Sunday, October 22

Puccini's Ghosts by Morag Joss

Review by Theodore Feit

Lila Duncan, at age 40, returns to the west coast Scottish seacoast town of her earliest years upon the death of her 85-year-old father, to bury him, thus setting off this psychological suspense story told in alternating chapters: one in sort of real time as seen by the 15-year-old Lila, the other in a series of combined memories and actual occurrences.

 

The story begins with descriptions of Lila's dysfunctional family, slowly unfolding layer by layer its secrets and foibles.  Against these revelations—is it fantasy or reality?—we are introduced to the creation of a preposterous amateur production of the Puccini opera, Turandot.

 

As the chapters progress, we learn little pieces of background, which build to a shocking conclusion.  While this reader found the novel slow reading, and oft-times plodding, this criticism is in no way meant to detract from the depth and subtlety of the narrative.

Still Life by Louise Penny

Review by Gloria Feit
 
The murder in Still Life is related in the very first sentence of this nonetheless gentle debut novel by Louise Penny.  The body of Jane Neal is discovered in the woods outside the village of Three Pines, just south of Montreal, and the case is assigned to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec.  Assisting him is young Yvette Nichol, working her first case since achieving her dream of working at the Surete.
 
'Gentle' is also an apt description of the victim, and Inspector Gamache has a serious challenge in attempting to discover 'whodunit.'  Jane was a local artist, albeit one whose work she had never permitted anyone to see, with the exception of one called Fair Day, depicting the closing parade of the local county fair which she has, for the first time, entered into the competition for the village Art show.  Her entry provokes strong reactions, many of them negative, but the piece had been accepted.  Two days later she is murdered, in what at first appears to have been a hunting accident, as hunting season had just begun, but no weapon is found and no one comes forward to claim responsibility.  If it is indeed murder the culprit, it would appear, must be one of the residents of the small village where Jane had lived for nearly all of her 76 years.  Interestingly, the weapon appears to have been an old-fashioned wooden bow and arrow.  The Inspector muses: 'Looking around he realized how much he liked this place and these people.   Too bad one of them was a murderer," and again, "No one was who they seemed.  Everyone was more.  And one person in this room as very much more."
 
The novel follows the inexorable progress of the investigation; as the author says, referring to Gamache, "unhurried, unperturbed, unstoppable."  The setting is beautiful and beautifully brought to life.  The writing, at times, seemed to this reader lacking, to wit: "She knew she had a matter of minutes, maybe moments."   [And the difference between those two words--?]   And "He also used …, which were different to Jane's."    [Different to?]  But it was also at times captivating, e.g., "His magical thinking allowed him to be surprised that when such a good soul dies it isn't remarked. The bells of the church didn't set themselves off.  The mice and deer didn't cry out.  The earth didn't shudder.  If he were God, it would have.  Instead, the line in the official report would read, 'her neighbors noticed nothing.'"   The characters are interesting, especially young Ms. Nichol, full of ambition and conflict as to proper professional behavior.  The pace of the book, casual till near the book's conclusion, picks up quite a bit at that point until the identity of the murderer is revealed.  An enjoyable read.

Motor Mouth by Janet Evanovich

Review by Theodore Feit

 

Alexandra Barnaby and Sam Hooker return in this sequel novel and once again find themselves in all kinds of trouble, which stems from Sam's placing second in a NASCAR race at Homestead Miami Speedway.  From her eye-in-the-sky spot as his spotter advising the driver, she sees some strange things going on in the infield and suspects hanky panky.

 

After the race, in an effort to find out what has transpired, they steal a hauler, and strip down the winning car, discovering two computer chips suspected of governing traction control—which is illegal---as well as the dead body of the owner of the racing stable.  In an effort to leave without detection, they leave Sam's St. Bernard in the hauler by mistake and it is later kidnapped by the bad guys and held hostage for return of the chips—as later is Sam.

 

 The story progresses from that point, with the attempt to rescue the dog, but becoming more complicated with stolen technology, shady dealings, more murders and hiding dead bodies.  Meanwhile, of course, there is also the side issue of Sam trying to get into Barney's pants despite all the dangers, including the police who are looking for them for multiple counts of grand theft and murder.

