Thursday, December 26, 2019

Sidewalk Saint by Phillip DePoy

First Sentence:  It doesn't take long to wake up when there's a gun in your face.

Nelson Roan demands that Child Protective Services agent Foggy Moscowitz find his 11-year-old daughter Etta.  He's not the only one looking for her.  It seems Etta has perfect memory and knows something she shouldn't.  How do you convince a bunch of bad guys that not even Etta doesn't know what that is?  It's up to Foggy to find her, and keep her safe until he can figure out how to neutralize the danger to Etta permanently.

Talk about an effective hook.  This is not a book where you read a paragraph for a quick try, planning to sit down with it later.  This is a book where you read the first sentence and keep reading.  The case is intriguing.  One wants to know where it's going, and the plot twists start very early on.

DePoy not only captures your attention, but his unique descriptions bring the characters to life--"His skin was grey, and his eyes were the saddest song you ever heard, times ten."  His use of language is wonderful--"The camp seemed to have a life of its own.  It wasn't just the leftover smells, cook fires, swamp herbs and tobacco. It was like an eerie echo was still reverberating around the concrete walls. Like old conversations were still hanging in the air.  Like ghosts were wandering free." 

As for Foggy, DePoy informs readers of who he is, his background, and how he got where he is and eventually, the meaning if the book's title.  Foggy's philosophy may make one think--"I was always a big believer in is. Not should be, or ought to. Is.  That's very powerful, because it is the only reality.  Whatever it is you were doing, that was the only thing that truly existed. Everything else was a fantasy." Foggy also makes an insightful self-observation--"To me that was the weird thing about having a reputation as a good guy.  Too many people expected me to be good.  Which I wasn't especially.  I was just a guy trying to make up for what he'd done wrong." A nice explanation of the title helps one to understand Foggy better.  

 DePoy's characters, on both sides of the law, are far from ordinary, which is a large part of the appeal.  They are quirky, interesting, capable and surprising.  His children are refreshingly smart, capable, and astute--"You know you're too smart for your own good, right?' I suggested.  'Oh, yes,' she said.  That's my main problem."  He really does write some of the best dialogue. 

There is a nice element of mysticism.  It doesn't overwhelm the plot, but instead, it adds another interesting layer too it.  In a way, it balances the bad stuff.  The turns this story takes are more dizzying than a state fair teacup ride.  Not just any author can come up with a plot point to destroy a mobster and his business via a phone call

"Sidewalk Saint" is a fun, twisty book filled with quirky, unique characters.  There's violence, but minimal on-page death, but the story also gives one plenty of ideas to consider.

      CPS officer-Foggy Moscowitz-Florida-Contemp
      DePoy, Phillip – 4th in series
      Severn House – Dec 2019

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens

First Sentence:  I was fifteen the day I learned that Ms. Lida Poe had gone missing.

Set in the 1970s, Eskens gifts his readers with a story that deals with a mystery, bigotry, and a young man growing up in an environment that makes him decide who and what he believes and for what he stands

It is so nice to read a book whose story starts on the first page and continues straight on through; no prologue and a single Point of View.  Beginning with relating a memory, Eskins' voice as a true storyteller is apparent—"I knew that President Ford has his hands full trying to beat out an actor named Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination, but what any of that had to do with the price of a turnip down at the IGA--I couldn't tell you."

Eskens creates a sense of time without giving you a specific date and he creates a sense of place through some of the most evocative descriptions one will find—"…Soon I found myself sitting in the crux of my favorite oak tree, watching the afternoon sun ripple across the surface of Dixon's pond, the smell of mud and water in my nose, the feel of tree bark under my bare feet." His humor is subtle; it slides in without one really noticing—"Personally, I didn't find it hard to believe that someone had up and left Jessup; what baffled me was why more people didn't do it.

The characters, both good and bad, are real and recognizable—"Hoke wore his sixty plus years like an old book. ... Sitting close to him, you could see the loose ends of a past that Hoke never talked about."

The descriptions of Brodie's life as a teen are wonderfully representative of life in a rural area have a timelessness about them, yet we are also reminded of the bigotry that is pervasive in many such areas--"I mean, there's no reason there ain't no black quarterbacks playing pro football.  They can run as fast and block and stuff, but they ain't as smart as whites.  That don't make 'em bad people.  They're just different. ... I think that if a black man sets his mind to it, he can be just as good as a white man."   There is also the pressure to conform and the way hatred and racism spreads--"You put enough like-minded idiots in a room, and pretty soon their backward way of thinking starts to take on an air of legitimacy."  

