Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Intrigue Front and Backstage




A HOWL OF WOLVES
Sam Clair # 4
Judith Flanders
St. Martin's Minotaur
May 15, 2018


Sam Clair finds herself knee-deep in backstage intrigue when she and her boyfriend, a Scotland Yard detective attend a West End play, staged by famous director Campbell Davison. Her upstairs neighbors, Kay and Anthony, have small parts. Even their six-year-old, Bim, has a role in the play. Sam knows that the theater piece is called The Spanish Tragedy and is replete with gore, death, and revenge. The play more than lives up to its reputation when the final body is displayed, suspended from the rafters. The body is not a dummy, but the famous director himself. Campbell Davison was not universally loved, but who among the cast and crew might have hated him so much?

I always look forward to a new Sam Clair mystery. She is a bright and witty book editor in London and a grown-up in her mid-forties. Part of the series' enjoyment is Sam's somewhat jaded view of the publishing industry with its never-ending meetings, sales conferences, and maneuvering for position. The other attractions include the ongoing characters: Kay and Anthony, their son Bim, Jake the detective boyfriend, Sam's terrifyingly efficient mother, Helena, and Sam's other neighbor, the reclusive Mr. Rudiger. A Howl of Wolves is perhaps not as laugh-out-loud funny as some of the earlier books but still a fun and engaging read.

RATING-3.5 Stars





Friday, July 6, 2018

Some Things Never Change....





THE RIGHT JACK (Sigrid Harald # 4)
Margaret Maron
Oconee Spirit Press
May 1, 2013 (originally published 1987)

Lt. Sigrid Harald becomes involved in an investigation of a bombing at a cribbage tournament held in a posh NY boutique hotel. Her partner, Detective Tilden, "Tillie," was competing in the tournament and was severely injured. Further complicating matters, Sigrid was badly hurt the same evening taking down a serial rapist. She wants to handle the investigation herself, but since a US Naval Commander is also among the injured, the Navy sends in an assistant. Her look into the lives of the dead and living victims sends her way back to the days of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen, an era that I remember very well. 

All the elements that I have enjoyed in Margaret Maron's novels are on full display here; vivid characters, a sense of place and time, and a complicated heroine. It's clear Maron knows and loves NYC as she does her home state of North Carolina in the Deborah Knott series. The Sigrid Harald series was written back in the 80's and 90's and has not been updated. That means no DNA, nationwide databases, and communicating by landlines and payphones. Sigrid solves crime by pure digging and putting the pieces together. Somehow they remain timely, however. I was particularly struck by the following passage:

"When villages full of babies were carpet-bombed in Vietnam, where were the right-to-lifers? When babies starve all over Africa, when babies go hungry in our own rat-infested slums, where are all these so-called life-lovers? They care nothing about the quality of life once a baby's born, just that it gets born. They're so sure God's on their side!"

Some things never seem to change. But Sigrid herself is changing, building a support network and family of sorts, sometimes in spite of herself. I started reading the Sigrid Harald series quite a while back and somehow lost track of it but will be reading more. Especially since Maron has declared her most recent book, Take Out, also featuring Sigrid, to be her last.


RATING- 4.5 Stars

Thursday, June 28, 2018

One Disastrous Decision





MARKED (Alex Verus #9)

Benedict Jacka
Orbit Books
July 3, 2018



Marked hits the ground running with Alex Verus leading a Keeper retrieval team in search of magically imbued items lost in the disastrous raid on the Light Council Vault in Bound. Of the two orchestrators of the attack, Morden is in prison awaiting trial for treason and Richard Drakh is at liberty. As Morden's aide, Alex now has a precarious seat on the Junior Council. Alex has as many enemies as ever, some who want to use his skills as a Diviner Mage, and others who just want him dead. As usual, Alex is walking a tightrope with his survival and that of his core of close allies his primary goal. When the Council wants him to negotiate with Morden to capture Drakh, his survival becomes even more precarious. The only solution that Alex can see is to amass more personal power. Especially since it is now clear that Drakh's primary interest in Alex is in gaining control of Anne, his ally, and a powerful Life Mage. Alex's interest in Anne is more than friendship, something that has been obvious to everyone but him.

The series has a very long story arc, stemming from Alex's disastrous decision as a young man to apprentice to the Dark Mage, Richard Drakh. Revolted by Drakh, Alex escaped from him, but as a result, very few Light Mages will ever trust him. Alex kept a low profile as a shopkeeper in London for several years, but his enemies drove him out and destroyed the shop. He and his core allies have been bouncing from one crisis to the next, but Alex has done his best to keep them safe. The Dark Mages are a horrendous bunch, but The Light Mages aren't much better; arrogant, hidebound and addicted to playing political games. They see Alex as a convenient tool, but one not to be trusted.

Benedict Jacka's excellent series is an impressive sustained feat of storytelling and imagination. The world he has created is endlessly fascinating, peopled with likable characters as well as those we love to hate. Alex himself is continually evolving, becoming more hardened, as well as more crafty. He is perhaps not as likable as the young man we first met, but circumstances have demanded a change. Marked ends on a somewhat more positive note than some of the previous novels, but stay tuned.

