.  While one may prefer one woman, Enrica or Livia, over another, we feel sympathy for, and can identify with, the pain each of the three characters is experiencing…actually four characters, including Enrica Colombo's father. 
The inclusion of Enrica's German suitor, Manfred, reminds one of the time in which this is set and the impending danger to all the characters.
De Giovanni's descriptions are wonderfully evocative.  Yes, the language is flowery, but it is also beautiful—"Now it is September, and the perfumes win out over tomorrow and any terror.  It is September, and it seems that the tenderness of this city on the sea, this city of the sky and the leafy branches that toss in the fragile air, will never end.  It seems that the souls can remain glass, and display everything within them, and have no need of fear.  So it seems.  … Because you'll dream nothing of what you expect, while your hands reach out in your sleep to grab a blanket that can protect you from the sudden chill that will enter the room, treacherously, through the window you left open just a crack, exposing your soul.  Your soul of glass." 

The one thing which is awkward at times, is the dialogue, especially in cases of anger or anxiety.  However, one must assume it is attributable to the translation rather than the original writing as otherwise, the dialogue works very well.
For those new to the series, the explanation of the Deed, the curse or ability with which Riccardi must live, comes rather later in the story.  When one considers it, it is understandable that he feels about relationships as he does and it's heartbreaking.  We also learn a bit more of Riccardi's personal family history.
Two characters who bring a bit of light to the story are Riccardi's very loyal second, Maione, and the pathologist, Dr. Bruno Modo who asks about—"Your theory, Riccardi.  The one you explained to me a long time ago.  People kill for hunger or love.  By hunger, of course, we mean material need, and by love, all emotions.  Whose child is this murder?  Hunger's or love's?".  Maione's driving provides a true moment of humor—"When the self-taught driver triumphally screeched to a halt with a terrible shriek of metal against metal in the convent's courtyard, the commissario catapulted himself out of the car, resisting the temptation to kiss the ground like a sixteenth-century navigator."
"Glass Souls" has a resolution which makes perfect sense, yet not one which is obvious.  Even so, we are sent into great danger, rescued by kindness, and given great hope.  This book is yet another very good entry in a series which should be read from the beginning, and in which one may be completely captivated.
GLASS SOULS (Hist/Pol Proc-Comm. Riccardi-Italy-1930s) - VG
      de Giovanni, Maurizio – 8th in series
      World Noir – July 2017