Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Return of the Magi by P.J. Tracy

First Sentence: Emil Rice was snuggled in the back seat of his mom’s car under a fuzzy blanket printed with Marvel Comics superheroes, watching the dark countryside roll by through the frosty window.

Emil Rice is a charming man and a very bad thief as he’s been caught 22 times. In fact, his parole officer, Harry Foster, runs a betting pool on how quickly Emil will be re-arrested. However, on Emil’s 23rd arrest the judge doesn’t send him back to jail but sentences him to community service at a secure mental health facility where he is befriended by Gloria and Edith, two elderly women who see Emil is the final piece of a life-changing plan.

For those who appreciate descriptions that provide a strong sense of place, Tracy satisfies that need—"It was a clear, bitter night—the kind that made your ears and eyes and teeth hurt—but the moon was full in the sky, with freckles of bright stars scattered around its happy face, smiling an apology for the brittle temperature.”

Beginning with Emil as a boy, all the characters are wonderful. Whether lead or supporting, they are fully developed. Yet it’s also a delight to watch them change and grow.

Tracy’s humor is subtle—“Gloria put the teddy bear by his head and pressed the Bible into his hands. ‘Read Matthew chapter two, verses one through eleven. Don’t bother to read John. We think he might have been just a little psychotic.’”—and balanced by the ability to convey emotion—“Foster clicked off and stared at his silly tree, the presents stacked along its green skirt of branches, and felt all the happiness leaking out of him.”

The Return of the Magi” is an unexpectedly delightful story. It is not overly sentimental but does make one think of the stories by O. Henry. It warms one heart and makes one think that there are always possibilities.

RETURN OF THE MAGI (Holiday Story-Emil Rice-Nevada-Contemp) - Ex 
Tracy, P.J. – eBook Novella
Penguin – Nov, 2017

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Whisper of Death by Patricia Wynn

First Sentence: After rounding another turn in the wide stone staircase, Hester Kean peered up and gasped with relief.

Hester Kean and her cousin Mary, who is being pursued by the repugnant Lord Wragby, are touring the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, with Hester learning about the dome’s remarkable acoustics. So remarkable that Hester hears a whispered death threat, by, and toward, an unknown person. She suspects it may have had to do with Jacobite sympathizers. When Lord Wragby is murdered, his powerful father blames James Henry, the man Mary truly loves. Can Hester and the outlawed Viscount St. Mars finally solidify their relationship, and save James, too?

One should always be grateful to authors who begin historical books with notes on the period and the history. The inclusion of historical figures within the story adds veracity and sense of the time in which the story is set. That said, there are a lot of characters, real and fictional, many with multiple names and titles. A cast of characters would have been very helpful. But persevere as it is well worth it once one gets into the meat of the story.

Wynn very clearly demonstrates the complicated relationships which are based on title, rank, politics and wealth. In contrast, she also makes note of how rank impacted even some of the more mundane aspects of life—“Hester sent one of the footmen ahead to purchase some tea. Tea had become so fashionable, that the owner, Mr. Twinings, was selling more dry tea than hot coffee, but it would not be proper for a lady to set foot inside a coffee-house.” 

Wynn provides us an accurate depiction of London, not one that is glossed over. Women and men of rank were bargaining chips, valued primarily for their titles and income.

Hester is such a wonderful character. Not only is she smart and capable, but a skilled diplomat and strategist capable of inveigling others to act when she cannot. The reunion between Hester and St. Mars is wonderful and everything for which readers of the series have been waiting. It is very G – PG-rated, so if one is hoping for hot and sexy, it won’t be found here. On the other hand, if one desires a book that all ages can read, this is it.

There is history. The situation between Hester and St. Mars does facilitate the relating of historical information about being married “in the Fleet,” which is fascinating. An interesting subplot reminds one that even though there were no field slaves in England, many blacks were the property of their employers. And who knew that there was a threat by the King of Sweden to invade England? However, it is the focus on Jacobites and concern over foreign invaders which proves a very good plot twist.

Whisper of Death” is a very good mystery with a touch of romance. It has a satisfying ending and leaves us knowing that future adventures await.

