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

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wilful Behavior by Donna Leon

First Sentence: The explosion came at breakfast.
A student of Insp. Guido Brunetti’s wife, Paola, visits him inquiring whether someone who had been convicted of a crime and is now dead could be officially cleared if shown innocent. Brunetti is not given enough information initially, but the question peaks his interest. When the student, Claudia Leonardo, is murdered, the question goes from being a matter of curiosity to an investigation.
Leon is a wonderful writer. Her writing is intelligent, literary and thought provoking with cracking good dialogue. She is merciless toward the tempering of historical information, the corruption of the government and American tourists. She imbues her story with an underlying theme; in this case, honour.
Leon gives us such wonderful characters in Brunetti, about whose childhood we learn more, his wife, Paola, and the strength of their 20-year marriage, and the intriguing Signorina Elettra. One cares about her characters; not only the principals but, in this case, Claudia and her grandmother, because of the strength of her central, Brunetti. The city of Venice is almost another character in the story.
The sense of place is so strong as is the obvious love Brunetti has for his city, in spite of its faults. Yet, coming back to the theme of honour, Brunetti would have left his city because of a point of honour.  The descriptions of the family meals make one want to join them.
Under all this, is a well-plotted, fascinating, couldn’t-tell-where-it-was-going story. It is nice that the reader learns the information at the same time as Brunetti. When he is lead down the wrong path, so are we; when he begins to suspect, so do we.
Wilful Behavior” is another excellent book from of Ms. Leon.  The best part is there are many more books that follow.

WILFUL BEHAVIOUR (Pol. Prod.-Ins. Guido Brunetti-Venice, Italy-Cont) - Ex
      Leon, Donna – 11th in series
      Arrow Books, 2003

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trace by Archer Mayor

First Sentence:  Jayla Robinson looked out across Albany’s Lancaster Street at the three matching brownstones opposite.
Joe Gunther, head of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, needs to take his elderly mother to a hospital in the Midwest leaving his team with three very different cases; the medical examiner’s daughter’s roommate being murdered in their apartment, a closed double murder where it is now found isn’t as cut-and-dried as it originally appeared, and the discovery of three teeth and a burned-out battery found on a railroad track.
Mayor’s books contain a true ensemble cast of very individual characters.  By removing Gunther from center stage for most of the book, the other characters have a chance to shine.  Mayor’s descriptions tell us much more about each character than just their appearance or even background. 
That we also learn about their personalities plays a major role in the growth in the relationship of two characters. While one may not normally be a fan of a relationship focus in a mystery, it really does work here with growth and realization.  He doesn’t stint on the secondary characters, either.  The relationship Joe has with his brother Leo is very easy and realistic.
One thing about police procedurals is the fascinating things one learns.  In this case it is regarding planted fingerprints and about trains, as well as how the VBI—the Bureau of Criminal Investigations in the real world--interacts with other agencies. But Mayor is also very good about the small details.  Not only are they not boring, but often it’s the sort of thing where one things—“Oh, I’d forgotten about that.”  A lot of the methodologies and technologies employed are very clever.
Trace” contains three cases each of which is interesting and stands on its own with details and suspense building at a nice pace. It also ends with a nice homage to the vast majority of good, honest, hard-working police officers who really do work to protect and serve.

TRACE (Pol Proc-VBI Team-Vermont-Contemp) – G+
      Mayor, Archer – 28th in series
      Minotaur Books, Sept 2017

Sunday, September 24, 2017

An Echo of Murder by Anne Perry

First Sentence:  “It’s A bad one, sir.”
Comm. William Monk is called to the gruesome murder scene of a Hungarian warehouse owner who has been impaled with a bayonet-fixed rifle, his body surrounded by blood-dipped candles.  To assist his work with the Hungarian émigrés, Monk turns to a local bi-lingual pharmacist.  Young Scuff, an orphan taken in by the Monk’s, is studying to be a doctor.  A patient, who is English but knows Hungarian, comes in who knew Hester during the Crimea War. With more bodies found, fear and accusations grow.
Perry always creates a strong sense of place—“…the Pool of London was already busy.  Huge cranes lifted loads of bales from ships’ holds and swung them ponderously over to the docks. The water was congested with boats at anchor, waiting their turn; barges loading; ferries going back and forth from one side of the river to the other.”
While it may seem shocking to us now, one must remember that our opioids of today were the morphine and laudanum of the period and were commonly used.  What is hard is to read about some of the medical procedures of the time.  On the other hand, it is nice to be reminded of the tremendous contribution Florence Nightingale made to medicine. 
Perry excels at taking current issues and reminding us that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same).  In this instance, the issue is bigotry and the fear of those who are different from ourselves—“Some animals will kick to death the ones that are different,” he said very quietly. “a different color, a slightly different shape. Slower, perhaps.  There is something primal in us that fears anything unlike. … I would like to think we are better than the animals, but perhaps some of us are not.”—and the tendency for those who’ve come from somewhere else to establish communities—“There was a natural closeness they felt to those who shared their roots and memories and, above all, who understood the complicated nature of a hope for a new life in a new country.” 
A secondary element to the story is PTSD, although it wasn’t known as that at the time.  Perry doesn’t deal with it in an abstract way but delves into what those who suffer are subjected to such as flashbacks and nightmares. 
With all the drama of the killings and the medical issues, there is a lovely balance of the relationships; Monk’s with his second, Hooper—“Monk had seen it in extraordinary loyalty.  When everyone else had considered Monk guilty of error, and worse, Hooper had risked his own life to save him, not to mention his career to defend him.”; the Monk’s with Scruff, and certainly Monk with Hester—“The only thing Monk could think about was hot, fresh tea.  Hester had no need to ask.  “Cold beef and bubble and squeak for dinner?” she asked. “And I’ve got apple pie.” It was exactly what he wanted, especially the pie.”
It is the strength of the characters that brings everything together, and there is a very strong cast.  Many of the characters are recurring and well known to those who follow the series.  However, it is also very nice that she brought two wonderful characters from a recent Christmas novella forward into this book.
An Echo of Murder” is a very well done story that addresses important issues, is filled with strong characters, fascinating details, and a good twist at the end.  