 

Once again, the couple provide an amusing tale, fraught with danger, and are joined  by their friends, cigar roller Rosa Florez and wholesale fruit seller Felicia Ibarra, who help bring the plot to a successful conclusion.  Amusing and fast-paced, the novel lives up to the standards of its predecessor in this series, Metro Girl.

Lights Out by Jason Starr

Review by Theodore Feit

 

A more unappealing and unsavory cast of characters probably hasn't appeared in recent literature.  First, there is Jake Thomas, superstar outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates,    with the morals of an alley cat and caring only about his own image.  Then, there is Ryan Rossetti, now a housepainter after his hoped-for big league career was cut short by injury and so-so talent.   Both were teammates on their Brooklyn high school team.  And Christina Mercado, engaged to Jake for six years, but in love with Ryan.  And then there are a couple of gangbangers who enter the picture.  

 

All these people come together in a complicated story which begins very slowly, with facts, background and circumstances adding up to an even more complex conclusion.  The plot begins with Jake coming home for a weekend to his parents' home in Brooklyn, three doors from the Rossettis.  Ryan and Christina have been having a torrid love affair, and agree she would break off her engagement to Jake at his homecoming party.  Jake learns of a possible statutory rape charge and realizes setting a wedding date would be good PR to offset that negative publicity.

 

From this initial situation flows a saga of wrong decisions, chance meetings and lost opportunities.  Tautly written, with all the nuances of desperate people and poverty-stricken Brooklyn neighborhoods, the novel is full of surprises, especially at the end when it leaves the reader to wonder what comes next.

Bloody Harvests by Richard Kunzmann

Review by Gloria Feit

For the most part, the first several chapters of Bloody Harvests depict seemingly unrelated scenes, scenes of violence and terror taking place in and around Johannesburg, South Africa.   It is shown as a world where superstition plays a big role in the lives of the Zulu, Zhosa, Yoruba and other tribesmen who live there.  But the horrors which are committed are rooted firmly in the 'real' world.

 

The body of a young black child, a girl of perhaps 5 years of age, has been found, mutilated, with organs removed and her throat slit.  Assigned to the investigation are D.I. Harry Mason and his partner, Jacob Tshabalah, both men haunted by their past histories dating back to their respective childhoods with which they are unable to come to terms.  The murder is thought to be a muti ritual, and the deeply superstitious Africans are terrified of omens and witchcraft seemingly at play.  One asks, rhetorically, "How long does a curse endure?'    [Muti killings, more commonly known as medicine murder, involve the murder of someone in order to excise body parts for incorporation as ingredients into medicine.]  These are dangerous times in the city – eleven fatal shootings in the space of just a few days, kidnapping of young children, a huge drug bust made by the police perhaps triggering reactions among the criminal underworld.  And Harry, a white man, must try to understand the occultism and belief in witches that play such a large role.  As he is told: "Occultism is about the irrational.   What you haven't taken into account is that no witch doctor would risk exposing himself like this.  They prefer working in the dark, manipulating people from the shadows."  Of the man the police seek, the author says "He brought them hope just as much as he brought them fear, two strong emotions that can inspire people when he needs them most."  Jacob tells Harry, "My people have witnessed things that you whites don't understand – or don't want to understand.  You still think our culture is primitive, that our beliefs are stupid, but you know…maybe Africa is just different."

 

This is a dense and dark novel, filled with intensity, complex characterizations, and rich in sense of place of this fascinating culture and country.  It is a very good read, and is recommended.

The Sorcerer's Circle by Michael Siverling

Review by Theodore Feit
   

As this novel begins, Jason Wilder is healing from a knife wound suffered in the course of The Sterling Inheritance, the charming initial entry into this series.  And, of course, he is banged up some more, with hurting ribs and the like, as this tale unfolds.   As he is about to leave the office one day, a mysterious visitor introduces himself, saying the police have referred him to the investigation agency headed by Jason's mother, "Queen Victoria."   He tells Jason he is going to be murdered.  Jason believes the man to be off the wall and dismisses him.

 

The next morning two events occur.  First, news of the man's murder, which, in fact, did take place.  And Jason is called into his mother's "throne room," to find the mayor there seeking assistance in clearing his daughter, who had been involved with the murdered man, apparently a self-styled psychic and "devil worshiper."  The murder took place during a ritual at which the mayor's daughter and others were participants.