WHISPER OF DEATH (Hist Mys-Heaster Kean-London-1716)– VG
Wynn, Patricia – 6th in series
Pemberley Press – 2017

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Devouring by James R. Benn

First Sentence:  Light is faster than sound.
Captain Billy Boyle and Lt. Piotr “Kaz” Kazimierz are headed to Switzerland but crash-land in France, meeting up with Anton Lasho, a Sinti (Gypsy) determined to kill every German he meets.  The three do make it across the border and connect with members of the OSS.  Their task? Investigate Swiss banks that are laundering looted Nazi gold.
From the very start, there is high drama and fast action, and it’s great.  One feels the anxiety of the characters as we are immediately introduced to Billy, “Kaz” and Anton Lasko, who is new to us but who proves to be such a good character, one wouldn’t mind seeing him in the future.  Billy and Kaz are truly wonderful characters.  One can very much appreciate the way in which Benn sprinkles information on their backgrounds throughout the story.  It is through the trio that Benn creates such painful, yet honest scenes that they touch one’s emotions.  That’s the mark of a truly fine writer.
Benn has an excellent voice.  He includes the vernacular of the 1940’s—“You’re all packing, I assume” … “Can you get us shoulder holsters?” I asked. “It’s clumsy carrying these six-shooters around in a coat pocket.”—without overdoing it.  He includes just the right touch of wry humor—“All we had to do was avoid imprisonment and long-range rifle fire.  All in a day’s work.”
This may be Benn’s most complex book so far.  It is filled with historical information. One may find it makes them quite angry.  Not toward the author, but because of the information which one may not have previously known, yet is important to learn.  And that’s what makes this a particularly good book.

The Devouring” is a really well-done tale of duplicity, stolen gold, and a country that wasn't quite as neutral as we thought.  

THE DEVOURING (Hist Mys-Lt. Billy Boyle-France/Switzerland- WWII) – VG
      Benn, James R. – 12th in series
      Soho Crime – Sept 2017

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Seagull by Ann Cleeves

First Sentence:  The woman could see the full sweep of the bay despite the dark and the absence of street lights where she stood.
An old enemy of Insp. Vera Stanhope, John Bruce asks that she visit him in prison where she helped put him.  He wants to cut a deal; information on the whereabouts of the body of Robbie Marshall, a long-missing hustler in exchange to Vera looking out for his daughter and grandchildren.  There is a very personal element to this case for Vera as Bruce, Marshall, and a man known only as “the Prof,” were close friends of her father, Hector Stanhope, bringing back memories Vera would prefer remain buried.
Cleeves creates such a strong sense of emotion—“Sometimes it felt as if her whole live had been spent in the half-light; in her dreams, she was moonlit, neon-lit, or she floated through the first gleam of dawn,”—and place—“The funfair at Spanish City was closed for the day, and quiet.  She could see the silhouettes of the rides, marked by string of coloured bulbs, gaudy in full sunlight, entrancing now.”
Those who follow the BBC television series “Vera” and may be disappointed by the departure of some characters, it’s nice to see that Holly and Joe are still here in the books.  The description of Vera’s team is done in terms of their relationships to Vera.  What is lovely is her understanding of what drives them, each member’s strength and what motivates them.  Vera and Joe’s visit to the mother of a missing man is a sad reminder of the pain through which families go without the closure of knowing what happened.
There is honest police work here.  The investigation is conducted by legwork as well as technology; getting out and talking with people.  The case is worked step-by-step, without flash.
Vera’s self-awareness is admirable—“then she thought she was making a drama of the situation.  She always did.” Yet, to her—“…the law matters.  All those little people you despise so much have to abide by it, and so do you.  So do I.”
The Seagull” is such a good book.  Beyond the excellent plot, what one really cares about is Vera and her team.

