"First Line: I have never been what you'd call a crying man.
That's what high school English teacher Jake Epping will tell you, if you were to ask. But while grading essays, he's blown away by what GED student and janitor Harry Dunning has written. Somehow, some way, fifty years ago Harry survived his father's sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is still thinking how life can turn on a dime when he learns of an even more bizarre secret: Al, owner of the local diner and Jake's friend, wants Jake to take over his obsession. Many years ago Al discovered a time portal in the diner's storeroom, and he's been trying ever since to prevent the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Jake allows himself to be persuaded, and when he steps through the portal, he finds himself in the era of Elvis, cheap gasoline, and almost universal cigarette smoking. Jake has plenty of time to start a new life in small town Texas, but each day draws him nearer to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. Will he be able to accomplish what Al tried and failed to do? And if he does stop the assassination of the president, what sort of consequences will there be?
I have to admit that I held off reading this book for a long time. I was in third grade when JFK was assassinated. Yes, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the news. For reasons that don't need to go into a book review, this event hit my mother and I hard, and I was reluctant to rip the Band-aid off that particular wound, even if it had healed long ago.
I should not have worried, and I should not have waited. This book has very little to do with JFK and everything to do with Jake Epping. Stephen King's main character takes us all on a nostalgic yet honest journey through America during the end of the Eisenhower administration. Everything is brought to life in vivid and loving detail. I enjoyed reliving the era of my childhood, but as I read, I found myself thinking more about recent American history, its might-have-beens... and about love.
Few writers can immerse me in their fictional worlds so completely as does Stephen King. No matter how strange, King creates characters and backdrops that are familiar and that I can trust-- which is a very good thing because I need someone/something trustworthy at my back while I'm reading to figure out how to escape his weirdness!
If you've been postponing reading this book for the same reasons I did, you can stop. When you read 11-22-63, you're going to read a lot more about love than you will about bullets and lone gunmen."
"First Line: He stands silently in the moonlight against the wall of the temple, the small bundle held tightly under his arm.
For those who love to spread doom and gloom, the date December 21, 2012, has long been a touchstone because they insist that it is the date when the ancient Maya calendar predicts the world will end.
Two weeks before "Doom Day" it's business as usual for Dr. Gabriel Stanton, who heads off to the lab where he studies incurable prion diseases for the Center for Disease Control. The first phone call Stanton gets is from a hospital resident who insists she has a patient he has to see. At roughly the same time Chel Manu, a researcher at the Getty Museum, has an unwelcome visit from a known dealer in black market antiquities. The man thrusts a duffel bag into her hands and disappears.
By the end of the day Stanton, the foremost expert on rare infectious diseases, is dealing with a patient whose symptoms terrify him, and Manu, one of the best and brightest in the field of Maya studies, has in her possession a priceless codex from a lost city of her ancestors. This record, written in secret and hidden by a royal scribe, may very well hold the answer to one of history's great mysteries: why the Maya kingdoms vanished overnight. When Manu is called to interpret for Stanton's patient, it suddenly seems very real that our own civilization may suffer the same fate... and the clock is ticking inexorably toward December 21.
Thomason has written a fast-paced story based on enough truth to make you worry. The first part of the book quickly sets the stage and describes prion diseases (think mad cow disease and fatal familial insomnia among others) in such a way that will make you wonder if any food or product that enters your mouth is safe. I've done reading elsewhere that proves we'd be right to be concerned, but this is a book review, not a soapbox. The two main characters, Gabe Stanton and Chel Manu, are also introduced as being completely focused on their jobs yet willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and to make unpopular decisions.
Although I enjoyed both characters, my favorite parts of the book concerned the translation of the codex and the glimpse it gave into the ancient Maya civilization, as well as the depiction of life in Los Angeles as the entire metropolitan area is placed under strict quarantine.
There's a subplot or two that seem unnecessary, such as the one with the militant group that wants to steal the codex and head for the Guatemalan jungle to find the lost city, but they barely put me off my stride. If you enjoy Michael Crichton-like tales of doomsday disease wrapped up in Maya history and legend, you're going to like this book as much as I did."
"First Line: As it was only the train driver who died, you couldn't call it a disaster.
But Hanne Wilhelmsen would disagree with that assessment. The train she is traveling on derails in the mountains 1222 meters above sea level during a massive blizzard. Fortunately there is a nearby hotel. It's an old building and nearly empty except for the staff, but at least the passengers have someplace warm and dry to wait for rescue. No one knows exactly when that rescue will take place because no one is going anywhere while the blizzard is still raging.
With plenty of food and sheltered from the storm, the passengers believe they are safe and once the shock of the derailment wears off, they are almost in a holiday mood. When morning dawns, one of the passengers is found dead, and that feeling of safety vanishes like mist. Retired police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen, being the only person in the hotel remotely connected to law enforcement, is asked to investigate. She'd rather not, and she makes that plain. Paralyzed by a bullet lodged in her spine, Hanne has made it a habit to keep herself to herself. She wants no help, but she does want to be left alone. Unfortunately for her, her curiosity and natural talent for observation weren't paralyzed along with her legs.