 

The more Jason's investigation progresses, the more it seems as though the girl is the guilty party.  It is up to Jason to discover whether or not this is truly the case.

 

While this second book in the series lacks some of the cuteness of the interchange between mother and son present in the earlier novel, the book still is a first class suspense novel, well-written and -plotted to keep the reader from suspecting the outcome until it is revealed.  It will be interesting to see if the next one—if one is in the works—will recover some of the mirth and entertaining dialogue encountered in the debut effort.  Nonetheless, if it only lives up to the standard of this one, it should be rewarding enough.

What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George

Review by Theodore Feit 

 

At the end of Elizabeth George's earlier book, With No One As Witness, Helen Lynley, wife of Scotland Yard Acting Superintendent Thomas Lynley, is shot dead on her doorstep.  The new novel, which diverges from the author's accustomed series and its characters, has an entirely different focus.  It concentrates, instead, on what led up to the murder.   It really is a standalone, even if it is based on an event that took place in a prior series book.

 

It is a sad tale of a very troubled 'half-breed' family in an impoverished section of London.  Three children are dumped on the doorstep of their aunt by their grandmother who has been tending them before leaving for Jamaica.  There is 12-year-old Joel, 15-year-old Vanessa and eight-year-old Toby.  Their mother is in a mental institution.  Their father was murdered years before.   The youngest floats between fantasy and reality, while the oldest withdraws into drugs and sex.  Joel attempts to keep everyone together, protecting them from neighborhood roughs.  Their aunt, while well-meaning, has no experience with children, and is busy with a full-time job and trying to establish her own business.

 

In an effort to protect his siblings, Joel makes a pact with the devil, a neighborhood gangster and dope peddler, who has other plans for the family—like revenge for the sister who has spurned him.  The outcome is tragedy for all.  My only criticism would be the title:   It seems while Joel was told to shoot the victim, he couldn't, and a confederate committed the crime.   But this hardly detracts from this excellent novel, a study in poverty, helplessness and violence.  The complexity of the plot, character depictions and issues of class, race and life without hope are so well written that the reader is overwhelmed.  The novel is as fine as any work this author has written.

Bleeding Hearts by Ian Rankin

Review by Theodore Feit

 

It's taken 12 years for this novel to cross the Atlantic, and the wait certainly was well worth it.  Originally published in the UK under the Jack Harvey pseudonym, it is still Rankin, although not a Rebus novel.   The Harvey books resulted from Rankin's publisher believing he could sell more than one novel a year, after the initial Rebus success, using another name.  Current editions show the author as Ian Rankin, of course.

 

Parenthetically. Rankin has been quoted in a Scottish newspaper as stating that he is going to end the Rebus series next year, so that there are only two new novels in that series to look forward to—one this fall and the finale.  Say it isn't so, Ian!  He said he's thinking of writing children's books.

 

Well, Bleeding Hearts is no children's tale.  It's about an assassin who shoots his victims through the heart on the theory that it's humane.  His latest assignment is a lady journalist, who he shoots as she is leaving a hotel with a lady politician.   It is complicated by the presence of an Eastern European diplomat, and the question arises who was the intended victim.  Was the hit a mistake?

 

The plot then develops because the police arrive almost simultaneously and Michael Weston, the shooter, believes he was set up.  He escapes capture narrowly through a ruse and decides to find out who hired him, something he usually never wants to know.   The journalist was investigating a cult, and it appears they might be responsible.

 

Michael chases all over England and the United States, where the main cult headquarters is located, before returning to England to discover the truth.  In his wake are a lot of bodies, and in the end the question of his distaste for continuing his profession is raised.

 

It may not be a Rebus Novel, but it certainly is a Rankin Book.  There hardly is any better praise.  A Rankin by any other name is still a Rankin.

Love, Death and the Toyman by Robert S. Napier

Review by Theodore Feit

 

For a debut novel, Love, Death and the Toyman is highly rewarding.  The story flows effortlessly, with twists that unexpectedly turn, clues that veer off leading the reader to wonder what comes next.  The author, of  course, is an experienced writer, even though this is his first novel.  Hopefully, it won't be his last.

