What we've been reading lately

Welcome to the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association redesigned Killer Books page. Below, you will find selections from members' blogs and webpages that post mystery reviews. If you've read the book discussed, or would like to, we welcome your comments.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

MR. CHURCHILL'S SECRETARY by Susan Elia MacNeal (Bantam TPBO, $15.)  Debut Historical novel. 
In 1940 London, England is gearing up for an invasion.  With the war in Europe intensifying, life is beginning to change at the home front.  Maggie Hope is a math whiz, and could easily do more challenging work than that of a secretary, but as a woman, her skills are not recognized.  Though raised in America, she does have British roots.
She is able to secure a position working for Winston Churchill, and is thrust into a dangerous situation.  With German spies ready to wreak havoc in London, Maggie comes across a plot, and is instrumental in foiling it.  She also finds some information on her family history.
Maggie is a very like able character, and I really thought the sense of time and place was very well done.  I was sure I had something figured out, but I was fooled.  The twists are done well, and since this is early in the war, I'm hoping Maggie will return for further adventures. 
from Maggie Mason, Lookin' for Books

Monday, January 7, 2013

Killer books from Murder on the Beach

Killer Books from Murder on the Beach

The Evolution of Mara Dyer
By Michelle Hodkin
Reviewed by Emily Gibbs

In this gripping young adult physiological thriller that is the
sequel to The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, Mara awakens from sleep to find
herself in a psychiatric ward unit in Miami where she has been
involuntarily committed. Mara is still trying to figure out what
happened on the night that her friends and abusive ex-boyfriend Jude
were all mysteriously killed in a freak accident that only Mara escaped.

She is being haunted and stalked by Jude who is alive,
although no one else believes her except for her sexy and intuitive
boyfriend Noah. It appears to Mara's caring family that she is trying to
harm herself and is hallucinating, but it is all very real for Mara and
not a hallucination. Jude IS alive and he blames Mara for the death of
his sister, who died in the accident. He wants Mara to pay.

There are so many things I want to share about this book, but
there are so many surprises that I honestly hate to give anything away.
There is also a historical element that relates to Mara's grandmother
and ancestors.This book is smart, haunting, and there is a twist at the
end that was so shocking that I closed this book in awe of Hodkin's
story telling.

Hodkins is a Miami native and she does a beautiful job in
this series taking you to places that make Miami Miami. Adults who may
not ordinarily read a YA book would enjoy this unique, imaginative, and
chilling series. I've never read anything quite like it.Simon & Schuster


By Stuart Neville
Reviewed by Sue Wilder

A foreign national is found murdered in Dublin in 1963. A note, found
next to the body, is addressed to Colonel Otto Skorzeny and says "we are
coming for you." Skorzeny was a high ranking Nazi and one of Hitler's
most decorated and feared commandos. He was granted asylum and is part
of a network of former Nazi German nationals living in Ireland.

Minister of Justice Charles Haughey requests that Lt. Albert
Ryan of the Intelligence Department investigate the murder. Ryan
discovers that this is the third murder of an ex-Nazi. US President John
Kennedy is scheduled to visit Ireland and the powers that be want to
avoid any public revelations of providing refuge for the Nazis post WW II.

Ryan struggles with having to stop the murders of the very
enemy that he fought against during the War while fulfilling his duty to
Ireland. This conflict also permeates the top echelons of Ireland's
government, threatening to reveal the dirty deals of the past and the
continuing coverups of the present.

Mr. Neville delivers a fast paced, well-written thriller. The
historical background is fascinating, the conspiracy is authentic and
the political maneuvering is riveting. Well drawn characters and superb
dialog make for a compelling read.

Mr. Neville's terrific debut, Ghosts of Belfast, was short
listed for many "best first" awards in 2010. Collusion and Stolen Souls
rounded out his Belfast trilogy, a treat for all noir readers. Ratlines
is of the same high caliber.

Although Ratlines is one of the first thrillers to be
published in 2013, it's already a pretty good guess that it will appear
on this year's "best" lists. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED Ratlines SoHo 26.95


What We Saw at Night
By Jacqueline Mitchard
Reviewed by Stacey Schwartz

Fiction authors are increasingly writing young adult mysteries which
are attracting readers from their adult audience as well. Jacqueline
Mitchard has crafted an intriguing tale in What We Saw at Night, a young
adult story.