Hanne begins to take an interest in the other passengers and their secrets. When another body turns up, she knows that time is running out. She has to act fast before panic sets in amongst the other passengers. Her investigation is complicated by a mysterious passenger who had been traveling in a private rail car at the end of the train and was evacuated first to the top floor of the hotel. No one knows the identity of this mystery guest or why there is a need for armed guards, but this is certainly making everyone nervous-- and nervous people can do unpredictable, dangerous things.
Hanne is trapped. Trapped by her wheelchair. Trapped by the blizzard. And trapped in an old hotel with a killer. Will time run out before she's able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together?
There's something about a "locked room" mystery involving a blizzard that I simply cannot resist, and although I never did completely warm up to the prickly Hanne, I did enjoy watching her observe everyone and piece clues together. The blizzard outdoors was a strong-willed character that had me looking for a heavy sweater and a warm pair of socks, and Holt populated the inside of the hotel with an interesting mix of people that were in turns exasperating and endearing.
One of the best things about locked room mysteries is the fact that they have very little to do with forensics and everything to do with observation and stimulating the little grey cells. Hanne mentions one thing she observed several times, but for some reason (perhaps because I was still looking for those socks) my little grey cells misfired and never deduced why that one thing was so important. I do like when that happens.
I also like the fact that, although this is the eighth mystery featuring Hanne Wilhelmsen, it didn't matter. This was my first experience of watching her in action, and I was never confused. Enough of her backstory is given so that Hanne is well and truly introduced to us all-- and that my interest was piqued enough to look for other books in the series.
If you're in the mood for a mystery in which observation rules over science, read Anne Holt's 1222."
"First Line: "By the Month or by the Night" read the sign over the entrance to the trailer park.
In a radical departure from her Anna Pigeon mystery series, Nevada Barr gives us a psychological thriller that begins in the 1970s in a trailer park in Mississippi. It then moves to Minnesota with the murder spree of a child dubbed "Butcher Boy." Finally in post-Katrina New Orleans, the adults from both these broken childhoods collide.
Polly escaped from her abusive "trailer trash" childhood at the age of fifteen, running away to New Orleans. Now she's a respected college professor with good friends, her own home, and two small children she adores.
"Butcher Boy" was released on his seventeenth birthday. His surviving brother has vowed to take care of him, and they both head south to that Mecca for runaways: New Orleans.
When Polly meets and falls in love with Marshall Marchand, a restoration architect who's helping to rebuild the city, their pasts are set on a collision course.
I love Barr's books, and although this book is very good, it didn't quite meet my expectations. It has everything to do with the characters. Perhaps it's because my mind is too devious, but there were few surprises with the Marchand brothers. I knew how that part of the plot was going to work itself out. That was a bit disappointing, but the character of Polly did much in making up for the deficiencies of the Marchands.
Even after the train wreck of her childhood, Polly was such a strong, centered, caring person that I wish the book could have focused even more on her. I wanted more Polly. Perhaps you'll understand after reading these two quotes:
"Two girls-- children in Polly's eyes but of the age she'd been the first time she'd come to Jackson Square-- rose from a table tucked between the benches opposite the cathedral doors. They were tricked out in the unfortunate fashion that decreed female children dress as prostitutes in a world full of predators.
"The dog, his head as high as his mistress's shoulder, walked beside her. The child's face was open and trusting. The dog's was not, and Polly was relieved. Children needed bodyguards."
On the face of it, Polly's just another mother who worries too much and reads too much into innocent scenes. But she's not. She's lived in a world of predators and survived. She knows exactly what's out there that she needs to be prepared for. Her children will not have to face what she did, that is, if Polly has the least say about it.
If you haven't read too many books about the twisted minds of killers (like I have), 13Ĺ should make you jump at each creak of a floorboard or pop of an attic beam. And Polly is one character who should not be missed."
"First Line: "Rusty. Have you got any money on you?"
When Russell (Rusty) Mullins' wife dies of ovarian cancer, he feels a real need to take a different direction in his life. Ending his career in the Secret Service, he joins a private protection company based in Washington, D.C., and is assigned to guard Paul Luguire, a Federal Reserve executive and its chief liaison with the U.S. Treasury. The change means that Rusty gets to spend time with his grandchild, and he becomes good friends with Luguire.
Such good friends that when he gets a phone call from a police detective telling him that Luguire has committed suicide, Rusty doesn't believe it. His belief is confirmed by Federal Reserve employee Amanda Church, who once worked with him in the Secret Service. Church has uncovered an extremely suspicious financial transaction initiated by Luguire that now seems to be setting Rusty up. When a bank president is murdered, Rusty does indeed skyrocket to the top of the suspect list.
As Rusty follows a trail of clues, he's joined by a discredited journalist and a police detective who's mere months away from retirement. Someone out there is conspiring to destroy America's financial system, and the Federal Reserve has a starring role in the plan. Twelve targets are known, and time is running out. What-- or who-- is the thirteenth target? Is this unlikely team of three going to be able to uncover the truth?
I'm familiar with de Castrique's two series set in North Carolina: the "Buryin' Barry" series featuring an ex-cop/ undertaker in Gainesboro, and the Sam Blackman series featuring an Iraqi war veteran who's now a private investigator in Asheville. I was eager to see what he'd do with the thriller format. As I expected, de Castrique does not disappoint.
The book is filled with fast-paced action, and although the plot is a little unwieldy from time to time, I dare anyone to use the U.S. financial system and the Federal Reserve as the basis for a plot and explain it as well as the author does. I have to admit that when the villain is revealed, I could have slapped myself upside the head-- the person was right out in plain sight from word one, and I was too caught up with other details to pay attention.
