Friday, August 28, 2015

Darkly Absurd Novel from the Mean Streets of New London, CT

Stephen Dobyns
Penguin Group
September 1, 2015

I have read several of Stephen Dobyns' books in the past; his Saratoga series and the chilling Church of Dead Girls.  Therefore, I was expecting something that would be well-written at the very least. What I wasn't expecting was a book quite as diverting as Is Fat Bob Dead Yet?. Any novel featuring a group of small-time con men whose scams include Ex-Prom Queens Anonymous and Free Beagles From Nicotine Addiction has to be entertaining.  The addition of bikers, thugs, a homeless man, vengeful wives and femmes fatale, battling detective partners, a hacker savant whose conversation is made up of malapropisms; and an innocent (somewhat) trying to navigate it all make a heady brew. I kept thinking of what the Coen Brothers could do cinematically with this material. 

The narrator is omniscient which can be off-putting, but Dobyns manages it with a good deal of "snark" and a flowing storytelling style. The many characters are ridiculous on the face of it, but also completely human. Perhaps the book went on a bit long, but I enjoyed its dark absurdity. Thanks to Penguin's First to Read Program for an advance digital copy of Is Fat Bob Dead Yet? in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4 Stars

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Bookish Find in Maine

1 Bourne Street
Kennebunk, Maine

A serendipitous post on the Maine Crime Writers blog alerted me to the presence of Mainely Murders Bookstore located on a side street, but still downtown Kennebunk. I knew we had to go there this trip even though Kennebunk is not a regular stop. We are usually pushing on to the Rockland/Camden area at that point.

Mainely Murders is a small gem, run by Paula and Ann, two very knowledgeable women. The store is obviously a labor of love and visitors are kindly welcomed. It has a unique shelving system; at least I have never seen books shelved by geographical location before. So if you are particularly fond of British mysteries, they can steer you to that section. The same goes for American, French, Scandinavian, etc. Of course Maine gets its own section with so many well-known writers living and writing in Maine. I walked out with two British mystery series with which I was not familiar. They were even able to supply me with the first books in the series, as the store features a mix of both used and new books so that they can maintain backlist titles. 

I can highly recommend Mainely Mysteries Bookstore for mystery fans. If you aren't a mystery fan, then Ann and Paula can get you started!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A Stellar Historical Mystery Debut with a Difference

Elsa Hart
Macmillan Minotaur
June 1, 2015

JadeDragon Mountain takes place on the border between China and Tibet in 1708, ninety-second year of the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Kangxi. The previous Ming Dynasty was overthrown by tribes from Manchuria, the "Manchu". Even though the Qing lasted until 1912, at this point not all subjects are reconciled to Manchu rule, especially in this remote province. Emperor Kangxi plans to visit the city of Dayan to preside over a solar eclipse. The prediction of eclipses has historically been the responsibility of the Emperor, quietly aided by Jesuit astronomers at the court in Beijing. What better way to impress the restive peasants than with a solar eclipse brought to them by the all-powerful Emperor?

Into the swirl of preparations to a festival welcoming the Emperor steps Li Du, a wandering scholar. Once a librarian at the Imperial Library in the Forbidden City, Li Du was exiled five years earlier for consorting with traitors. He narrowly escaped execution and has been wandering ever since. He plans to visit his cousin, Tulishen, the provincial magistrate, and then continue into Tibet. He has absolutely no desire to come to the notice of the Emperor.  Among others visting the magistrate are two Jesuits; one elderly and one young; a representative of the British East India Company; and a traveling storyteller. When the elderly Jesuit is poisoned, Tulishen wants to sweep it under the rug in deference to the Emperor's visit. It is much easier to blame the murder on Tibetan bandits who might have had a grudge against the Jesuit. But Li Du is above all a seeker of truth, determined to uncover the murderer.

I found Jade Dragon Mountain an absolutely fascinating look at a time period and culture that I know very little about with the bonus of a mystery to puzzle out. The innkeepers, merchants, servants and peasants of Dayan spring into vivid life along with the courtiers in a glorious pageant of color and opulence. I can only hope for more travels with Li Du, even though his circumstances have changed dramatically by the novel's end. Most highly recommended!

Thanks to Macmillan and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 5 Stars

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Murder at the Pumpkin Festival

CANDY CORN MURDER (Lucy Stone # 22)
Leslie Meier
Kensington Books
August 25, 2015

I have dipped into this long-running series from time to time and Candy Corn Murder seemed like just the ticket for my Maine vacation. Lucy, a reporter for the local Pennysaver; and Bill, her restoration carpenter husband, have lived and raised four children in Tinker's Cove, Maine for over twenty years. Lucy also has a talent for finding bodies and solving murders. Neither the state police or Lucy's family is always happy about that. When Candy Corn Murder opens Lucy is delighted to have her first grandchild, Patrick, staying with them for four months while his parents are in Haiti. Having a toddler around is much more difficult than Lucy remembers, especially when the day care center head teacher thinks she knows so much more than Lucy about raising children.