 

Jack Lorentz is a former investigative reporter who now specializes in collectible toys.  Rather than bowing to pressure in killing a story, he resigned with his honor and reputation for honesty intact.   He is retained—actually forced—to undertake an investigation by a wealthy Northwest family after the discovery of bones at their lakeside cabin property.  It seems the potential scandal would put a crimp in the political plans of the husband of the woman, Amanda, who pleads with Jack to look into the matter.  She was his college sweetheart 15 years earlier.

 

As Jack investigates, he is confronted by the dysfunctional family members, each of whom could be the potential murderer.  Actually, he discovers there were two murders to solve.   Slowly, he accumulates facts and evidence and the reader is led to a conclusion that is highly unexpected.  Along the way, Jack also has to face up to his relationship with Amanda and various other side issues.

 

Professionally plotted, and well-written, the novel reads quickly and interestingly.  It appears to be the culmination of many years of the author's experience as a writer and editor, who has published more than 500 fanzines since 1969 and many articles on crime topics.

Friday, October 6

Death at Victoria Dock by Kerry Greenwood

Review by Theodore Feit

 

 Well it took 14 years for this novel to reach these shores, but at least it is well worth it.  The mystery, another in the Phryne Fisher series which PPP thankfully continues to publish,  starts off with a bang.  Phryne is driving by Victoria Dock, returning home from dinner, when gunshots blast out her windshield.  Then she sees two men running away and they fire shots at her.   Nearby the dock, a young man lies in a pool of blood, dying. 

 

Since she doesn't like to be shot at or see the loss of life in an attractive young man, much less find her clothes ruined, Phryne determines to find the killers and make them pay.   Meanwhile, she is retained to find a rich man's daughter who has run away.  Thrown into the mix are anarchists, a bank robbery, the kidnapping of her maid-companion. and even a séance to reveal a clue.

 

The accustomed cast of characters—Dot, Bert, Cec and the Butlers—are supplemented by some new ones, including a police constable who appears to becoming a permanent boyfriend for Dot.  Phryne's free spirit is given full range once again with the introduction of Peter Smith, a widely traveled revolutionary who assists Phryne in unraveling the mystery.  It's all good fun and a welcome addition to the expanding availability of the previous novels in the series.

The Shape Shifter by Tony Hillerman

Review by Theodore Feit

 

This novel is all the legendary Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, now retired from the Navajo Tribal Police and thoroughly bored, which the reader will not be as this unusual story progresses.  His usual sidekicks, Jim Chee and Bernie Manuelito (now Mrs. Chee), have just returned from their honeymoon and merely serve as the foils for the introduction and recap of the tale.

 

Leaphorn is bothered by one of his first cases when he was first starting out and called away from an old Indian grandmother complaining about the theft of two buckets of pinyon sap to a fire at a trading post in which he had previously seen a unique woven rug.  Fast forward to the present:  an old friend sends the lieutenant a tearsheet from a magazine in which a copy of the rug appears.  This intrigues both the friend and Joe who, along with everyone else, believe it was burned in the fire along with an FBI-most-wanted criminal.

 

When Leaphorn's friend is found dead in an automobile accident, Joe suspects murder, and the autopsy shows he was poisoned.  From this point, the story cascades into an investigation surrounding the death, the rug and the mysterious rich man who owns it. 

 

This is pure Hillerman, filled with Navajo lore and customs, set in the familiar territory and crafted subtly.  Another pure joy to read.

Wild Fire by Nelson DeMille

Review by Theodore Feit

 

John Corey, retired NYPD detective, and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, both assigned to the Federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force at 26 Federal Plaza in NYC, who first appeared in Plum Island and The Lion's Game, reappear in this novel based on a somewhat far-fetched plot to set off suitcase-sized nuclear bombs in Los Angeles and San Francisco to precipitate Wild Fire, a secret government plan to retaliate against the setting off of mass destruction weapons in the United States.  In retaliation, nuclear warheads from submarines and ICBMs are launched against targets of the perpetrators.