As always, de Castrique shines with his characters. Rusty Mullins is an honorable man that you believe from the start. He's fortunate to find Detective Robert Sullivan, a police officer who, although just months from retirement, knows an honest man when he meets one and is willing to go above and beyond the call to see justice done. As the discredited journalist, blogger Sidney Levine is perfect. Through his work in journalism and through his blog, he knows how to investigate, he knows how to get in touch with the more credible conspiracy theorists, and he knows how to flush out the information that Mullins needs. If I have any complaint about the book at all, it's that I would have gladly spent many more pages in the company of these three characters.
Mark de Castrique can write humorous mysteries. He can write mysteries with literary clues. He can also write a mean thriller. If you haven't read any of his books yet, now's your chance!"
"First Line: "Okay, is everyone clear on what they're supposed to do?" Maggie Gerber asked.
Life is quiet in St. Stanley, Virginia, and Maggie Gerber likes it like that. Widowed at a young age, Maggie's daughter is away at college, but her niece Sandy and her two-year-old son Josh live with her while Sandy studies nursing and her husband is in Afghanistan. Maggie's a founding member of the Good Buy Girls, a group of friends who meet weekly to share coupons and to plan their buying strategies. But all that quiet goodness is about to change....
Sam Collins is the new sheriff in town. That bodes ill since he and Maggie have been at each other's throats since they were in diapers. Maggie decides that she's going to avoid him as much as possible, but it simply is not meant to be. Claire Fremont-- Good Buy Girl, local librarian, and all-round good person-- has been hauled off to jail by none other than Sam Collins himself after a body is found in the library basement. Claire not only knew the victim, she owns the cake knife that was found buried in his chest. Although Maggie realizes Claire isn't being completely honest with her, she knows Claire to be incapable of murder, so Maggie sets out to find the real killer-- whether the high and mighty Sheriff Sam Collins likes it or not!
I was a bit hesitant to give this book a try. Having spent most of my working life in the retail field, I've lived through madness like the Cabbage Patch Dolls and Tickle Me Elmo (to name a few), and once you've stood on the other side of the door from a seething crowd showing mob-like tendencies, it tends to color how you look at a group of women who have battle plans when they go out to shop.
I shouldn't have worried because the ultimate reason why I read the book-- author Jenn McKinlay writing as Josie Belle-- is the reason why I loved it. McKinlay has such a playful and slightly twisted sense of humor that I can't help but smile and laugh as I read her books. The four women who comprise the Good Buy Girls are fabulous characters who work well together whether it's shopping for Gucci or searching for clues. I even enjoyed the sparks flying between Maggie and Sam. Let's face it. All that fussing and feuding since they were toddlers? What else could it have been leading to?
I loved the characters and the humor. I even appreciated the shopping because the Good Buy Girls have taken the time to get to know the businesses and the business people in their area. It's not just about scoring a deal; it's also about friendship and looking out for each other. The only thing that marred this book for me was the blazing red neon sign hanging above the killer's head, and although that was a bit of a disappointment, I don't really care. McKinlay/Belle has created such a great cast of characters that I'm really looking forward to reading what they get into next."
"First Line: When Addie Clawson took the job of rural mail carrier, folks said it just wasn't right-- a woman doing a man's job.
Addie Clawson got her job in 1936 after earning one of the top three scores on the Civil Service exam, and it was only temporary through the good weather, you understand, because she was a woman. A woman wouldn't be able to handle the floods and snows of the mountains of North Carolina. Addie wore pants and made tongues wag as she drove her Model A Ford along the dirt roads and rode her horse through the really bad patches. She learned to bring along a shovel because she never knew when she'd have to dig herself out of the mud or clear out the snow down to the mailboxes. (Yes, I did mean down.)
Although this book is meant for young children, the text, the art, and the old photographs had me alternately smiling, laughing, or willing myself not to shed a tear. The only thing wrong with this book is the fact that it's too short! Addie Clawson was the type of woman about whom it's a Pure D joy to read. She was smart, she was feisty, she knew the meaning of hard work, she was brave, and she had a heart that would've put a bar of 24 karat gold to shame. (I also have the suspicion that she enjoyed making those strait-laced women's tongues wag, too.)
Addie Clawson worked that temporary job for the next thirty years because no one could do it better. It wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that more than a few of the rural residents of Watauga County shed tears on the day this exemplary woman retired.
"First Line: Deep within the murky, unlit darkness of the Caribbean waters skirting the northern tip of the Lesser Antilles, the stocky shadow of a catamaran powerboat rocked against a wooden pier off the tiny island of St. John.
For the past four years Penelope Hoffstra has been a resort manager on the island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Penelope knows firsthand that there's no such thing as a tropical paradise, so when one of the resort's employees is reported to be killed when a water taxi sinks off the coast, she's not surprised that all is not what it appears to be.
If you begin reading this book expecting it to be a run-of-the-mill cozy mystery, you're going to become confused rather quickly. Rebecca M. Hale has written something different, and if you're willing to go with the flow, chances are you're going to appreciate it just as much as I did.