THE SEAGULL (Pol Proc-Inspector Vera Stanhope-England-Contemp) – Ex
      Cleeves, Ann – 8th in series
      Minotaur Books – Sept 2017

Monday, November 13, 2017

Desert Remains by Steven Cooper

First Sentence:  Her name is Elizabeth Spears.
The caves in the mountains around Phoenix are known for their petroglyphs, but these are different.  A kill has been carving pictures of his actual murders in each of the caves where the body of a woman is found.  Because the city powers want the case solved immediately, even though there are no clues, Detective Alex Mills calls on the talents of Gus Parker, a psychic he has worked with in the past.  Yet even the images Gus sees don’t seem to relate to these murders.  Or do they?
What an interesting beginning with the gruesomeness of the murder scene, and the bluntness of those at the crime scene contrasted against the beauty of a desert sunset. In the midst of that is an introduction to Det. Alex Mills, which may actually make one smile.  We then meet Gus Parker, a somewhat reluctant medical image technician, and his friend and fellow psychic Beatrice Vossenheimer as the two seek to unmask a fake psychic.  The information involved in their so doing is quite interesting and makes perfect sense.  Cooper establishes credibility for Gus by establishing that he has worked with other law enforcement agencies in the past.  While it is true that they are known to use psychics on occasion, it would have been interesting to learn about the research Cooper undertook about psychics and their role in this milieu.  Unfortunately, that information isn’t provided, even in the author notes.
It is nice to have a protagonist who is married, loves his wife and is faithful, but it is also realistic in that Mills’ home life isn’t idealized.  The situation introduces another plot thread which may seem awkward, and not really necessary.  It is also nice that Mills is a by-the-book cop who not only doesn’t work around the law but doesn’t even bend it.  Gus, too, has issues in his personal life that need addressing.  These aren’t characters who have been prettied up for public consumption.   These are characters who are realistic, including a Sheriff Joe Arpaio-like character. 
Cooper throws in some excellent plot twists.  What’s even more impressive is that he truly takes us along with Gus, with the help of Beatrice, on his search for the suspect.  It’s not a pound-the-pavement search, but one utilizing his research and impressions.  We become as invested as does Gus in truly trying to work things out. 
Once the climax is reached, one realized breadcrumbs had been laid throughout the plot, had we really been paying attention.  Happily, the story is interesting enough that most of us won’t have been.  There are some weaknesses to the writing that may niggle at the back of one’s consciousness, but they are rather like floaters in one’s eye; they’re a bit distracting but don’t destroy the overall enjoyment of the story.
Desert Remains” is Coopers’ first mystery and a very enjoyable read. It will be interesting to watch the series develop.

DESERT REMAINS (Pol Proc-Gus Parker/Alex Mills-Phoenix-Contemp) – G+
      Cooper, Steven – 1st in series
      Seventh Street Books – Oct 2017) 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Deep Dark Descending by Allen Eskens

First Sentence:  I raise the ax handle for the third time and my arm disobeys me.
Detective Max Rupert had believed his wife’s death was an accident.  Learning she was murdered sets him on a course of vengeance.  The question is:  How far will he go?
What a powerful and effective opening.  Eskins use of language and imagery is poetic—“After Jenni’s death, those occasions, even the lesser ones, remained my connection to her.  I found her thread woven through almost every part of my existence, a tapestry once vibrant and alive now in danger of fading away.”
The plot jumps back and forth between close-set time periods so one must pay attention.  There is a temptation to take the book apart and reassemble it in a straight timeline.  It’s hard to say whether anything would be lost by so doing.  Either way, one admires Eskens’ ability to pack a serious story with a strong emotional punch in less than 250 pages, following the style of many early masters of crime fiction. 
Even so, one may not find it as satisfying as Eskins’ other books, but it does raise an important question as to whether personal revenge can be justified.  It’s hard not to be reminded of Mark 8:36: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In this instance, what does Max gain?  One interesting item was the mention of when Michael Dukakis ran for president and was asked about the death penalty, and of Max’s late-wife Jenni’s position on the issue.
The Deep DarkDescending" is a powerful and emotional book, albeit not necessarily a comfortable one to read.  And that’s not a bad thing. Eskens is a writer one will want to follow.

THE DEEP DARK DESCENDING (Pol Proc-Det. Max Rupert-Minnesota-Contemp) – VG    
      Eskens, Allen - Standalone
      Seventh Street Books – Oct 2017

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Naturalist by Andrew Mayne

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Old Scores by Will Thomas

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

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