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), 13½ 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.
The first word I would use to describe Maggie is "Mom." And since she's a professional organizer, the second word would be "organized." With a dead man in the basement and their new home being targeted for unknown reasons, she's still got to get stuff unpacked and her two sons as settled as is humanly possible. In between errands and trips back and forth to the boys' schools, Maggie makes the time and effort to get acquainted with her neighbors. This is when readers learn that Mary Feliz has created a multi-faceted cast that should work well in a long-running series (as I hope this will be). The author has also written a strong mystery with a fine sense of misdirection that kept me guessing throughout.
There are a lot of things that happen to Maggie's new home. A lot. Each chapter begins with a quote from her own professional organizing business, and these quotes make sense-- especially the ones that advise people to know when to ask for help. I only had one problem with Maggie asking for help. All those things that happen to Maggie's house need fixing. Many of them could be done by homeowners with time and varying amounts of elbow grease. With Max gone and all these crazy things going on, Maggie didn't have time so she pulled out her checkbook and had other people take care of everything. Why did I have a problem with that? Because most of us don't have checkbooks that can withstand one expensive hit after another. (Okay, color me envious and call it a day!)
And once you've called it a day, you'll find that I really enjoyed Address to Die For. I want to see that house get finished. I want to see how Maggie solves more mysteries once Max is back in town-- I already know she can take care of things on her own. I want to see her get her business up and running (because "organized" is a word that most people use to describe me). I like Mary Feliz's mystery and her characters, and I'll definitely be back for more!
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.
Rebecca M. Hale's Afoot on St. Croix is even better than the first book in the series, Adrift on St. John. Who can beat the setting? Beautiful islands in the Caribbean... sea, sand, sky, lush tropical foliage. That alone is worth the price of admission, but to the setting Hale adds bits of island history and legend, and a cast of quirky characters who aren't always what they seem.
Afoot on St. Croix is the best sort of puzzle to work because of that cast of characters. Charlie's daughter Jessie loves to terrorize her younger brother with stories about the Goat Foot Woman, but the more you read the more you wonder if those are all just stories. All stories have some foundation in truth... don't they? Charlie's wife Mira, an Italian opera singer and his two dachshunds, the old woman Gedda and her shopping cart; most of these characters start out looking a bit like caricatures, but Hale certainly doesn't let them stay that way. I found it fascinating to discover how all the pieces of this puzzle fit together, and am looking forward to my next trip back to the Caribbean.
I've heard some good things about Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver series over the years, and since I love Scotland and that period of time, I thought it was time to give the first book in the series a try. I've read many books about World War I and the years leading up to the conflict as well as its aftermath. The prologue of After the Armistice Ball immediately wove its spell and took me right to that time when the fighting was finished, and people were taking their first tentative steps in a brand-new world. I also fell in love with Dandy Gilver and her slightly arch, slightly sarcastic, sense of humor. Her husband is a paragon of predictability, and I had fun watching Dandy as she plotted how to take her little investigative tours with spouse Hugh being none the wiser.
The mystery of the diamonds and the murder is a true puzzler, and Dandy definitely needs the help of Alec Osborne, fiance of Cara Duffy. There are real diamonds, there are fake diamonds, there are false trails, and people aren't always whom they seem to be. I joined Dandy in confusion on more than one occasion. However, one thing about this book drove me up the wall and across the ceiling: how Dandy and Alec came to solve the crime. How? By endless talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. And when these two weren't rehashing everything for the millionth time, Dandy was think, think, think, think, thinking about it. This book told me that I need a bit more action in my mysteries, and it reminded me of something else.
As a rule, I don't read Golden Age mysteries because I don't enjoy them-- especially if the crime solver is a female. Most females of the era don't have unlimited travel privileges. They have a few opportunities to see, observe, and question, and then they must retire to their parlors to ponder everything over endless cups of tea. After the Armistice Ball is written in the style of one of these classic Golden Age mysteries. If you read them and enjoy them, you're going to love Dandy Gilver. Unfortunately, although I enjoy Dandy Gilver, Golden Age mysteries just are not my cup of Darjeeling.
