Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Unknown Culture in an Alien Landscape

WHITE HEAT (Edie Kiglatuk #1)
M. J. McGrath
Viking Adult
August 2011

I was looking around hoopla for something to download and listen to while working on an extended project; a project requiring little or no actual thought. White Heat popped up and since it was narrated by one of my favorite narrators, Kate Reading, I thought I would give it a try. Little did I know that White Heat would be one of those books that remind me just why I love to read. Books offer me the opportunity to immerse myself in the culture of a place that I will never visit. White Heat is set in the Canadian High Arctic region among the Inuit People. Edie Kiglatuk is a half-Inuit, half-Caucasian part time teacher and hunting guide. She is divorced, a recovering alcoholic and an accomplished hunter who is not not quite accepted in the community. Not accepted, even though she has lived there all her life. White Heat opens with Edie leading a hunting trip for two men from the US, men that she doesn't much like. The trip goes as bad as it can get when one of the men is shot and a blizzard sets in. Shortly afterward Edie loses someone to suicide who is very dear to her; she is convinced that the two events are related but community leaders are anxious to shove it all under the rug.

I have to admit to almost total ignorance of the Inuit culture and the people who live in such a cold, dark, alien and deadly place. McGrath has the power to paint a vivid picture through her words of both landscape and people. Like most indigenous people in places where the white man rules, the Inuit have more than their fair share of poverty, drug and alcohol abuse and despair; all of which play a part in the story of Edie's quest for the truth. Edie is a pint-sized, resourceful dynamo who is as stubborn as they come. She does get some help from her friend, policeman Derek Palliser, but precious little from anyone else, especially her no-good ex-husband.

There are so many things that I enjoyed about White Heat; the descriptions of place and culture, the full-bodied secondary characters and of course Edie herself. I did feel that the mystery at the heart of Edie's quest for the truth was overly convoluted. McGrath gets bogged down at times with minute accounts of Edie's every action and thought. Edie is extremely competent but reckless and seems to get out of tight spots with sheer luck on several occasions. Those are the only quibbles I have but keep me from giving a full 5 Star rating. I would recommend White Heat to mystery fans, especially those looking for something a little different.

RATING- 4 Stars

Friday, January 23, 2015

Murder in the Great North Woods

Sarah Graves
Bantam Books
January 2015

I first discovered Sarah Graves' Home Repair is Homicide series when I received a galley for the most recent in that seris, A Bat in the Belfry. As a long-time Maine "summer complaint" I was surprised that I had not seen the series before and enjoyed it. I have since read my way through the series and looked forward to the new one featuring Lizzie Snow, the tough homicide cop we met in A Bat in the Belfry. 

Lizzie is in the Boston PD when she receives word of a sighting of her long-lost niece, Nicki. Lizzie's sister's body was discovered about eight years before in Maine and the child has been missing ever since. The trouble is that news of the sighting came from the ex-homicide cop who broke her heart, Dylan Hudson. Lizzie is not quite sure whether to trust him but feels that it might be her last chance to find the child. She takes an assistant deputy job in remote Bearkill, Maine and plans to search for Nicki. Meanwhile, Sheriff Cody Chevrier has his own ulterior motive for hiring Lizzie. There has been a string of deaths of ex-cops, all ruled accidents or suicides, but Cody believes that they are murders. He needs an experienced murder cop to help him prove it.

There is a whole lot going on under the surface of Bearkill, Maine. Drug trafficking, murder, kidnapping, and stalking all happen in this little town. But no one is willing to talk about any of it. Lizzie is immensely likable, tough and plain-spoken but kind underneath. The supporting characters, both good and bad, leap off the the page and the Great Northern Woods form a brooding backdrop. I thought that some of the threads came together a little too easily at the end of the book but I am looking forward to the sequel. Sarah Graves has really upped her game in Winter at the Door.