The main character is one Penelope "Pen" Hoffstra, resident manager of a resort on St. John. From almost the very beginning, we learn that she's not what she appears to be. She leaves most of the work to her assistant Vivian to take care of while Pen drinks more than she should and spends her days either hanging out at the table back by the dumpster outside the Crunchy Carrot where Richard the rooster forages for French fries, or sitting on her balcony chatting with Fred the iguana. Actually Richard and Fred were two of my favorite characters in the book. For one thing neither of them pretended to be something they weren't.
Yes, there are plenty of people pretending to be someone else, and we hear from several of them because Pen isn't the only narrator in the book. Hale also includes bits of the history of the island throughout the book, including information about eighteenth-century slave rebellion, which is woven into the plot.
None of the characters are particularly likable in this book, but that didn't bother me much. Why? Because Hale had me wondering what in the world they were all up to, and I had to keep reading to find out the answers to all my questions. The only thing that did bother me a bit was that, in the second half of the book, the narrator changed back and forth so quickly that it sometimes took me a paragraph or two to get my bearings once more.
Off balance or not, I really enjoyed this foray into the unexpected, and I look forward to reading the next book in this series."
"First Line: I couldn't move, not even a little finger or a flicker of an eye.
It's Sports Day at Sidley House School. Grace Covey's eight-year-old son, Adam, has gone inside the school to bring out the birthday cake that he's sharing with his classmates while Jennifer, her seventeen-year-old daughter, is up on the third floor filling in for the school nurse. Grace has simply come to pick her children up at school, an ordinary, everyday task. But what began as a simple task turns into a nightmare when Grace looks up at the school and sees black smoke billowing out of the windows.
Sidley House School is on fire, and her children are inside.
"And then [Grace] was running at the velocity of a scream." As she comes to the school entrance, she sees that her son is outside and safe, but Jenny is still inside. Jenny needs her. And so Grace fights the heat and the smoke and the fear and the panic and the pain until she finds Jenny... but Grace doesn't have the strength to get them outside to safety. They are both rushed to the hospital. Grace has suffered severe head trauma, and Jenny has suffered bad burns and intense smoke inhalation.
This story is told by Grace as if she's talking to her husband, and she has quite the story to tell. You see, she and Jenny both have out-of-body experiences. They leave their battered bodies and follow their friends and loved ones. They hear what's being said, and although they can talk with each other, no one else can see or hear them. A lot is being said because what was originally a tragic fire is really arson, and it also seems as though someone wants to make sure that Jenny dies. Did she see the person who started the fire?
Grace's sister-in-law, Detective Sergeant Sarah MacBride, in many ways is the hero of this book. Her family has been dealt a devastating blow. Sarah wants to make sure that her family survives, and she goes about it the only way she knows how: by doing her job. Sarah proves to be tireless at tracking down witnesses, at searching for clues, at reading interview transcripts and teasing out tiny inconsistencies and peculiar word choices. She simply will not give up.
Although the ultimate ending of the book really comes as no surprise, I enjoyed Lupton's meticulous plotting of the investigation. This is the sort of case which relies on listening to how people say things as well as listening to what they don't say. It is a case of nuance and shadow. Taken simply as a mystery, this is an excellent read. But Grace Covey takes this book beyond mystery and whodunit. As she watches her husband and son, as she talks with Jenny, and as she follows Sarah, she learns what extraordinary people her family members are. She learns about herself. And she learns that "the last of the senses to go is love."
This is an extraordinary read that kept me mesmerized from first page to last-- often with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. If you have someone in your life whom you love more than life itself, you will also be deeply affected by this book. In her depth of characterization and psychological nuance, Rosamund Lupton reminds me of Louise Penny. Like Penny, Lupton can take subject matter that's profoundly sad and create something very beautiful and life-affirming. I was impressed by Lupton's first book, Sister. I am blown away by Afterwards."
"First Line: Today I moved to a twelve-acre rock covered with cement, topped with bird turd and surrounded by water.
It's 1935. Twelve-year-old Moose Flanagan has just moved to Alcatraz with his family, and he's not happy about it. Not one little bit:
"The convicts we have are the kind other prisons don't want. I never knew prisons could be picky, but I guess they can. You get to Alcatraz by being the worst of the worst. Unless you're me. I came here because my mother said I had to."
Moose's sister is autistic, and his mother's life revolves around the girl. They've moved to Alcatraz because his father got a better-paying job there that would allow them to send Natalie to a special school-- if they can get her accepted there.
Moose is a typical boy. He doesn't care all that much for school, and he loves playing baseball. Once they've moved to Alcatraz, Moose finds that his father is so busy picking up extra hours (and extra money) that he's too exhausted to spend time with his son. His mother has to take the boat to San Francisco every day so she can earn money needed for Natalie's schooling. Just as Moose begins to fit in with the other children on the island, Mrs. Flanagan's work hours increase, and Moose has to make sacrifices in order to take care of Natalie.
As I read this book, my heart bled for Moose. Everything in the Flanagan household revolved around Natalie and her needs. Natalie, Natalie, Natalie. No one paid attention to Moose unless he questioned the grown-ups' protocol, and then he got the kind of attention no child wants.
Choldenko's book is well-written and flows smoothly. I felt as though I were on Alcatraz during the Depression. The kids living on the island were kids: the warden's daughter was an up-and-coming con artist with her schemes to bring in some money; Moose's baseball playing buddies didn't hit a false note as they got used to their new player; and a six-year-old's explanation as to why a pregnant woman on the island needed to stay off her feet had me spluttering and cleaning tea off my monitor.