One wants the book to be perfect, and it nearly is.  But not quite.  There are a couple of unfortunate and completely unnecessary portents.  There are coincidences which make one shake one's head believing the author could have done better.  There is a rather predictable wounding of our hero that feels as though the author watched one too many detective shows.  Fortunately, one can forgive those weaknesses in contrast to the story of Hoke, his pain, and how he met Brodie, and how impactful is the story overall.

"Nothing More Dangerous" is a story of friendship, bigotry, violence, fate, and redemption.  It is also a beautiful story which touches one's heart.  

      Mystery-Brodie Sanden-Missouri-1976/Contemp
      Eskens, Allen - Standalone
      Mulholland Books - Nov 2019

Thursday, December 12, 2019

A Christmas Gathering by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  It was not the Christmas Vespasia had planned.

Vespasia and Narraway had hoped for a quiet Christmas at home.  Instead, they are obligated to attend the country estate gathering of Max and Lady Amelia Cavendish.  More than a holiday celebration for Narraway, former head of Special Branch, he is there to uncover a traitor.

Perry does an excellent job of introducing one to the characters, as well as providing background on Vespasia's history and relationship with Narraway.

Perry's observations often cause one to pause—"But this visit was duty, and he learned long ago that no happiness was untarnished for long if you had shirked duty in order to take it."  A nicely done recounting of Narraway's history reveals the significance of this visit.  Most authors would be inclined to depict Narraway as a classic strong male.  Perry skillfully avoids that trope and gives us a man with faults and insecurities, and we like him all the more for it.

The relationship between the two principal characters is an interesting one and Perry captures the nuances of it perfectly.  The sharpness repartee between Vespasia and Amelia is perfect and reflects Perry's skill with dialogue.  She also captures the audacity of status; how those who are "higher" believe it gives them privileges simply because of their rank.

One can't help but love Vespasia as she begins to conduct her own investigation and demands that Victor let her help, and for snapping at him when he dismisses her idea—"But with a woman, it is not the words, it is the message that matters."  For those readers who have followed Perry's series for years, this Vespasia seems much sharper in tone.  It is rather gratifying.

"A Christmas Gathering" is a good addition to the series of novellas.  It's always nice to see her normally secondary characters move into the limelight.  The story has a subtle building of tension and while the suspense is well done, it is truly the characters who bring make this book work.

Hist Novella-Vespasia/Narraway-England-early 1900s
Perry, Anne – 17th in series
Ballentine Books – Nov 2019

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Dachshund Through the Snow by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  It has been almost fourteen years since Kristen McNeil's body was discovered.

A tag on a Christmas charity wish tree leads attorney Andy Carpenter and his wife Laurie to a young boy wanting his father Noah Traynor to be brought home. The murder, for which Noah has been arrested, was a cold case until his DNA is identified on the victim's body. In the meantime, K-9 officer Sergeant Corey Douglas is about to retire, but his dog, Simon, still has time left to work.  Corey wants Andy to help him get Simon released to retire with him. Andy agrees to represent Simon on the basis of species discrimination.

How refreshing when characters defy stereotype.  Laurie, Andy's wife, is the type of person one aspires to be; kind, generous, compassionate toward people. She is an ex-cop, and very capable of taking care of herself and Andy.  Andy, on the other hand, is a lawyer who keeps trying to retire from the law and is passionate about dogs.  As a self-described weakling, he depends upon Laurie and the indomitable Marcus to protect him. There are interludes of Andy at home with his family and friends, yet they avoid the over-sentimentality such interaction can bring about.

Rosenfelt's courtroom scenes are a pleasure to read.  They are well presented and honest, even when the client is decidedly unusual.  He creates an excellent analogy likening a court case to a mountain climb such as Mt. Everest, and through it introduces the rest of Andy's quirky and memorable team.

It is always tragic when someone young dies. It is appreciated when Rosenfelt acknowledges one of the great sorrows of such a death--'It also once again highlights the terrible loss that occurred when her best friend died; Kristen might have gone on to bring other people into the world or cure some disease or just do kind things for people that needed kindness."

The story includes alternative POVs but only when needed to move the plot forward by characters other than the protagonist.  Rosenfelt creates a plot which seems simple but grows into something more complicated and more dangerous as it progresses. Be aware; despite the cute dog on the cover, this is not a cozy.  Rosenfelt does like his body count, but the scenes aren't particularly gory. He is also very good at the unexpected, and very effective, plot twist, and a fun mention which lightens the situation.

The dialogue is so well written, the courtroom exchanges come alive. Along with the on-going outside investigation, in which there is a very nice escalation of suspense, plot twist, and an excellent red herring, one feels the anticipation of awaiting the jury's decision.