 

Originally, Corey was supposed to be assigned to conduct a surveillance at a private meeting in upstate New York, but instead a friend and co-worker is given the job.  He is intercepted at the property and murdered.  Enter John and Kate to solve the homicide, which blossoms forth into the discovery of the plot by the owner of the estate and his high-ranking government cohorts to perpetrate the bizarre plan.  The mastermind is Bain Madox, an oil company billionaire with resources and friends in high places to carry out his mission to set off a nuclear holocaust and wipe out much of the Muslim world.

 

John's wise mouth and Kate's cool head are matched by Madox' sharp mind and resources.  Step by step, the pair uncover evidence of the murder, and logic leads them to some kind of further intrigue at the estate, protected by a private army and filled with all kinds of electronic equipment.  In a somewhat improbable conclusion, of course, John and Kate face certain death at the hands of the villain.  Will they survive?  Will the plot be foiled, although many government officials want it to happen?  Read it and find out.  You'll be carried along to the final page to discover the conclusion.

The Wrong Man by John Katzenbach

Review by Gloria Feit

 

In a tale as immediate and terrifying as any nightmare, John Katzenbach's new novel is the story of Ashley Freeman, a recent college grad about to enter a graduate program in art history in Boston who unwittingly invites a stalker into her young life.  The protagonists, Ashley herself; her father, Scott, a college professor; Sally, an attorney and Scott's ex-wife, and Hope, a girls' soccer coach and a guidance counselor and Sally's present partner, are all well-drawn.  And then there is Michael O'Connor, the stalker, an unnervingly bizarre, decidedly twisted and absolutely fixated creation, whose tentacles become enmeshed in all their lives to horrifying effect.  What began as an ill-conceived adventure that led to an uncharacteristic one-night stand shortly lead s Ashley to say to herself 'I am in trouble…this can't be happening."  But of course it is, and on that same night the first act of violence occurs.  And one is reminded in due course that other things can be done to a person than causing physical harm.   As one character states: "You don't have to kill someone to kill them."  And another:  "…we like to presume that we can recognize danger when it appears on the horizon.  Anyone can avoid the danger that has bells, whistles, red lights, and sirens attached to it.  It's much harder when you don't exactly know what you're dealing with."

 

The chapters often have slightly enigmatic headings, and each end with a section of dialogue primarily between two participants whose identity is unknown to the reader.  These unsettling devices set the tone for what is to follow.  One reads this tale with a rising sense of dread of what is to come.   And the sense that anyone can fall victim to such an unsettled mind, in all naïveté, as the characters here find themselves initially unable to fathom what is to come: "Don't you imagine that you wouldn't want to believe the safest thing, when in reality the most dangerous thing was lurking right there in front of you."

 

The Wrong Man is a real page-turner, gripping and frightening, and it had this reader's mental fingers crossed and breath held for the outcome and the safety and lives of its protagonists.  I recall this author's first book, In the Heat of the Summer, as being equally well-written and nerve-tingling, and his newest offering is recommended.

Monday, October 2

Death at Victoria Dock by Kerry Greenwood

Review by Andrea Maloney

Phryne Fisher is back! One night while driving home, Phryne is shocked to find that someone is shooting at her. Not only do they shoot out her windscreen but she also finds  that a lovely young fellow with an anarchist tattoo has also been shot and dies in her arms.

Phyrne is enraged by the loss of her clothing due to the dying mans blood, the damage to her car and the horrible loss of such a young life.  Promising that she will find who is responsible and make them pay Phryne sets out to identify the young man.  Soon she finds herself deep into the worlds of bank robbery, tattoo parlors, pubs, spiritualist halls and anarchists.

Along the way she meets, Peter, a delightful wharfie she would like to get to know better. With Peter's help and the help of her friends, Phryne is able to solve shooting death of the young anarchist and prevent a horrible crime but not before she finds herself and her friends in deep and terrible danger.

Kerry Greenwood has written another fine addition to the Phryne Fisher series. Phryne is a uniquely independent woman with a good sense of her own self worth. She loves all the finer things in life, dresses fashionably, eats the best food and loves the best men. She doesn't apologize for this nor should she for this is what makes Phryne the delightfully unique woman that she is . Her adventures are to be savored with their madcap sense of fun. While being a delight to read Greenwood manages to weave highly charged topics (incest) into the story and gives you a good sense of the history of the day.  I look forward to the next installment in this delightful series.