The most gratifying part of reading Al Capone Does My Shirts is the way Moose interacted with everyone and the way he began to grow up and see things through other people's eyes. Living with an autistic child is dealt with honestly, in part due to the fact that the author's sister was diagnosed with autism.
This is a book that both children and adults can enjoy. The period detail hits all the right notes, the pacing is sure and never flags, and the story is involving from first page to last. Choldenko's skill brings all these characters to life-- you commiserate with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and even try to solve their problems with them. Moose, Natalie and everyone else are real, and that's one of the best compliments I can give any author.
I've just heard about Choldenko's Al Capone Shines My Shoes. Anyone want to bet on whether or not I'll read it?"
"First Line: The county that stretches from Melbourne in the south to Sydney seven hundred and fifty miles up the coast is green with trees and paddocks.
If you're the type of reader who pays attention to the dedication page, once you've read the dedication in Albert of Adelaide, you'll know you're in for something a little different:
"It seems fitting to dedicate this book to an Australian soldier I met at a bar many years ago in Sydney. All I can remember about him was that he had a bad bayonet scar from service in Malaya and that he got me hopelessly lost on the New South Wales rail system before he passed out."
Albert is a platypus who was orphaned and brought to the Adelaide Zoo at a very young age. He's grown up remembering his childhood and listening to the tales of other zoo inhabitants about the "Old Australia," a place far away in the desert where nothing's changed since the beginning-- a place that's filled with freedom and peace for all animals. Tired of being stared at, laughed at, and called names, Albert begins hoarding grubs and filling a discarded soda bottle with water. One day someone's careless, and Albert makes his break for freedom, riding the rails as far as he can, until he finds himself lost in the desert. Undaunted, Albert trudges on, holding on to his dream of a place where he belongs.
What he finds is a bit more than he expected (and the reader, too, for that matter). Jack the wombat saves Albert, and it's not until they spend the night drinking and gambling in the mining town of Ponsby Station that Albert learns Jack is just a little too fond of matches. Accused of burning down the mercantile, the two run for their lives and split up as they enter dingo territory.
Albert goes on to make the acquaintance of a pair of drunken bandicoots, a militia of kangaroos, packs of dingoes, a former prize-fighting Tasmanian devil, and a raccoon straight off the boat from California. Every step of the way, Albert discovers that his "road less traveled" and the companions he finds are actually putting him on the path to finding out who he truly is.
I was entranced by this book. When I met the author in July, he said that the genesis of Albert of Adelaide began more than twenty years ago when he began telling bedtime stories to his then-girlfriend's five-year-old daughter. He didn't want these bedtime stories to be run-of-the-mill stuff, and I would've loved to have listened in. As it is, I fell in love with Albert, his journey, and the friends that he made. I don't listen to audio books, but I think that it would be the perfect format for this book. You're never too old-- or too young-- to hear Albert's story of adventure, friendship and self-realization."
"First Line: Rosie knew the stranger had come to kill her as soon as he walked into the circle of light cast by their fire.
Starting with an escape from a Siberian prison camp in 1937, Altar of Bones travels to the present day in a non-stop deadly quest for two items that several groups will stop at nothing to possess. San Francisco lawyer ZoŽ Dmitroff receives a letter from the grandmother she never knew telling her that she's the "keeper" of an ancient secret concerning a Siberian cave known as the Altar of Bones. At his father's death, government agent Ry O'Malley learns that the old man knew the location of a film that would rock the entire country. The two team up to stay alive and to get their hands on the secrets that others are killing to find.
This is the type of book that is difficult to review without giving things away, so I'm heading straight for my reactions. The first two thirds of the book was an endless chase scene involving our two intrepid heroes, and the fact that stealth was not in the bad guys' vocabularies bothered me a bit. These people were conducting high speed chases at all times of the day and night firing endless rounds of ammunition from an assortment of guns. They did not care how many witnesses were around or how high the body count was. (Perhaps they counted on local police departments' budgets being cut so drastically that there would be no investigations.)
I tired of the chase, primarily because of the psychotic conducting most of the chasing. At this stage of my life, my tolerance for fictional characters who love inflicting pain and death is practically nil. They turn my stomach, and they make me extremely angry. (I may seem to be a mild-mannered book blogger, but I do have a very nasty temper.)
I was also amazed at how lucky ZoŽ was. She headed to Europe, using her credit cards all along the way, and wondered how the bad guys always knew where she was. She may not watch much television or read much crime fiction, but she specializes in defending battered and abused women and getting them away from their boyfriends and husbands. She knows something about flying beneath the radar. The relationship between ZoŽ and Ry was inevitable and made parts of the book sound like an erotic romance. However, even though characterization is not the prime directive in a thriller, ZoŽ and Ry were well-drawn enough for me to care about what happened to them.
Even though I tired of the bad guys and the drawn-out chase scenes, I found that ZoŽ, Ry, and the dual prizes of the Altar of Bones and the film kept a grip on my imagination through to the end of the book. Hopefully the author's next thriller will contain a little less formula."
"First Line: Maisie Dobbs, Psychologist and Investigator, picked up her fountain pen to sign her name at the end of a final report that she and her associate, Billy Beale, had worked late to complete the night before.