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.
The Age of Doubt is one of Andrea Camilleri's most enjoyable mysteries featuring the irascible Inspector Salvo Montalbano. Someone successfully cons him which simultaneously alarms and amuses him. He has a tough time identifying the dead man brought in on the yacht. And a good mind for geography is needed to piece together what those two vessels are doing in the harbor at Vigáta. It's all enough to make Montalbano doubt his abilities-- especially when he starts speaking in clichés.
The book also has Camilleri's trademark humor that can easily have me laughing out loud, as in scenes when Montalbano is desperately trying to get something done and no one cooperates. One can never say enough about Stephen Sartarelli's superb translations of these books, and the food? When's the next plane to Sicily-- I'm starving! There was only one small blighted spot in The Age of Doubt concerning something that is expected of Montalbano's married detective, but it's not about to spoil my enjoyment of wonderful series. Long live Salvo Montabano!
P.F. Chisholm's series has consistently ranked as one of my favorites in the historical mystery genre, and I'm thrilled to see Sir Robert Carey back in print. She brings Elizabethan England to life in all its intrigues, sights, sounds, and smells-- so much so that once you've stopped reading, it can be difficult to bring yourself back into the correct century. An Air of Treason also has her light touch of humor that I enjoy so much. Poor Sergeant Dodd is a Northerner through and through, and the problems he has in just being understood so far south can be quite funny. As a stranger to the area himself, Dodd is our window into the south of England in the sixteenth century.
Sir Robert Carey with his royal connections is our window into the court of Elizabeth I. He's a clothes horse and a ladies man, but he's no fool and very brave. His investigation takes him to Cumnor Place where Amy Dudley died. Since the woman's death, the manor house has been allowed to crumble slowly into the ground, and this is where Chisholm shows us that she can also write scenes that are spooky enough to make the hair stand on the back of your neck.
Carey's solution to Amy Dudley's death is a very interesting and satisfying one, and by book's end you'll see that a thread or two has been left dangling, ready to be picked up again in the next book. Although one book runs smoothly into the next in this series, it's not necessary for you to read them all in order for them to make sense... or for you to enjoy An Air of Treason. However, I wouldn't be at all surprised if historical mystery lovers found themselves reading this book and then looking for the rest. I highly recommend them!
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.
Alafair Tucker has been likened to Ma Joad in Steinbeck's classic, The Grapes of Wrath. In many ways that is a perfect description, and if she is Ma Joad, her brother Rob is Tom Joad. America's entry into World War I seemingly brings all the world's problems right to the doorstep of small Boynton, Oklahoma, and as author Donis Casey describes the world Alafair Tucker and her family are living in, readers are reminded that things really haven't changed all that much in a century.
One of the things that is so much fun in reading this series is the expansion of the Tucker clan. Alafair's ten children are growing up. The little ones are developing their own personalities. The older ones are getting jobs, moving away from home, marrying, and having children. All this growth and all this change certainly widens the series' perspective, but everything is still filtered through Alafair's eyes.
In All Men Fear Me (a phrase taken from a World War I propaganda poster), there's an older man named Nick who wears a bowler hat and loves to lurk in the shadows to overhear conversations and watch people. He made chills run down my spine. Nick almost seemed imbued with a supernatural evil. Notice I said "almost." He's not the only well-delineated character in the book. Each of the various factions in Boynton have their representatives, and Casey does an excellent job at bringing them to life. I have to admit to a preference for Emmanuel Clover, an officious little man who's a stickler for the tiniest of rules. He's the type of man born to spike your blood pressure. Mr. Clover loves his daughter Forsythia Lily dearly, and for some reason that girl's name gave me a fit of the giggles each time I saw it.