"Dachshund Through the Snow" is a well-done legal mystery with plenty of twists and suspense.  A very nice aftermath hints at the future of the series. 

      Legal Mys-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey-Contemp
      Rosenfelt, David – 20th in series
      Minotaur Books - Oct 2019 

Friday, November 29, 2019

Backtrack by Paul Doiron

First Sentence: There were four doctors staying at the hunting camp.

Game Warden, Charley Stevens, is called to the winter hunting camp where four doctors are staying.  However, one of them is missing. It's up to Charlie to find the missing man.
The first thing to know is that, in spite of what it says on Amazon, this story does not feature Game Warden Mike Bowditch, but focuses on Charlie Stevens, who had been Mike's mentor.  The story is also told, very effectively, in retrospect. 

A well-done short story truly is a work of art.  Such is the case here.  With a nicely done twist, Doiron takes the reader from suspense to something unexpected and poses an excellent question while dealing with the subject of regret.

The thing with a short story is that one can't say too much for fear of including a spoiler.  What one can say is how much this story may make one think and question what one would do in the same situation.  It may also make one want to read much more of Doiron's work. His series character, Mike Bowditch, is also a game warden in Maine.  The good news is that the series has an impressive backlist
"Backtrack" is a perfect title for this excellent e-short.  It really does take great skill to write a story which is this compact and this impactful and is a perfect introduction to Doiron's writing.

BACKTRACK (ShortStory-Charley Stevens-Maine-Contemp) - Ex
      Doiron, Paul – e-Short Story
      Minotaur Books – Jun 2019

Friday, November 22, 2019

Land of the Wolves by Craig Johnson

First Sentence:  Acknowledgements:  Once, as a young man running fence for a rancher up near Dillon, Montana, I found myself stretching barbed wire over a rocky ridge, having ground-tied my horse below because his shod hooves weren't too fond of the outcropping.

An unusually large wolf is spotted by Walt.  Is it the one suspected of killing sheep from a local herd? When Walt goes to find the herdsman, he finds the man's body and a question as to whether he committed suicide or was murdered. Ranchers want the wolf found and killed.  A woman wants it saved as its DNA is unique.  Henry Standing Bear believes it may be a messenger.  Walt wants to solve the mystery of the herder, especially when another crime is committed.

For those of us who read everything from the cover page on, the "Acknowledgements" should not be missed. There one will find what is essentially a true, short story as a lead to the actual story.

Johnson transports readers into the environment of the story with rich, evocative passages and lush writing.  Lest you fear he gets too flowery, it is balanced by his dialogue which is audible, natural, and tinged with the humor one has come to expect from this author and these characters. "'Why is everyone treating me like a Fabergé egg?' 'After Mexico, all parties have decided that you need a little more adult supervision.'  ... 'Sancho follows me to the bathroom' … 'He's taking his orders very seriously.'" " Finally, there are always things one learns such as about 'predator zones.'

The element of mysticism, often a part of this series, adds a special touch to the story.   Linking the wolf to Virgil White Buffalo, from prior books, and Henry Standing Bear telling about the spiritual relationship between a human and animals is worth considering in these times of environmental destruction.

What is very interesting is that this is a Walt who is older, slower, still recovering from the injuries of his last case.  It is also a slightly more vulnerable Walt, questioning his relationship with his daughter.  Although it is hard to imagine in this time, there has always been a running joke about Walt not having a computer.  That he finally receives one, due to the wonderful character of Ruby, Walt's secretary, provides several delightful exchanges.

Johnson includes fascinating information on a considerable number of topics.  While these are interesting and do relate to the plot, after about the third occasion, it does begin to feel as though it is filler.

"Land of Wolves" takes us back to Johnson's earlier books, which is a very good thing, with his trademark humor, dialogue, interesting characters, and excellent plot twists.

LAND OF WOLVES (PolProd-Walt Longmire-Wyoming-Contemp) – G+
Johnson, Craig – 15th in series
Viking – Sept 2019

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Bomber's Moon by Archer Mayor

First Sentence:  It was cold, dark, and slightly breezy, causing a few dry snowflakes to scurry the length of Sally Kravitz's windshield.

PI Sally Kravitz works within the law, as opposed to her father, a thief known as "Tag Man." Rachel Reiling is a reporter working at the Brattleboro Reformer, hoping for her first big story.  Now, thanks to Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, the women are working together to connect two murders to a prestigious prep school.

While this is a new entry in the Vermont Bureau of Investigation/Joe Gunther series, Mayor provides a good sense of each of his characters beginning with a nicely done introduction of Joe, but also a strong sense of place as well.  It's refreshing to have two female characters take a significant role.  Also enjoyable is that they are not members of the police, and that they are quite different from one another, yet find a way to work well together. 