It is Christmas Eve, 1931, in London, and Maisie Dobbs is walking down a city street. She sees a dirty, physically handicapped man sitting on the pavement, and there's something about the look on his face that makes her walk toward him to see if she can help.
The man detonates a bomb, killing himself and slightly wounding several others--including Maisie. In no time at all Maisie finds herself working with a special team out of Scotland Yard to discover the identity of a man who's sending very threatening letters to the Prime Minister. In a city filled with veterans of World War I who have been mentally disabled by their service but put out of hospitals with no pensions and no hopes of employment, Maisie is looking for a needle in a haystack. Somehow she manages to piece together a profile of the man sending the letters, but will they be able to find him before he carries out his threat?
The only writer outside of Jacqueline Winspear who I've found capable of putting me body and soul into this time period is Lyn Macdonald. Among the Mad can oftentimes be an upsetting book to read as Winspear describes a government which was completely comfortable using an entire generation of men as nothing but cannon fodder and then denying them the help, the employment and the pensions they so desperately needed--and earned. To a government that would say doing so would bankrupt the country, I would reply: hadn't the killing and maiming of hundreds of thousands of men already achieved that? As you can see, this book touched a nerve because history just keeps on repeating itself.
The time period isn't the real reason why I love these books, however. In fact, I have a friend who is also hooked on this series, and she doesn't care for the time period at all. You see, we both love Maisie Dobbs. In Among the Mad, the man writing those threatening letters explains it best:
"She showed care. That is all I have asked for, these many years, that people are concerned, and that in their actions, they demonstrate care. It occurred to me that the woman did not wait for someone else to approach Ian. She did not ignore him. She walked toward him without looking in another direction. I noticed that. I have come to notice that people do not look at the Ians of this world, but instead turn their heads here and there."
If you want to be immersed in another time, read Winspear's series. If you want to solve intriguing mysteries, read Winspear's series. If you want to read about a woman who cares deeply...read Winspear's series."
"First Line: It was four days before the bodies were discovered, by which time Mr. Cowper had begun to mottle.
I'm not quite sure what I expected when I began reading this book. A cozy little mystery involving an amateur sleuth in a picture postcard English village, I think.
I got a lot more than I bargained for.
Alison Akenside is the chief reporter for the Rutland Record. Unfortunately she lives in Nether Bowston, a village in which nothing ever happens. At the beginning of An English Murder, Alison is a compassionate young woman who wants her "big break" into the dailies of London. She feels sad when she realizes that she was in her garden tending her flowers while the bodies of her neighbors, Thomas and Edith Cowper, were lying in their home a few doors down.
Not only were the Cowpers murdered, but their teen aged daughter Gemma has gone missing, and Alison begins to think that this murder case is her ticket to London. If she can scoop everyone else, find Gemma and learn the identity of the murderer, she's a shoo-in for bigger and better things.
While Alison ponders how to win her brass ring, we learn about her background and that of the missing girl. We're also treated to a little history about Rutland, which in the 1970s had lost its county status and become a part of Leicestershire, only to regain it in the late 1990s:
"It was mentioned in the Domesday Book, she discovered-- which seemed very fin de siecle-- although at that time it was little more than a ditch on the way to Northumbria. It was always being bequeathed to people-- queens, dukes, mistresses-- as if the county and its people were an expensive lapdog."
But as we're learning more about Rutland and as we're learning about Gemma and Alison, the tone of the book subtly begins to shift. Something nasty, unpleasant and psychologically unbalanced begins to stir in Nether Bowston, and An English Murder turns into Cozy Noir.
Some people may not like Doughty's book, thinking that the plot is insubstantial and meanders off into nothingness. I was delighted by the shift and the unexpected depth toward the end. I was so concerned with looking for the crocodiles on the sandbanks that I felt completely safe wading into the water...where Doughty grabbed me with one snap of her jaws.
I am now looking for other books by Louise Doughty. I want to see if she can lead me astray once more."
"First Line: The post office box was eighteen across, twelve down, and it had a loop of wool wound around the door so Dr. Buagaew wouldn't miss it.
By this fourth book in the series, I feel as though I'm visiting old friends who are glad to see me on their doorstep. Dr. Siri, the septuagenarian national coroner of Laos, has to identify the victim of a traffic accident who is carrying a message written in invisible ink and in code. Deciphering the note reveals that the corpse was a blind dentist who was involved in a plot to overthrow the government. Dr. Siri isn't the only one wondering why on earth someone would send coded messages written in invisible ink to a blind man.
This series is such a winner because there are so many layers to the books. Yes, there are interesting mysteries, but there's so much more! Cotterill's characters are marvelous. Dr. Siri is a former soldier who spent many years of his life fighting for the Communist overthrow of Laos. The Communists have now been in control for two years, and he's monumentally underwhelmed by the government's results. Instead of becoming a sour old man, he's learned to focus on the people around him and to enjoy one of the prerogatives of old age: being a bit eccentric. Siri's morgue assistant, Mr. Geung, has Down's Syndrome, yet he is a valuable member of the team. Siri's nurse, Dtui, may look like a very happy "standing refrigerator", but she's extremely intelligent and observant. Although Siri would miss her sorely, he knows that she deserves better and he's been helping her try to get on the fast track. These are just three of the characters that make this series so special.