 AN ECHO OF MURDER (Hist Mys-Thomas/Hester Monk-London-Victorian) – VG+
      Perry, Anne – 23rd in series
      Ballantine Books-Sept 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

First Sentence:  Eventually the passenger ejected the tape and tossed it on to the back seat.

DI Siobhan (Shiv-awn) Clark and Malcolm Fox, formerly with the Complaints bureau, have been assigned to investigate the death of, David Minton, a man with friends in high places.  It was clearly not an interrupted robbery since nothing is missing, but something was left behind; a threatening note.  Retirement doesn’t suit John Rebus and is happy to help Clark and Fox.  What he didn’t expect is a call from “Big Ger” Cafferty, a man Rebus would dearly love to put in prison.  Someone shot at Cafferty and left him a note with the same message that Minton received.
Although prologues can be an extremely annoying element, in this case, it does provide a rather intriguing opening. 
Rebus, as with most series, is best read in order as it allows one to show how the relationships have developed over time, such as the friendship between Clarke and Fox, and the new twist in the highly adverbial relationship between Rebus and Cafferty. That said, it is a credit to Rankin that he provides sufficient backstory on his characters that the books can be read as standalones without new readers feeling lost.
It is the characters who draw us in.  There is a sense of a moral code driving Rebus, Malcolm, and Clarke that makes them so strong and compelling.  They provide a good balance, one to the another, as well.  Where Rebus might be willing to bend the rules, Malcolm will not.  The addition of something as mundane as—“…a cardboard cup of scalding tea and a cling-film-tuna sandwich…” adds an element of normalcy and veracity.
Rankin’s dialogue is wonderful, particularly with his inclusion of wry humor—“Now, is there any chance you can get Jackie Stewart here to put the foot down?” His voice, in general, makes his books a real pleasure to read—“No detective wanted a lawyer to think they were more stupid than most lawyers already considered them to be.”  His descriptions are both evocative and pause-worthy—“Edinburgh had always seemed to Rebus a city that liked to keep its counsel and its secrets.”
“Even Dogs in the Wild” is such a good book filled with excellent characters and very good twists.  Rankin is an author who never disappoints.
EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD (Pol Proc-Rebus/Clarke/Fox-Scotland-Contemp) – VG+
      Rankin, Ian – 20th in series
      Little, Brown and Company, Jan 2016     

Monday, September 18, 2017

Secrets in Death by J.D. Robb

First Sentence:  It wouldn’t kill her.
Lt. Eve Dallas investigates homicides, but the victims don’t usually drop dead at her feet.  Larinda Mars is a “social information reporter”; i.e., a gossip columnist who clearly has an enemy since someone slashed one of Mars major arteries causing her to bleed out in the middle of an upscale bar.  Eve and her team are determined to find the killer.
Some readers have an issue with the bedroom scenes in this series.  “Outlander” author, Diana Gabaldon, provided an excellent perspective in her line reminding readers that sex is a normal part of an adult relationship and that “it is much more about emotion than the exchange of bodily fluids.”  That said, the scenes are easy to skip over without losing the thread of the plot.
The slightly futuristic world in which one finds oneself is just enough to provide for fun imaging, yet not so removed from our reality that it seems implausible.  As with much of science fiction, it is not impossible that some of the gadgets and technologies will ultimately be realized.

Robb creates excellent characters, not only in Eve, but the supporting characters of Roark, Galahad the cat, Mira, Peabody, and the rest of Eve's team.  However, it is about Summerset that we receive an interesting, and surprising, revelation.  
The primary attraction to the series is the characters, particularly Eve.  She is an interesting dichotomy between the tough, smart cop who is dedicated to standing in for the dead even when they may not have been good people themselves and the woman who is completely indifferent to her appearance and is unaware of many things outside her job. But she does know baseball.  
Secrets in Death” is an enjoyable read with a couple well-executed twists. It is more of a straight police procedural that some in the series.

NOTE:  If you read the hardcover edition, made certain to look at the back side of the paper dust cover.

 SECRETS IN DEATH (Pol Proc-Lt. Eve Dallas-NYC-Near Future) – G+
      Robb, J.D. – 45th in series
      St. Martin’s Press – Sept 2017