I highly recommend the Alex Verus series and would start with the first in the series, Fated. It's possible to read Marked without all the background, but why miss out? Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4 Stars 


Monday, June 25, 2018

Ripples Below the Placid Surface of a Maine Summer





BIMINI TWIST
Jane Bunker # 4
Linda Greenlaw
St. Martin's Minotaur
June 26, 2018


Jane Bunker has been a massive success since moving to Green Haven, Maine at what she loves to do. Namely, catch drug dealers and disrupt the drug pipeline that has hurt so many Mainers. However, the town fathers think she has been a bit too successful and want her to scale back her efforts. They are afraid the summer people won't want to come if there is so much publicity about drug busts. Deputy  Bunker has been relegated to other incidents. Her first is the disappearance of a foreign worker at a local spa. The girl's roommate is distraught, but Jane thinks she is just shacked up with a boyfriend. After all, missing teenagers usually turn up in her experience. Jane's investigation leads her to a cruise ship anchored off Bar Harbor. The ship's personnel are less than co-operative, and since it is chartered in Bimini, she has no jurisdiction without a warrant. Complicating matters are the ongoing feuds over territory and gear among the local lobstermen which have escalated dramatically. Bimini Twist is twisty indeed, with another disappearance, several murders, and an attack on Jane herself. There is a lot more going on here than one missing girl.

I enjoy the Jane Bunker mysteries for the Maine setting and characters. Jane's landlords, the Vickersons, treat her and her Downs Syndrome brother, Wally, like family and she has made other friends as well. Without them, Jane would be entirely consumed by her work. She has almost no personal life, but that may be changing with the introduction of a new character and the possibility of romance. Thanks to Minotaur and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. The opinions are my own.

RATING-3 Stars

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A No-Nonsense Heroine with a Soft Center




SCANDAL ABOVE STAIRS
A Kat Holloway Mystery # 2
Jennifer Ashley
Berkley Books
July 3, 2018


Intrepid Victorian cook Kat Holloway is drawn into a second investigation; this time occurring among the aristocracy "above stairs."  The young woman of the house where Kat works, Lady Cynthia, is very concerned about a close friend. Valuable paintings have gone missing in the friend's house, and her husband is blaming her for it. The friend has a gambling problem, and the husband thinks she has sold them to cover the debts. Lady Cynthia wants Kat to help clear her. While visiting the friend's home, Kat discovers that there have been several houses where other objet d'art have been stolen, as well as valuable museum-grade antiquities. It is no surprise that the enigmatic Daniel McAdam is involved in some way in the investigation of the antiquity thefts. In this second full-length novel, a few of the layers of Daniel McAdam are peeled away, and an appealing new character is introduced; Tess, Kat's new assistant in the kitchen. Tess has her secrets, just as Kat and Daniel do, but she has promise, both in the kitchen and out. The investigation proceeds at a somewhat leisurely pace this time with many twists and turns. 

The Kat Holloway Mysteries are well researched and populated with likable characters. Kat has carved out a place for herself in the world despite coming from humble circumstances. She is so accomplished in her career that she is free from the fear of losing her job and is granted much agency by her employers. She knows that she can find another position with no problem. It is fascinating to see just how much work was involved in running a Victorian kitchen and producing the large multi-course meals the aristocracy demanded. Kat is intelligent, no-nonsense, but has a soft center. 

Thanks to FIrst to Read for an advance digital copy of Scandal Above Stairs. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries with a dash of romance.

RATING- 4 Stars




Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Beneath the Surface





SOMETHING IN THE WATER
Catherine Steadman
Ballantine Books
June 5, 2018




Mark and Erin have what appears to be a perfect life; madly in love, together four years and proud owners of a beautiful home. Their upcoming lavish wedding and three-week honeymoon at a five-star resort in Bora Bora will be the icing on the cake, right? Cracks begin to appear when Mark, a previously successful London investment banker loses his job and can't find another. Meanwhile, Erin's career as a documentary film-maker is on the upswing. She has secured funding for a documentary following three prisoners who are due for release. One of the prisoners, Eddie, is an old-style London gangster who is a legend. Erin's interviews with the charming and charismatic Eddie will just about guarantee success for the project. The couple agrees to downscale the wedding and shorten the honeymoon, not without some rancor coming to the surface. The honeymoon is idyllic until they are scuba diving and find "something in the water," something that will lead to a terrible decision, followed by more bad decisions and reckless behavior. Erin, in particular, begins to rely on Eddie, still in prison, for advice and help.

I am not going to say much more about the plot because Something in the Water is so plot-driven. Steadman does not neglect character development in the pursuit of the plot, however. All of the characters, from Mark to Eddie, and the two other prisoners featured in the documentary, to family and friends are well fleshed-out. However, Erin is the first-person narrator, and we get to know her the best. Something in the Water is an extraordinary debut novel with a prologue that grabbed me from the first sentences. There was a loose end or two at the end, but perhaps they could have no answers.

Thanks to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for an advance digital copy. I look forward to more of Catherine Steadman's work in the future. The opinions are my own.

RATING- 4.5 Stars

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Working Woman in WWII




LOUISE'S WAR  
Sarah R. Shaber
Severn House Publishing
January 1, 2011


Louise's War is the first in a six-book series from North Carolina author, Sarah R. Shaber. The "Louise" of the title is Louise Pearlie, a young widow from North Carolina who left home to work as a file clerk at the OSS, precursor of today's CIA in Washington, DC. Louise has been concerned about a college friend, a young Jewish woman living in France. When Louise runs across a document concerning the friend's husband, she becomes determined to get her and her family out. The husband has skills that America can use in the war effort. She enlists the help of a colleague, but he is murdered, and the document goes missing. Louse is determined to uncover the murderer, but more importantly, get her friend out. In doing so, she meets some rough customers and gets into danger herself.

I had a particular interest in this series because my own mother was roughly the same age in North Carolina in 1942. She was not a widow but had a young husband already enlisted in the Marines at the time. The war years always seemed very present to her, even long after. Shaber has done her research on the period and setting, evoking a steamy and muggy summer DC. The attitudes and limitations towards being a working woman at the time are an essential part of the novel. We have come a very long way, but there is still a long way to go! I did find the ending a bit rushed, but perhaps the government moved more quickly in wartime.

I received an audiobook version of Louise's War courtesy of the author. The opinions are my own. 

RATING- 4 Stars