One may find oneself smiling at how well the plotting is done. Interesting 3D crime scene technology brings the story into today's technology.  There are times where the scene would change which made one mentally hear the classic two-note scene indicator on the old police show "Dragnet." The changes also made the story feel a bit disjointed.  

There are lighter moments—"Idle chat in Vermont was always punctuated by discussions of mud season, mosquito plagues, heat waves, dry spells, snowstorms, black ice, and countless other attributes of a muscular, quirky seasonal parade of weather-related iconography."  Mayor does treat one to a lovely use of language—"Biased as he was against other people's learning curves, obdurateness, or rank stupidity, he distrusted his own predisposition to dismiss people prematurely." 

The book is a delightfully intricate Venn diagram of circles neatly intersecting circles.  It's not manipulative, but one becomes more intrigued as the pattern emerges.  The characters are interesting especially as not everyone is as they seem, and a new friendship evolves which one hopes to see continue. 

"Bomber's Moon" is a very good book, brilliantly plotted. Even the ending was a perfect reflection of the characters.

BOMBER'S MOON (PolProc-Joe Gunther-Vermont-Contemp) – VG
      Mayor, Archer – 30th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2019

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Death in Focus by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  Elena narrowed her eyes against the dazzling sunlight reflected off the sea.

On a vacation in Italy with her sister Margot, Elena Stanford meets Walter Mann and Ian Newton.  An immediate attraction causes Elena to go with Ian to Berlin after a message compels him there.   A shocking event and a request from Ian sends Elena on to Berlin, and into a danger from which she may not escape.

Perry masterfully sets the stage, lulling one into a sense of elegance, music and possible romance.  How effectively she dispels one of that notion.  She describes the emotional environment of the time, --"Fifteen years after the war, everyone still had their griefs:  loss of someone, something, a hope or an innocence, if not more.  And fear of the future."--conveying the almost frenetic gaiety and desperation for emotional connection so well.  Perry is such an evocative writer, and her characters are dimensional and interesting, but it's her perspective which causes one to pause, consider and want to share what one has read with others.  She also understands pacing; taking one seamlessly from tranquility into the threat of danger.

The story is told from several POVs.   One may smile at the timelessness dismissiveness with which the younger generation considers the older one, and of Elena's brother's view of her talent and ambition.  Elena's resourcefulness, strength, and determination; a hallmark of Perry's female characters, is impressive even though one may question the suddenness of Elena's decisions.

There is great lyricism to Perry's writing, particularly in her descriptions of nature, yet there is also a touch of pathos.  In 1933, one is witnessing the rise of Hitler, Mussolini's move toward fascism.  It is somewhat painful to realize how much of the 1930s are reflected in that which is happening today. The book does have a strong historical and political message.  While some may object and possibly be offended, others may decide to learn from it –"Hitler is either assuming more power for himself or appointing bloody awful men to do it for him."

It is Perry's description of those who have been in a war and suffer from what we now know as PTSD, and her portrait of the time's events—"The violence is increasing, and the oppression.  They're building camps to put prisoners in, not people who've committed crimes, but people who are born guilty of being …" that truly brings to bear the reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

When Perry switches gears, it is sudden, surprising, and very effective. She triggers our suspicions and then makes us question them.

The plot isn't perfect. There are points of repetitiveness, a lack of focus, and what feels to be plot holes. The female characters are occasionally too trusting, but that's part of the plot. On the other hand, there is excellent suspense and a very effective sense of danger. One has a real sense of the fear people experienced during this time. Elena's determination to photograph the events she witnesses, and then to keep the film safe, were a strong element one hope to see continued. One must give Perry credit for making this time in Berlin painfully real and for teaching us details of history we've not known.

"Death in Focus" is a somewhat painful, but highly relevant read.  It does contain a well-done red herring, and a wicked twist leading to a very good ending.

DEATH IN FOCUS (HistSusp-Elana Stanford-Europe-1933) – G+
      Perry, Anne – 1st in series
      Ballantine Books – Sept 2019

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Louisiana Longshot by Jana DeLeon

First Sentence:  I stepped off the Learjet at the private airfield just before dawn.
When CIA agent, Fortune Redding, assassinates the brother of a Middle Eastern arms distributor, ruining a perfectly good pair of Prada stiletto heels in the process, the result is a price on her head.  To protect her, she is sent into hiding at the small-town-Louisiana home of her Director's niece, one Sandy Sue Morrow, a former beauty-pageant winner.  What could go wrong when one is trying to fit in, solve a local murder while, and stay undercover.