Sixteen year old Allie Kim and her two friends suffer from a
life-threatening disease called Xeroderma Pigmentosum. They must avoid
the sun. All activities are done when the sun goes down.

The three friends participate in the dangerous sport of Parkour.
They find themselves scaling and leaping off a tall apartment building.
Allie glimpses at what appears to be a murder in one of the apartments.
She then takes it upon herself to investigate. What she uncovers may
change everything about the people she thinks she knows best.

What We Saw At Night is a good read for both adults and young
adults. It is captivating and had me feeling like I was leaping in the
night air from balcony to balcony along with Allie and her friends. I
lived Allie's life while enduring the joy and pain of friendships, first
loves, and dark secrets. This adult reader recommends What We Saw at
Night for mystery lovers of all ages.


Happy New Year!

Joanne Sinchuk
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
Pineapple Grove
273 NE 2nd Avenue
Delray Beach, FL 33444
Phone: 561-279-7790

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Talking to the Dead, by Harry Bingham

This review was submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon
www.mbtb.com; books@mbtb.com

Talking to the Dead by Harry Bingham
Delacorte Press, 352 pages, $26

Fiona Griffith is a bottom-of-the-ladder detective constable on the Welsh police force. You know there's something different about her from the get-go. The book begins with her interview to join the police. That section ends with, "And just five years ago, I was dead." Later she talks about being on "Planet Normal" when things go well. Hmm…

Obviously there is a gimmick to this book. Fiona has something psychologically off kilter, and we don't learn what it is for quite a while. Harry Bingham does a great job building up the tension until the big reveal.

Fiona, "Fi," is a more accessible Welsh version of the tough women heroes created by Carol O'Connell (Kathy Mallory) and Stieg Larsson (Lisbeth Salander). Fi is smart (philosophy degree from Cambridge), meticulous ("I like things orderly. I's dotted, T's crossed."), and has some hidden yee-haw attributes, which are revealed periodically.

Fi's bosses don't know what to make of her. Other detectives are obviously wary of partnering with her. She tries really hard to follow the rules, but sometimes doesn't succeed. It's just that when an idea strikes, she's carried away with it. And it's not that she doesn't know she's going off base, because she concocts schemes to hide what she's doing. Since she is the narrator of the story, we get to hear the wobbly wheels turning in her head. And it's a treat.

After Fi manages to insert a toe in the doorway of a big case, the rest of her uncaged personality soon follows. A prostitute and her young daughter are found murdered. It would be a more mundane case, except a bank card bearing the name of a local magnate is found with the body. Too bad that man is also dead. Like a dental tool probing a cavity, Fi chips away to find the decay within the community.

Bingham achieves a great balance between character and plot. It's easy to be intrigued by Fiona's mysterious past and admire how she comes up with insights into the case. Bingham also has a great feel for describing her moments of revelation or emotional catharsis, and it's hard not to give a silent "whoo-hoo" or "aww" in support.

I want this to be a series. I want the next book in the series. I want it now.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

Submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, www.mbtb.com

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson
Random House, 480 pages, $15

A place NOT on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Fiction is not stranger than fact, although Johnson certainly depicts North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in an unflattering light and wearing the quirks and eccentricities of a leader with unlimited power. Johnson, in an interview with author Richard Powers added to the end of the book, said that if he had written about some of the odd things Kim had done for real, it would have made his book into a comic parody.

Pak Jun Do (not his real name) dominates the first half of the book. Commander Ga (not his real name either) tells his story in the second half.

Although Pak is the son of the head of the orphanage, he is treated as an orphan. As a boy he was responsible for naming the orphans after North Korean martyrs before sending them off to miserable fates. He, too, adopted the name of a martyr, Pak Jun Do. While he grew up with his real father in the orphanage, he was often mistaken for an orphan. Pak's denials become more rote and meaningless, as people throughout his life continue to mistake him for one. His mother, he remembers -- or is it fantasy? -- was an opera singer. Eventually, his real early life fades into the background as he's forced to end one life to create another identity. The backdrop for Pak's story is the North Korean Communist state and its "Big Brother" mentality. In his desire and search for identity, he is forever at the mercy of the state.

The first half of the book concerns the ups and downs of Pak's life. Pak’s role as a kidnapper, language school student, spy agent on a fishing ship, and prisoner in a North Korean gulag highlights Johnson’s thesis about the arbitrary fate of a North Korean citizen. Most of it is spent avoiding notice. Once having attracted notice, however, the capricious nature of the state can elevate, honor, and award a citizen or throw him into a hellhole without mercy or reason. Pak finds himself on such an up-and-down journey.