RATING-4.5 Stars

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Long Awaited Adventure in Japan for Russell and Holmes

DREAMING SPIES: Russell and Holmes
Laurie R. King
Bantam Books
February 2015                  

Readers of the Russell and Holmes series have been waiting for a long time for Dreaming Spies. Alluded to often in other books it covers their adventures in Japan and falls chronologically between The Game and Locked Rooms. Leaving Bombay en route to San Francisco where Mary has long neglected family business to attend to, the pair boards ship and plans to stop in Japan. As soon as arriving on the ship Holmes sees a fellow passenger board with whom he has unfinished business. Lord Darley is an Earl, but Holmes is convinced that he is also a blackmailer. Holmes despises blackmailers more than any other criminal and wants to find out what he is up to in Japan. Mary befriends a young Japanese woman who is clearly not what she seems; and a passenger disappears on the first day of the voyage. What does Lord Darley have to do with the disappearance and just who is the Japanese woman? 

One of the pleasures of the Russell and Holmes series is the in-depth research Laurie King obviously does for each of the novels. By the end of the book I felt I had a mini immersion into Japanese culture and history, especially that of the Samurai caste. While not as good (at least to me) in this regard as Oh Jerusalem, the descriptions of the landscape and people of 1925 Japan gave me a better understanding of a culture that is so alien to my own. I also found out that 24 days on a passenger ship would probably drive me mad! The events of the voyage were necessary to set up the rest of the the novel but seemed interminable at times. The journey of the two disguised as Buddhist Pilgrims in Japan was much more interesting and entertaining.

I did not feel that Dreaming Spies was the best of the Russell and Holmes adventures but I still recommend it to readers of both historical fiction and mystery. Time spent with the intrepid pair is never time wasted.  Thanks to Bantam and for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 4 Stars

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gripping Historical Novel of America's First Recorded Murder Trial

Eve Karlin
Random House Alibi
January 13, 2015

Eve Karlin's debut novel, City of Liars and Thieves, takes us back to New York City at the turn of the 19th century, the winter of 1799-1800. Quakers Catherine and Elias Ring are recent transplants from up the Hudson and are waiting at the docks for Catherine's cousin, Elma Sands, to arrive. Elias has opened a store with accommodations upstairs. He plans to take in boarders until the store becomes a success. It's clear that Elias is not enthusiastic about Elma coming to live with them but the cousins have been close since childhood. Elma's background is unfortunate and Catherine is determined to give her cousin a chance for a new life.

The New York City of the day is yellow fever-ridden, fire prone and suffers from a chronic shortage of water. It is just the sort of situation that the unscrupulous love to capitalize on and when Elma runs afoul of rich and powerful men involved a plot to defraud the city in a scheme to build a water system tragedy is inevitable. Elma leaves the Ring home, saying that she is going to be married to Levi Weeks, brother of one of the powerful men of the city and fellow boarder. Several days later she is found, beaten and drowned in the bottom of the "Manhattan Well", one of the fraudulent wells. Her lover is arrested and the first recorded murder trial in the United State ensues. Weeks is defended by none other than the team of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The trial itself foreshadows the sort of "celebrity" trial that we see today with fierce partisans on both sides, victim blaming and unequal justice for the poor when up against the rich. 

City of Liars and Thieves is a fictional reconstruction of a real murder case, meticulously researched and entirely plausible. One can almost smell the noxious odors of the city filled with filth and squalor. The first person telling by Catherine Ring makes the tragedy immediate and almost unbearable at times. Not only does she lose her much loved cousin but her trust in her husband, her fellow man and almost, her Quaker faith. The author's notes on the history of the case are as compelling as the novel itself. I highly recommend City of Liars and Thieves to readers of historical fiction and crime fiction. I don't know whether Levi Weeks really did kill Elma but I won't soon forget her story.

Thanks to Random House Alibi and for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 5 Stars

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Who would kill Simple Stevie?

DEAD SIMPLE (Dylan Scott #8)
Shirley Wells
Carina Press
January 5, 2015

Dylan, still reeling from the death of his wife, is letting the investigation agency slide and drinking way too much. If it were not for his new assistant, the feisty Bobby, and his aging hippy mother his entire life would be in shambles. As much as he loves his kids he just doesn't seem to have the will to pick up the pieces. But when his former Met supervisor and friend, Frank, calls to tell him that someone has murdered Stevie "Simple Stevie" Greenwood, Dylan heads back north to Dawson's Clough to investigate. Stevie, injured as a small child in an auto accident and mentally impaired, could not possibly have or know anything that could get him killed. Stevie helped Dylan solve his first case as a PI and Dylan wants to find out who could possibly want him dead. It turns out that quite a few people could want Stevie dead and as usual things aren't what they seem in Dawson's Clough. By the time Dylan gets it all sorted out even his family is menaced by the case.