Now and then, one hits a reading slump and needs something light and fun to get moving again.  This was it.  It was a delightful surprise and a lesson that one is never too old to listen to one's mother when they recommend a book to read. 
DeLeon has a voice full of sass and sarcasm—"I stared down Main Street and grimaced.  It was a cross between a Thomas Kinkade painting and a horror movie."—and defines the protagonist.  But beware, the neighbors, particularly Gertie and Ida Belle, who is president of the Sinful Ladies Society—"I looked outside and saw a crowd of gray-haired women bearing down on the restaurant.  Sixteen of them, probably from the Jurassic period…"--aren't what one expects either, which is so refreshing.  In fact, none of the characters are, including Bones, the very old hound who is true to his name and finds the human bone initiating the murder investigation.
The author captures a small town perfectly where everyone knows your business almost before you do.  Her pragmatism about religion is delightful—"Religion was by and large constructed by men, and I had yet to find a man who was logical.  Deconstructing religious rules would definitely be a journey into madness."  But it is also the south where food plays an important part—"'Give me the Seven Deadly Sins."'  Eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, pan-fried potatoes, and pancakes.  I could practically hear my arteries hardening."
There are wonderful, laugh-out-loud moments, which is such a treat, especially when the scene isn't silly, but clever and relatable. But there is also a wonderful moment of self-realization—"Good Lord.  I was actually pretty.  Like Mom."
It's not all light and fun, however.  There is a murder to solve, and a handsome cop with questions to evade.  There are good insightful observations and truisms—"Clearly, people were the biggest complication life threw at you."--well-done information on Fortune's past, and surprises and twists right through to the end. 
"Louisiana Longshot" is a delightful book.  DeLeon cleverly avoids a number of stereotypes.  The characters are wonderful, the humor is perfect, not slapstick, and the twists are plentiful and well-executed.  It really is a well-done introduction to a series which should be fun to continue.

LOUISIANA LONGSHOT (LicInv-Fortune Redding-Louisiana-Contemp) - VG
      DeLeon, Jana – 1st in series
      CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform– Jun 2012

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

First Sentence:  Marsh is not swamp.

Kya Clark, aka Marsh Girl, virtually raised herself.  Her ability to watch and learn, and to depend on her North Carolina marsh allowed her to survive. When the handsome son of a prominent family is found dead, Kya is accused of his murder.  But was it an accident? Did she kill him?  Only with the help of others might Kya survive this, too.
An author who paints pictures with words is one to be savored.  Owens does just that and does it beautifully.  There is a strong, lyrical quality to the writing—"Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother."
The author does employ devices one may find annoying: multiple POVs and time fluctuations. Give it a chance, however. Before long, one may find oneself thoroughly captivated and willing to overlook those things.  Instead, one becomes immersed in a wonderful story filled with interesting characters, a setting which engages all the senses and emotions, and a desire for some real Southern cooking—"The aroma of sausage and biscuits, boiled turnip greens, and fried chicken thankfully overtook the high smell of fish barrels lining the dock. … Behind the counter, owner-cook Jim Bo Sweeny darted from flipping crab cakes on the griddle to stirring a pot of creamed corn on the burner to poking chicken thighs in the deep fryer…"
Owens' descriptions are magnetic. She knows how to engage the reader—"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot."  It is not all description.  The author creates interesting, strong secondary characters, including Jumpin', his wife Mabel, and particularly Tate—"His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what's necessary to defend a woman." One also learns the meaning of the title, and celebrate Kya's successes—"I wadn't aware that words could hold so much.  I didn't know a sentence could be so full."  Wouldn't one love to remember when one had made that discovery?
Although there is a slight sense of fantasy about the plot, one can't help but be entranced by Kya's strength, courage, and perseverance—"I have to do life alone.  But I knew this."  But it's not all misty light.  Owen's takes us into Kya's feelings of being confined and through the trial, which was well done. 
The book isn't perfect.  The actions of one character don't always ring true and one may start to feel a bit manipulated. However, there is no question but that one's emotions become completely engaged to the point of possibly shedding tears at the finale; not a sad cry, but a lovely-ending cry.
"Where the Crawdads Sing" is a very good book.  It may not be the best book ever written or that one has ever read, but it is one of those rare books which will stay with one a long time. It will be interesting to see what Owen's writes next.