In an interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, Pak and some newly minted acquaintances journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it's America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it's touching and bizarre, bizarre because of both the Koreans and the Texans. To honor Johnson's intentions, it's obvious that this is just a small part of the tender and terrifying story that is Pak's journey.

The second part of the book tells the tale of Commander Ga, war hero, taekwondo champion, and Director of the Prison Mines. Is it really Commander Ga or Pak in another incarnation? Ga's wife, Sun Moon, is a famous actress and the pet of "The Great Leader," Kim Jong Il. In the first part of the book, the genesis of Pak's fascination with Sun Moon is described when the captain of the fishing ship crudely tattoos her portrait on Pak's chest. Eventually, Pak laments that the only image he can see is a reverse image in the mirror; he can never see the true Sun Moon. The thought of her soothes him through onerous times. But if Pak has mysteriously become Commander Ga, is he now a tool of the state or has something extraordinary happened to him? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson's narrative has a fantastical touch to it.

Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous police interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.

The orphan master's son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Killer Books: Karin Slaughter, CRIMINAL

CRIMINAL, Karin Slaughter, Delacorte, 2012, $27.00

CRIMINAL is the latest in the Will Trent series from Karin Slaughter. (The others are Triptych, Fracture, Undone, Broken, Fallen, and Snatched.) The "emotional autopsy" it offers of dyslexic and scrappy investigator Will Trent rips open many of the part-healed wounds on this long-running character. Cutting new ground for the series,  CRIMINAL rocks back and forth between the 1970s -- when Slaughter's female leads Amanda Wagner  (Will's boss in the "now" of the series) and Wagner's partner Evelyn Mitchell were among the handful of women pioneers in the city's rough, racist, and blatantly sexist police force -- and today, when Amanda's abrupt orders and detours forced on Will suggest she's punishing him. Or protecting him.

For more than 400 pages, Slaughter spins a two-generation epic of the Atlanta investigators. Her taut narrative paints with a knife tip the look of harrassed and tortured women, then and now. With consummate craft, Slaughter opens a window into Amanda Wagner's past, her naive embrace of police work, her father's near-unbearable pressure to protect her in the force -- yet keeps the present-day female head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation shuttered, mysterious, and nail-bitingly frustrating to Will as he staggers around the edges of a serial murder sequence that he knows far too well -- it matches what he's seen and investigated years before. Matches it exactly. So why won't Amanda Wagner let him work the case?

Ramping the tension further is the question of whether Will's survival from a nightmare infancy and a harsh childhood has room in it for emotional attachment to a young doctor, Sara Linton, who seems to be more easily allowed into his boss's life than his own.

Remember those fat novels that took you through generations of family in the Australian Outback? CRIMINAL has just as much emotional resonance -- in only two time periods, forty years ago and now. And you know the endless sexual harrassment faced by officers Rizzoli and Isles in Tess Gerritsen's books and in Patricia Cornwall's forensic epics? CRIMINAL digs deeper by calling up the vicious anti-women stances of "men's work" in the 1970s, when Civil Rights legislation allowed women a way to squeeze into the openings being demanded for men of color.

Most of all, most important, CRIMINAL provides a tense rapid pace, sharp twists of plot, and characters whose hope of redemption depends squarely on whether the crimes taking place can be solved and the criminals successfully brought to justice.

Beth Kanell, Kingdom Books, Waterford, VT, http://kingdombks.blogspot.com

Monday, July 2, 2012

Fun House and other reviews

Fun House – John Ceepak Series by Chris Grabenstein
Available in Hardcover - $25.00 – Pegasus Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com