I am always happy when a new Dylan Scott mystery comes out. The series has become one of my favorites. Dylan is a flawed but thoroughly decent man who will do whatever it takes to solve the case. I would recommend the Dylan Scott series to any fan of British mysteries who enjoys good characterization and a well-plotted puzzle. I would also recommend Shirley Wells' earlier Jill and Max series, now available as eBooks.

RATING-4.5 stars

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Past is Never Really Past

DEADLY TASTING (Winemaker Detective #4)
Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen
Le French Book
June 2014

In the beginning of Deadly Tasting I was extremely amused by gourmand and winemaker Benjamin Cooker being put on a diet by his loving wife, Elisabeth. It had always seemed to me that Benjamin ate and drank wine to excess with no visible ill-effects. It did not make me like him or his fussy quirks any better in the previous books of the series. On day one of the cabbage diet he receives a call from Inspector Barbaroux summoning him to a crime scene. A very elderly man has been slaughtered in his apartment and the scene is odd indeed. Twelve wine glasses are circled on a table, one full and eleven empty. The Inspector wants Cooker to taste the wine in the hope that it will give him some clue to work with. Benjamin narrows down the wine to it's region and with the help of a friend determines that it is a vintage from the 1940 s during the Nazi Occupation of  France. Meanwhile the bodies of old men are piling up along with the desecration of the graves of other elderly men. Someone is settling a grievance that goes back to the dark days of WWII and leaving a message with twelve wine glasses at each scene, a new glass filled for each victim.

I was very interested in the historical detail included in Deadly Tasting  as I know little about events in occupied France. It should come as no surprise that the Nazis looted the wines as they did everything else but I was surprised that they installed their own functionaries to oversee production. There are tales here of both heroism and complete venality and as always, some were neither rewarded nor punished. The authors have taken these details and constructed a very tidy mystery. Deadly Tasting is less about wine and more about the lingering effects of some of the darkest days in France's history. I liked this new direction in the series and found Benjamin's struggle with his diet a welcome and humorous diversion. 

Thanks to and Le French Book for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 3 stars

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Descent into Madness

Neil Cross
Open Road Media
January 27, 2015

Captured by Neil Cross opens with Kenny Drummond learning that he has late stage brain cancer with only a few weeks to live. Kenny is in his youngish middle-age and has been eking out a living as a downmarket portrait painter. Despite being somewhat of an odd duck, brought up by a father who was more than a little mad, Kenny has a few friends and to all appearances has led a relatively blameless life. Chief among those friends are his ex-wife, Mary, and her husband; and a retired policewoman, Pat. Kenny's reaction to his diagnosis is to make up a short list of people, only four in number, who he feels he has let down in some way in order to make amends. Mary tops the list, followed by two people involved in a somewhat obscure incident from years before. Last on the list is Callie Barton, a girl who was kind to him when he was in middle school. He skips over Mary entirely, not even telling her about his diagnosis, and clears everything with the second two in short order. When it comes to Callie Barton he hits a snag. Callie disappeared without a trace years before. Her husband was chief suspect but the police were never able to gather evidence to charge him with anything. Kenny decides that he has to make the husband admit the crime as a way to make amends to Callie. What follows is pretty graphic violence, Kenny's swift deterioration and an excess of collateral damage.

I knew that I would find it difficult to review Captured and have been mulling it over for several days. The book itself moved along very quickly and kept me turning the pages to see what might happen next. Cross has the ability to develop character with a minimum of description, probably a function of his successful writing career for television. I was bothered that I could only come up with Kenny's disease to explain his actions. With the exception of Mary, his reasons for making amends to the people on his list seemed minor and in the case of Callie, non-existent. I know that brain cancer can and does cause major behavioral changes but Kenny is surely extreme. He creates more damage in the few days covered by the novel than he appears to have done in his previous life altogether. I found this lack of any other cause rather unsatisfactory, but others might not. I would recommend Captured for fans of psychological thrillers with a decidedly British flavor.

Thanks to and Open Road Media for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3 Stars