Things are busy in Tinker's Cove preparing for the first annual Pumpkin Festival. The festival will include a Giant Pumpkin Growing Contest and a contest to build catapults to launch pumpkins. Bill is heavily involved both in pumpkin growing and catapult building, along with his new friend, Ev. To Lucy, Ev is a drunken layabout with hygiene problems, but for some reason Bill thinks Ev is an engineering genius. Things start to go wrong when the pumpkin considered to be a shoe-in for winner is hacked to bits and a pumpkin display is destroyed in the retail district. Then it gets worse when Ev is found bludgeoned to death in a car trunk on the day of the competition. Bill appears to be the logical suspect so Lucy must put her crime-solving skills to work.

Candy Corn Murder is a fun, fast read with likeable characters and a great setting in coastal Maine. I recommend it for anyone who enjoys a traditional "cozy" mystery. Even though the series is a long-running one, Candy Corn Murder can easily be a stand-alone. Thanks to netgalley. com and Kensington Books for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3.5 Stars

A Cold Case in Downeast Maine

THREADS OF EVIDENCE (Mainely Needlepoint # 2)
Lea Wait
Kensington Books
August 25, 2015

I have a soft spot for books set in Maine having vacationed there for decades. I am always interested in the author's perspective on life on the coast. Especially those authors who actually live and work there.

After the events of  first in the series, Twisted Threads, Angela Curtis is settling into her return to her hometown and new position managing her grandmother's needlepoint business. When a major Hollywood star purchases the crumbling Gardener Estate and begins major renovations everyone in Haven Harbor is wondering why. The estate is in ruins; left to fall apart after the death of Jasmine Gardener, the seventeen year old daughter of the house in 1970. Her death was ruled accidental but her mother was convinced that it was murder. Mrs. Gardener lived in the house until her death and Mr. Gardener went back to New York City, never to return. Old memories and questions come to the surface along with attempted murder and arson. Could Jasmine's death really have been murder and is the murderer still living in picturesque Haven Harbor? Amateur sleuth Angela Curtis needs to find out who and why before another tragedy happens.

Threads of Evidence is a very entertaining cozy with a heroine who is more than usually edgy for the genre. It presents an accurate picture of the people of Maine, at least to my eye. Maine may be extraordinarily beautiful but it is hard to make a sustainable living. So "cottage" industries like Mainely Needlepoint abound to carry people after the tourist season is over.  And Maine folks have as many secrets and foibles as people anywhere.  The history of needlework in America is represented by quotes from samplers at each chapter's beginning and are both entertaining and instructive.

Thanks to Kensington and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 3.5 Stars

Thursday, August 13, 2015

I love Big Books and I Cannot Lie

FOOL'S QUEST (Fitz and the Fool Trilogy #2)
Robin Hobb
Del Rey Books
August 11, 2015

I especially love big books when Fitz and the Fool are back, and at nearly 800 pages, Fool's Quest is a whopper. In the previous installment, Fool's Assassin, The Fool has reappeared and is much changed. He apparently has been tortured unto near death and is sightless; so unrecognizable in fact that Fitz nearly kills him when the Fool touches young Bee.  Distraught, Fitz must take him through the Pillars to Buckkeep Castle to be healed. He leaves Bee in the care of the two offspring of Lord Chade with predictable results. The two are completely unable to protect her when Withywood is raided by a band of  Servants of the White Prophet, supported by a troop of brutal Chalcedean mercenaries. The Servants are searching for the "Unexpected Son" and they are the ones who tortured the Fool.  They believe that they have found him in Bee, but do not know that she is a girl.

When Fitz learns of his daughter's kidnapping and the havoc wrought on the people of Withywoods, he is for a time paralyzed with grief. He learns all he can about the kidnapping and sets out to find Bee. The journey to find her is one in which Fitz's old assassin instincts come to the surface again. Believing that he has lost Bee forever, vengeance is all that is on his mind and in his heart. Fool's Quest ends with Fitz and his unwanted companions in desperate trouble in the ancient Elderling city of Kelsingra.

There are moments of transcendent joy and sorrow in Fool's Quest. Fitz is one of my favorite characters ever, a man torn apart by conflicting loyalties and responsibilities. Although he finds acceptance at Buckkeep that he never dreamed of  he is tortured by guilt and self-doubt.  The characters both old and new are, as always, beautifully realized; whether I like them or not. The new players in the trilogy range from useless to vicious with a few exceptions like Perseverance, the Withywoods stableboy and Spark, the Fool's servant. And I have always been more than a little ambivalent about the Fool.