WHERE THE CRAWDAD SINGS (Myst/Novel-Kya-North Carolina-Contemp) – VG
      Owens, Delia – 1st book
      G.P. Putnam's Sons – Aug 2018

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Better Man by Louise Penny

First Sentence: "Merde."
Inspector Armand Gamache may be bruised by the events of the past, but he is not beaten.  He may no longer have the authority he once did, as evidenced by those in charge ignoring his recommendation to keep citizens safe from the rising river waters due to torrential rains, but he still has the respect of the team who once reported to him, and of his son-in-law and temporary superior, Jean-Guy Beauvoir.  A fellow officer is concerned about the disappearance of her close friend's daughter who, she suspects, is in an abusive relationship.  Being assigned to lead the investigation brings Armand into the triple dangers of an angry man, his father-in-law, and nature.
Let's get this out of the way; the book begins with profanity.  However, considering the situation for both artist Clara, whose career is at a crossroads, and the team in the Serious Crimes Unit, it is well justified and nothing more than most of us have said.
Whether it's a bistro in Three Pines, a conference room in the Sûreté du Québec, or standing by a raging river, Penny draws one in and makes one feel present in the environment and in the community of people associated with each. Even for those who may be discovering Penny with this book, her writing, and inclusion of just enough back story, makes one feel welcome and up to date with the people and situations.
Penny's descriptions aren't merely visual, they are emotional and anthropomorphic—"The waters were rising up, not in protest but in revenge."  Yet in the midst of danger, there is humor such as that inspired by an old dog—"'Your dog shook,' explained Beauvoir.  'Oh, dear.' 'Yes.  That's pretty much what I said as I washed myself off and scraped down my desk.  Gosh, I said, Bit of a mess.' His eyes widened in a crazed look, and Lacoste laughed."--and Gamache's complete inability to understand anything said by Billy Williams with his thick, regional accent.  For those who live in areas affected by natural disasters, it is poignant to see the characters contemplate what things they'd take were they being evacuated and faced with the loss of everything else they own.
While the plot is strong, compelling and deals with difficult issues, it is the characters which keep readers engaged. None of Penny's characters are stereotypical or unimportant.  Each is fully developed and complex.  Each has a purpose in the story. Gamache is the depiction of a person one should aspire to be.  Through him, Penny gifts the reader with the four statements that lead one to wisdom—"I was wrong. I'm sorry. I don't know. I need help."--and the admonition of poet Seamus Heaney Noli timere, "Be not afraid."  However, it is somewhat reassuring that even the best people have weaknesses. 
Circumstances, pain, grace and self-awareness have matured Jean-Guy. His relationship with Gamache is complex, deep and abiding, one which has survived many conflicts and internal struggles.  What is interesting is that Penny uses the character of Billy as the eyes to see the true strength of the relationship, understanding, and love that Gamache has for Jean-Guy.  It is also the communities of Three Pines and of the team at the Sûreté which demonstrate the solidity of the wider circle. 
There is wisdom to be found within the story—"Before speaking…you might want to ask yourself three questions…Is it true? Is it kind? Does it need to be said?"--followed by a very human reaction to fear—"Don't pee, don't pee, don't pee."  There is also well-done forensic information which is interesting and informative. However, there is also a very good plot twist and a very dramatic climax.
The book is a mystery and a very good one.  One may not figure out what had happened until the reveal.  And there's suspense and twists which cause one to catch one's breath.  But as always with Penny's books, it is about the characters; about relationships; strong, toxic, messy, or just forming.  It is about compassion and conscience, growth and change.  It is about us; we complicated humans. Penny's ability to describe emotions is unmatched.
"A Better Man" is an excellent book in an outstanding series.  It presents one with a lot of here, here.  There is suspense, humor, and things which make one think—"Things are strongest where they are broken." The ending touches the heart and may bring tears to one's eyes.  Most of all, it leaves one wanting to re-read the series from the beginning while wanting the next book right now. 

A BETTER MAN (PolProc-Armand Gamache-Canada-Contemp) - Ex
      Penny, Louise – 15th in series
      Minotaur Books, Aug 2019

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Bark of the Night by David Rosenfelt