Along the path to finding out who's trying to overthrow the government, there are many scenes that made me laugh and warmed my heart. Siri, Dtui and a police officer friend named Phosy attend a funeral and want to give the departed a good send-off. As a result, they imbibe a bit too much rice wine....
"I feel like bathroom mold," Phosy said, his voice like a plow dragged over rocks....
Dtui was squeezing her own wrist. "I'm afraid there may be some blood left in my alcohol stream. We're medical personnel; we should know better. Stimulate my brain, someone, before it pickles. Give me a job."
And when Siri and his friend, Civilai, leave Vientiane to investigate the planned rebellion, the only transportation they can find is an old Jeep that has no brake fluid. It has a top speed "somewhere between walking and running with a stone in your shoe," and the only way you can stop it is by finding something soft to crash into. A vehicle like that can lend zest to any investigation.
By far the most heartwarming scene in Anarchy and Old Dogs is when Madame Daeng tells Siri of the young girl she taught to read. Anyone who loves to read is guaranteed to get a lump in the throat when reading that.
Although I do enjoy the mysteries in this series, that is not why I love reading them so much. Once I've closed the book on the last page of a Colin Cotterill mystery, I feel as though I've traveled back in time to visit a culture almost completely alien to my own. I come away from my visit knowing that I'm connected to that other culture by the common bonds of humanity... and by one of the best cast of characters to be found anywhere in fiction.
If you aren't acquainted with Dr. Siri, what's stopping you? As with all character-rich books, I would advise anyone who wants to try this series to start at the beginning with The Coroner's Lunch."
"First Line: Captain Westerman was in his cabin reading the letter from his wife for the fourth time when he heard the officer of the morning watch ring Six Bells.
It's 1781, and Harriet Westerman finds herself in London. Her husband, a ship's captain, has been very seriously injured while capturing a French vessel, and Harriet needs to be near him during his recuperation.
She and the reclusive anatomist Gabriel Crowther have become famous (or infamous) as amateur detectives for solving the mysteries of Thornleigh Hall, which occurred in the first book of the series, Instruments of Darkness. The British government requests their skills as detectives in investigating the death of a man whose body was pulled from the Thames. Harriet's presence at her husband's bedside is doing him no good. Since the doctor tells her to occupy her time in some other fashion-- and because "requests" from the government can seldom be ignored-- the team of Crowther and Westerman find themselves unraveling a plot filled with spies and betrayal.
Once again author Imogen Robertson immerses the reader in the England of the late eighteenth century. The setting, the time period, and the plot are all engrossing, but as with any high calibre mystery, the characters are what lift everything to a more lofty, enjoyable plane. We meet Harriet's husband, Harriet can now be seen as an anxious wife, and the hermit-like Gabriel Crowther is slowly becoming used to Harriet, her family, and just dealing with the general populace. (When you've avoided the public for years, it can take a while to get reacquainted.) Robertson's characters are anything but static and one-dimensional; things happen to them, they grow, and they change. Put this interesting cast in the middle of a genuinely puzzling investigation, and you experience a little bit of mystery reading nirvana.
If you're a fan of historical mysteries, strong characters, intriguing plots, and a rich, almost Dickensian setting, I'd advise you to read Imogen Robertson's Crowther and Westerman series."
"First Line: The headline catches Heloise's eye as she waits in the always-long line at the Starbucks closest to her son's middle school.
Heloise Lewis has spent most of her life avoiding attention. She lives in a comfortable suburb where very little is known about her. Ask anyone in the neighborhood and they'd probably tell you that she's a youngish widow with a beautifully mannered son, and that she's a lobbyist who always seems able to attend all her son's soccer games and school plays.
But almost all of that is a lie. Since the age of seventeen, Heloise has been a prostitute. When her pimp was imprisoned for murder, she changed her name and set herself up as a suburban madam. It's not only important for her work that she remain beneath everyone's radar, it's important for the life she's created for herself and her son. She's kept the boy a secret from his father, and even though she's visited the man twice a month in prison for over a decade, she's kept the boy a secret from his father.
But Heloise's rigidly compartmentalized life is beginning to unravel. Her accountant is asking questions that he shouldn't. One of her former employees is causing problems. Her protector is hinting at some sort of mysterious danger she should prepare herself for. Another suburban madam in the next county is an alleged suicide... and her son's father may be released from prison. The pimp/ murderer doesn't know he has a son, and he doesn't know that Heloise is the person who betrayed him.
This woman, who has no formal education, no real family, and no friends, must put an end to this life and create a brand-new one for herself and her son. Disappearing is the easy part. She's done it before, and she knows she can do it again. The difficult part will be staying alive long enough to begin the new life.
I have long been a fan of Laura Lippman's standalone novels. She has the knack of focusing on a character (whom I would find almost completely unlikable) and making her fascinating. She does the same thing here in And When She Was Good. I smiled at Lippman's choice of title. My mother used to recite this little poem to me when I was a very small child: "There was a little girl who had a little curl right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid." That immediately told me that Heloise, although capable of great good, is also capable of doing damage.
Superficially, the plot doesn't break new ground. A young girl with an abusive father runs away with the first male who pays her attention. Things go from bad to worse, and the young girl turns to a life of prostitution. Her pimp is a murderous control freak, but she manages to get away from him and make a comfortable life for herself and her son-- and of course her past refuses to stay in the past. Yes, the plot may very well sound familiar, but it's what Lippman does with that framework that makes the book so very good.