Fool's Quest is a worthy follow-up and should completely satisfy those who found Fool's Assassin a little slow-paced. I am surprised how much I became invested in Fitz's odd little daughter, Bee. Her voice is barely present and I missed her tremendously, even though I understand the reasons. That is my only quibble and not enough to deduct from a full 5 Star rating.

Thanks to Del Rey Books and for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

New (to me) Series from a Favorite Cozy Author

IN THE DRINK (Mack's Bar Mysteries #3)
Allyson K. Abbott
Kensington Books
July 28, 2015

In the Drink is the third mystery in the Mack's Bar Mystery Series. Mac Dalton grew up in the Milwaukee bar that bears her name, and she now owns. Her mother died very shortly after her birth, and she and her father lived above the bar. The people who come in are more like family than patrons. Mack has an unusual neurological condition, synesthesia. Synesthetes are wired differently from the rest of us, in that they get sort of double wiring, allowing Mack to "see" words and numbers with associated colors, and "taste" sounds. She always saw it as more of a curse than a gift, having a had a very hard time growing up until the condition was diagnosed. When she is involved in a suspicious suicide actually on her premises and later in a kidnapping case she found that her condition could be helpful. She also started a relationship with the investigating detective, Duncan Albright. She and her bar patrons have even formed a crime-solving club, the Capone Club, upstairs in the bar.

The flip side of her new pursuit into crime solving is increased notoriety, and she is mostly hiding out in the bar to avoid journalistic hounds and a curious public. Duncan was suspended and only reinstated when he promised to stay away from her, not using her on any more cases. The two can only communicate covertly, at least for awhile. This restriction comes even more problematic when she receives a letter threatening her friends unless she solves a puzzle set out for her. Mack has been letting the letters pile up and by the time she opens the letter, it is too late to save the first friend to go. Mack, of course, blames herself and has to involve Duncan, who fears for her life. She needs the help of her Capone Club friends as well. Duncan has one of his cop friends who is already undercover, become a sort of bodyguard for her- too bad that he is a very attractive friend!

I found In the Drink a very enjoyable cozy mystery with a nice twist. I had heard of Synesthesia but found it rather hard to wrap my head around. The ramifications of the condition are very well explained. Mack is a very appealing, mid- thirties grown-up, and I enjoyed all of her rather motley crew of friends. I wish that I had known this was a third book in the series, but Abbott does a great job of bringing us up to date on previous happenings. That just entices me to read the first two! There is not so much a cliff-hanger as a lack of resolution, making me anxious for the next book in the series.

I want to mention that Allyson Abbott writes another series under the name Anneliese Ryan, "The Mattie Winston Mysteries". Mattie is very different, very funny, and a great favorite of mine. How Abbott/Ryan manages to write two series and be a practicing ER nurse I will never know but hats off to her! Thanks to Kensington Books and netgalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING-3.5 Stars

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Big Finish for Crown and Key? Hope not.

THE CONQUERING DARK ( Crown and Key #3)
Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith
Del Rey Books
July 28, 2015

Once again, Britain is in dire danger from the ancient earth elemental, Gaios, and Ash, the necromancer. The Crown and Key Society must face down these enormously powerful (and quite mad) forces, or Britain will be destroyed as collateral damage in the feud between  Ash and Gaios. The Society has suffered losses as well in previous battles. Simon no longer has access to his own magic and must fight aided by the marvelous machines created by Penny Clark, tinkerer extraordinaire.  Kate Anstruther's sister was horribly mutated by a mad scientist and Kate is consumed by the search for a way to reverse the damage. Monster Hunter Mac MacFarlane is off balance because his belief that all monsters must be killed has been shaken.  His affection for the juvenile werewolf, Charlotte, has made him question his whole life's purpose. The Society will need all their powers to defeat Ash, Gaios and their minions.

The Society is bloody but unbowed and knows that it is the only defense against the threat.  The battle is joined, and it is a roller coaster ride of to the finish. I am amazed how well the Griffiths have balanced action and excellent characterization. These are characters I have grown to love over the course of three books. I for one hope that the adventure continues. There are several openings for future stories at this story's conclusion even though the three books stand on their own.

The Conquering Dark, along with it's predecessors, The Shadow Revolution, and The Undying Legion fall neatly into the description "ripping good yarn". Thanks to Del Rey and netgalley for an advance digital copy in return for an honest review.

RATING- 4.5 Stars