Sixteen-year-old Charlie gets a lot of the focus in this book, and that young man is a corker. He's full of spit and vinegar and at that age where he's just dying to have an adventure. As a matter of fact it's Charlie who gets to conduct a lion's share of the investigating here-- and it certainly brings out the Mama Bear in Alafair.
Donis Casey's Alafair Tucker series started out very good (The Old Buzzard Had It Coming) and just keeps getting better and better. I feel that I know what life on a farm in Oklahoma at the turn of the twentieth century was like. I now also have a good idea of how the area fits in with the rest of the country in terms of things like culture and politics. I've come to care about each and every member of the Tucker clan, and I'd no more miss a book in this series than I'd stop liking lasagna. If you're in the mood for an excellent historical mystery series, let me introduce you to Alafair Tucker. She's one farmer's wife who knows how to make lighter-than-air biscuits while she's solving the mysteries that cross her path.
This fifth book in Spencer-Fleming's excellent series satisfies on so many levels. It raises some very thoughtful questions about relationships and morality in today's world while telling a story that's full of emotion and misdirection. The gossipmongers of small town Millers Kill are perfectly portrayed, and their interference raises the tension of this fast-paced tale.
As always, the two main characters continue to evolve. In All Mortal Flesh, Russ and Clare aren't quite as strong and capable as they've been in previous books. Clare seems almost frozen in despair, especially when the church hierarchy sends a deacon to oversee the behavior of their problem priest. Russ is almost brought to his knees by the death of his wife, numb with grief and regret, and reacting like a little boy when his mother arrives at the crime scene-- "short and squat and beautiful." Even Clare needs some of Margy Van Alstyne's quiet, no-nonsense strength, and when she soaks in the atmosphere of the older woman's kitchen, she realizes that it feels like her own grandmother's: "Like you had rounded all the bases and come home safe." Being able to see these two strong people when they're not at their best brings added depth to the story and to the series as a whole.
At times the plot seems a bit over-the-top and almost soap opera-ish, but I've grown so attached to these characters that I had no trouble suspending my disbelief. Spencer-Fleming employs some of the best misdirection to be found, and although one of the red herrings didn't throw me off the scent, I was annoyed that I did indeed inhale one of the oldest fish in the trade. Shame on me. Ah well, I'm going to chalk my mistake up to the fact that I was immersed in the story, and practically blind and deaf to the world around me. All Mortal Flesh ends in a heart-breaking cliffhanger that makes me want to pick up the next book and dive right in. In this series, the characters' lives mirror the real world. Everything is not wrapped up and tied with shiny bows. This fictional world is every bit as messy as our own lives, and Julia Spencer-Fleming has made me care deeply about what happens to Russ and Clare.
There are three big questions in All Sales Final: (1) Why's Maggie dragging her feet over this wedding? (2) Who's the skeleton in the basement and who killed him? and (3) What's up with Maggie's arch enemy, Summer? Author Josie Belle (AKA Jenn McKinlay) answers them all in fine-- if a bit rushed-- style.
Any woman who's marrying at Maggie's age is going to have some emotional baggage and some serious doubts, and McKinlay deals with these issues in a sensitive, understanding manner that fits the characters of both Maggie and Sam. A good deal of the humor in this book revolves around Maggie's enemy- since-high-school, Summer-- a character that I always found a bit over-the-top. Summer undergoes a bit of a transformation in All Sales Final that I found not only funny but believable.
I mentioned above that I felt this book was a bit rushed. Several elements could have been developed more fully, but part of me understands why they weren't. This is-- sadly-- the last Good Buy Girls mystery, and fleshing out new characters or developing certain plot threads more fully would not stamp THE END on the story of Maggie and her friends.
This entire series has not only been about good mysteries and good fun, it's been a wonderful celebration of friendship. I've laughed, cried, and just plain felt good reading about the lives of these characters, and I will sincerely miss them. The Good Buy Girls mysteries form one of my favorite cozy mystery series, and I know I'm not alone in feeling that way.
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 Zoë 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 Zoë 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 Zoë 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, Zoë 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 Zoë, 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.