First Sentence:  Frank Salvio checked into the hotel under an assumed name, using fake identification.
Truman, a healthy French bulldog, was left to be euthanized at the veterinary office where attorney and rescuer Andy Carpenter takes his dog. Truman is chipped, but the man who dropped him off is not his apparent owner. When Andy finds the owner has been murdered, it sets him off on an interstate investigation involving far more than one bulldog.
The first thing to know is that, in spite of the cute dog on the cover, this is no cozy.  Dead bodies abound.  The other thing to know is that, in spite of their number, the murders aren't described in gruesome detail.
From the very beginning, the case is delightfully twisty, almost a bit too much so.  Rosenfelt engages the reader and ensures one wants to know what happened as much as do the characters, and there are a lot of characters.  This is one time when a cast of characters might have been helpful.
It is those on Andy's team, of which there is a good, succinct introduction. who are quirky and enjoyable.  Everyone should have a Marcus in their life—or maybe not.  Most of all, there's Andy.  There's something rather delightful about having a protagonist who is a picky eater, not a crack shot, or a boxing/martial arts expert but is, in fact, a bit inept, and admits it.  Even when he tries to lose at a game, he accidentally wins.
Andy's, and Rosenfelt's, expertise is the law.  It is interesting learning how an investigation team goes through a location of interest and it is those details which provide veracity to the plot.  A well-written courtroom scene can provide tension.  What is nice is that he explains the process and legalities along the way and that he writes very good dialogue—"Am I doing down for this?" he asks, the fear evident in his voice.  "You're sitting here in handcuffs, Joey.  You're already down.  We're about to start digging you out."
The explanation of what is behind all the deaths is a terrifying one, all the more because of its believability.  The escalation of the plot's timetable makes things exciting and tense.  The only slight complaint might be that after everything which has occurred, the ending seemed too quick and the subsequent actions of the person behind it all seemed unlikely. 
"Bark of the Night" has more bodies than some small towns, yet very little actual violence.  No, it's not the best of the series, but Andy Carpenter fans will still find it an enjoyable read as much because the proceeds help support the Tara Foundation.  

BARK OF NIGHT (LegalMys-Andy Carpenter-New Jersey-Contemp) – Good
      Rosenfelt, David – 19th in series
      Minotaur Books – July 2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Truth Behind the Lie by Sara Lövestam

First Sentence:  The rain was so strange the day they took Julia.
Kouplan is a young, very young, Iranian refugee who needs to stay in the shadows.  To earn money, he works as a Private Investigator to those who can't involve the police.  Pernilla, a single mother recently split from her husband, desperately seeks Kouplan's help.  Her daughter has disappeared and, for reasons of her own, fears going to the police.  The deeper Kouplan digs into the case, the more he questions whether things are as he has been told.
Lövestam has created a very intriguing opening.  Both the protagonist and the client are as mysterious as is the case.  The author does a very good job of making one want to know more about who these characters are.  Due to Kouplan's background, Iranian proverbs are included which injects realism into the character—Cho istadei, daste oftade gir … As long as you are standing, hold out a hand to those who have fallen." There is also interesting imagery—"As she gets up, she's dizzy and the pajamas fall to the floor.  Janus [her dog] picks them up with his teeth and as she stumbles into the kitchen, he follows her. The pajamas hang from his muzzle like a lifeless, extremely thin child."  One can be secure in the knowledge that no animals are harmed in the story.
The descriptions of Kouplans' overwhelming fear of being stopped by the police is almost palpable and it makes the story extremely relevant to today also giving it a universality.  One realizes the issue of refugees and their fears are common to many countries. However, though Lövestam, one is given a view of that country contrary to the idyllic version most hold as being true. 

 Though Lövestam, one is given a view of Sweden which is contrary to the idyllic version most hold as being true.  Both characters are forced to live in the shadows due to the restrictions and rules of governments—"It's unreal how he, born in a hot country to parents with double degrees, is now following a mountain of muscle while avoiding the police like a criminal in this October chill of Stockholm."  There is a lot of focus on food--"There is something special about hunger."  But this isn't the food which comes from indulgence, but from knowing real hunger. 
The author provides excellent twists and mysterious trails down which we're led, with a clever and "oh, my" turn of events and realization.  This is not what one usually thinks of as "Scandinavian noir," in that it lacks the usual traits related to some of those characters and contains little violence.  Instead, this is very new and different from what most of us have read before.
"The Truth Behind the Lie" is a fascinating book of complex, enigmatic characters where no one and nothing is as it seems. 

THE TRUTH BEHIND THE LIE (Myst-Kouplan-Sweden-Contemp) –VG
      Lövestam, Sara
      Minotaur Books, Aug 2019