As one thing after another begins to go wrong in Heloise's very carefully crafted life, she is taken on a voyage of self-discovery. Gradually she comes to learn that, although she's always believed she was more sinned against than sinning, the exact opposite may well be true. It's only when she confronts the truth of the life she's led and the truth of what she's done that she has a real chance of breaking free from the past. Many of us may read this book and turn our noses up at Heloise, her life, and the choices she's made. But how many of us also need to confront the truth of our own lives?"
"First Line: For months afterwards, awake and asleep, Faraday dwelt on that final second and a half.
D.I. Joe Faraday is investigating the death of Helen Bassam, a fourteen-year-old girl who fell to her death from a Portsmouth tower block. When the body of a drug dealer is found hanging from a tree, the head of the Major Crimes Squad pulls in all the manpower he can get his hands on, and Faraday is scrambling to hang onto what little he's got.
The case sends Faraday directly into Portsmouth's bleak underworld of wrecked families and children cast adrift. On the trail of a ten-year-old boy who may hold the key piece of evidence in Helen's death, Faraday finds himself in the middle of a crisis much closer to home.
Graham Hurley is one of the best writers of police procedurals in the world today. He brings "Pompey" (Portsmouth, England) to life from the industrial sector to the enclaves of the rich, from the slums to a wide variety of non-human wildlife.
Joe Faraday is a single father whose deaf son has been a challenge to raise. To de-stress from fatherhood and crime, he goes for long walks to watch birds. (Every good copper has to have at least one thing to help him cope, eh?) But Faraday and the reader is never far away from the crime, and in this case-- which deals so closely with broken homes and children living on the streets-- the crime is often heartbreaking.
Hurley's series is one of my favorites, not just for the strong plots, but for the strong sense of place and a cast of multi-faceted, evolving characters. More interesting if read as a series, it's not necessary. Each book stands strongly on its own. One of these days I'm going to get my ex-Royal Navy husband (who was stationed in Portsmouth) to read one of these Joe Faraday novels. Something tells me he's going to enjoy them as much as I do."
"First Line: Intrigued by the commotion underneath the banana palm, Lucy curled her four-inch claws under her leathery pads and moved forward on her knuckles to investigate.
If Lucy, the pregnant Giant Anteater at the Gunn Zoo in central California, didn't kill the man found dead in her enclosure, who did? It's up to her keeper, Teddy Bentley, to find out before the anteater is shipped to another zoo in disgrace.
Before Teddy can really get started, another human bites the dust, the monkeys have a hissy fit, the wolves are in a tizzy, and the rich Harbor folks are trying to evict Teddy from her houseboat. Has Teddy got what it takes to save Lucy-- and herself?
I have long been a fan of Webb's series set right here in the Phoenix metropolitan area which feature P.I. Lena Jones. I also know that Webb can do humor after reading her blog entry about being left at a truck stop while on a book tour. When I learned that she was starting a new-- and cozier-- series featuring a zookeeper, I was eager to try it out.
Although The Anteater of Death features one of those characters I want to slap-- the Annoying Mother-- I really enjoyed the book. Teddy has a good sense of humor that made me laugh out loud more than once, she truly cares for animals, she deals as best she can with The Mother, and she has good instincts on how to conduct an investigation:
"Since I couldn't seem to find any actual clues, the solution to the mystery might be found in behavior. For all their purported brainpower, people are still animals. Deny them food, exercise, or sex, and they get cranky. Threaten them and they become downright dangerous."
Although the Bad Guy should've been obvious to me, the reveal came as a surprise-- mostly because the book was filled with attention grabbers, both two- and four-legged. This isn't called a "Gunn Zoo mystery" for nothing. Animals do play significant roles in the book, so if you're allergic, this may not be the book-- or the series-- for you. I loved the plot, the setting, most of the characters, and all the animals."
Lily and Robert Brewster enjoyed being members of the idle rich, until their father lost everything in the crash of 1929. Now they're part of the disillusioned poor and very tired of scrimping and saving for every crust of bread. At first they jump for joy when they are told that an uncle has died and left them a Hudson River mansion. They jump higher when they're told that a fortune goes with the mansion. They stop jumping when they learn that they have to live in the mansion for ten years before they can get their hands on a penny of the money.
They pack their bags and arrive at their new home, which they swiftly name Grace and Favor Cottage. They're settling in and getting to know the people in the area when they discover that their uncle was murdered aboard his yacht during a storm. Since Lily and Robert inherited the money, they are now suspects, and when another body turns up in the kitchen of Grace and Favor, they know they have to be the ones to clear their names.
This was a pleasant little read that moved right along. I liked the time period and the Hudson River setting, and Lily and Robert were fun characters who provided a laugh or two along the way. However, the villain was not difficult to spot, and I didn't find Lily and Robert as engaging as I thought I would. Probably because this poor kid has an innate suspicion of rich kids. (I have to admit to a bit of a smirk when Lily moaned about her awful job and working conditions. Poor baby.)
I don't think this is a series that I'll continue to read, but I can certainly see where it would be a favorite of many other readers of cozy mysteries. If you like the time period and are in the mood for a pleasant afternoon's mystery, you could certainly do a lot worse than picking up Anything Goes."