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

This Poison Will Remain by Fred Vargas

First Sentence:  Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, sitting on a rock at the quayside, watched the Grimsey fishermen return with their daily catch as they moored their boats and hauled up their nets.
Spider bites can kill.  But three elderly men, living in one area, killed by a small reclusive spider seems more than accidental to a member of Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's team.  As information is gathered, Adamsberg decides to investigate, a decision that causes a rift within his team.  Running an unauthorized investigation and possibly losing his best friend and right-hand man is a risk, but seeking justice is worth it.
What an interesting opening to have the protagonist, the former commissaire of the Paris Serious Crimes Squad, on a quay in Iceland.  Adamsberg's respite doesn't last long before he is called back to his team who knows him well—"Lieutenant Veyrenc…knew that when the commissaire was in charge, the squad was like a tall sailing ship, sometimes with a brisk wind behind it, other times becalmed and its sails drooping, rather than a powerful speedboat churning up torrents of spray." 
For those who have read previous books in the series, there is a feeling of coming home.  For those who have not, Vargas conveys the sense of the team members and their loyalty, from the very start.  And what a quirky team it is, filled with affection and respect, right down to the cat and Mathias, a character from her "The Three Evangelists" series.  It's interesting seeing Adamsberg go through the case and the evidence with the team, which adds veracity to the story.  The verbal exchanges often make one smile—"It's called Le Curé de Tours, The Priest of Tours."  "Thank you,' said Estalère warmly…'Still Balzac didn't bust a gut making up the title, did he?'  'Estalère, one doesn't say of Balzac that "he didn't bust a gut".'
As an historian and an eukaryotic archaeologist Vargas wrote a definitive work on the bubonic plague, and her knowledge certainly contributes to the story's plot.  There is certainly nothing usual or ordinary about this case to which Adamsberg is attracted, as well as the realism of having the squad working more than the one case.  There are very good twists and an escalation in the depth of the crimes involved and in the tension within the team. Yet it is all the characters, which are the core of the story, including Louise Chevier and Adamsberg's brother, a revelation in his own life, and the return of the imagery of a ship, which keeps us immersed in the story. Vargas plays fair with the reader.  As Adamsberg begins to put the pieces together, so may we.
It is very difficult to quantify Vargas' work.  She takes one into the world of the best, most unique police squad one will ever find although some similarities may be made to Christopher Fowler's "Bryant and May" team. 
With "This Poison Will Remain," Vargas has created a story filled with delightful imagery, a unique plot, and a truly touching ending.  For those who like the unusual and quirky, reading Vargas can be addictive.   

THIS POISON WILL REMAIN (PolProc-Comm. Adamsberg-France-Contemp) - Ex
      Vargas, Fred (translator, Siân Reynolds) – 7th in series
      Harvill Secker – Aug 2019

Monday, August 5, 2019

Almost Midnight by Paul Doiron

First Sentence:  I passed the coroner's meat wagon on the way up the hill to the prison.
Maine Warden Investigator Mike Bowditch receives a request from inmate Billy Cronk, a former friend he helped imprison for murder. Billy wants him to investigate a new female prison guard who then suffers a brutal attack.  Another call comes from a mountain community where wolf-hybrid Shadow has been shot by a crossbow and is barely clinging to life. The two investigations endanger Mike's life, as well as his loved ones.
Doiron has a wonderful voice—"It was one of those New England hamlets with a full graveyard and an empty schoolhouse.  Half a mile from my place, a crumbling old farm had an actual family plot in its front years. No wonder the dump had scared off potential buyers for the past decade."           
One thing which would have helped would be for the author to have explained more about the role of the Maine Warden Investigator, but that could be due to this being the 10th book in the series.  For those interested, there is a good explanation.  That didn't necessarily detract from the plot, but knowing the role provides a bit of clarity.
The change of scene from the prison to the situation with the wolf is very effective.  One almost has a sensory reaction to it.  That takes skill, and Doiron has it.
What is nice is that this is not the Maine of tourists. This is the Maine of those who live inland, in the parts of the state tourists don't see where life, and the people, can be hard. It's survival country of hunting, fishing, and now, drugs.
Doiron characters are strong and interesting, particularly Mike's girlfriend Maine State Trooper Danielle "Dani" Tate, and Alcohol Mary.  He also has a wonderful way of making one truly care about Shadow, the hybrid wolf, and making one feel Mike's emotions.
While the plot is exciting, full of twists and danger, it truly is the author's style which keeps one engaged.  Doiron's humor—"Across the room, I could see her children, the four platinum-blond Cronklets, ages five to ten… Someone had tuned the TV station to a financial news network, and the five backwoods ragamuffins were watching it with the intensity of day traders waiting for the next bit earnings report to drop."—is subtle, but it works.  He has an excellent ear for dialogue—"I am required to ask this, Mrs. Gowdie. …I need to know if you own a crossbow."  "Who do you think I am, Maid Fucking Marian?"--, as well as a sense of insight—"When my own heart started to break, I lifted my face to the sky, letting the flakes melt as they landed on warm skin, admitted my own arrogance and ignorance, and surrendered to the mysteries of a universe I knew I would never comprehend."
"Almost Midnight" has very good characters and well-done suspense.  Wonderful dialogue, a great turn of phrase, and a nice touch of emotion may make one decide to read the series from the first book, as well as future books to come.

ALMOST MIDNIGHT (WardenInvest-Mike Bowditch-Maine-Contemp) - VG
      Doiron, Paul – 10th in series
      Minotaur Books – July 2019