          Although it has been two years since the last installment of the John Ceepak mysteries, I'm happy to say that it was worth the wait.
          This time, Danny Boyle and Ceepak face some of the most desperate characters ever. No, not criminals … reality show contestants! Sea Haven, NJ is hosting the TV show "Fun House" sort of Jersey Shore meets Big Brother. The contestants are rude, loud and obnoxious – definitely good for ratings if not the peace of Sea Haven. When a contestant is killed it falls to Ceepak and Danny to both protect the rest of the contestants and solve the crime.
          The mystery is well-crafted and Danny's observations are as funny as always. Chris has another winner, the only bad new…it's anther two years until the next one.
Dear Mr. Holmes – Holmes on the Range Series by Steve Hockensmith
Available in Trade Paperback - $9.99 – Createspace
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com
          I was a big fan from the debut of Steve Hockensmith's "Holmes on the Range" novels. Let's face it, stories of two cowboy brothers in the 1890s who solve crimes by emulating their hero, Sherlock Holmes, and whose adventures are almost always hilarious, doesn't get much better than that for me.
          In fact, I only ever found two disappointments. The first being that the author ended the series after only five books. The second was that I had missed the short stories that preceded the novels and were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Fortunately for all of us who missed those, we have a second chance at some of them in Dear Mr. Holmes, a collection of seven short stories previously published in magazines and starting with "Old Red's" and "Big Red's" first story. They are all in the form of letters sent by Otto "Big Red" Amlingmeyer to various publishers and even to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
          These stories cover the span of "Old Red's" "Holmesifyin" adventures including some references to the stories in the novels. As in the novels, the stories become less cowboy oriented, but Old Red always proves that even if you take a cowboy out of the West, he's still a cowboy. They are as excellent and entertaining as any of the longer stories and should not be missed by fans of the Amlingmeyers. If you're not already a fan, these stories are an excellent introduction for you and are sure to make you a fan.
As the Crow Flies – Walt Longmire Mystery by Craig Johnson
Available in Hardcover - $25.95  - Viking Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com
          Absaroka County Sheriff, Walt Longmire, is planning his daughter's wedding when he learns that the location she chose for the ceremony on the Cheyenne Reservation has just been usurped by a tribal elder. So he and best friend, Henry Standing Bear, need to find a replacement location. During their search, Walt witnesses a woman and her infant son fall from a cliff, but was it an accident? Since the death occurred on the Rez, it isn't in Walt's jurisdiction, but the head of the Tribal Police is new to the job and doesn't want Walt's help even though she knows that she needs it. So Walt helps with the investigation while Henry concentrates on the wedding plans. Complete with mystery, adventure and humor, As the Crow Flies is book number eight and a welcome addition to Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire Series.
          On June 3, 2012 the show "Longmire" premiered on A&E TV. Although the plots are not taken directly from Johnson's books, the series is remarkably true to the books with strong characters, beautiful scenery and good mysteries.
Books you might have missed…
The Alto Wore Tweed – Hayden Konig Liturgical Mystery #1 by Mark Schweizer
Available in Trade Paperback - $12.95 – SJMP Books
Recommended by Jay Catherman, Mechanicsburg Mystery Bookshop, Mechanicsburg, PA – MysteryBooksOnline.com

          Hayden Konig is the police chief of St. Germaine, NC. He is also the organist/choir director of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church; but, what he wants to be is a mystery writer. To this end he purchased Raymond Chandler's typewriter in the hope that through it he might receive inspiration. It didn't work! Hayden's stories are terrible yet at the same time hysterical. For that matter the murders that occur in his real life job as police chief are equally hysterical. Author Mark Schweizer has an ecclesiastically twisted sense of humor in this series that he calls the "Liturgical Mysteries." There are several books in the series and each contains two stories … one Hayden writes and one that he solves. Every page has a chuckle and every chapter a belly laugh. Highlight recommended both the mystery and the humor.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A Simple Murder

Recommended by Robin Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, MI, www.auntagathas.com:

A Simple Murder, Eleanor Kuhns, Minotaur, $24.99.
Winner of the new contest set up by the Mystery Writers of America and Minotaur Books, this is an unusual novel in it's setting and time period, but in every other way it is an absolutely classic traditional mystery.  Set in a Shaker community in Maine in 1796, the main character is a traveling weaver and former soldier searching for his runaway teenage son. 
The Shakers were a "charismatic Christian" sect formed as an offshoot of the Quakers, sharing some of their more advanced concepts like equality between the sexes and pacifism.  Because the Shakers didn't actually reproduce, they have now practically died out. However, back in the 1700's the communities were vital ones, as they took in children (and other lost souls, no questions asked) via adoption or abandonment.  In this way, the main character's son, David, has come to be a part of the Shaker community. 
Kuhns comes at her story in a very gentle way, but the number of killings contained within the plot prove her to be every bit as ruthless as Agatha Christie, who frequently had a very high body count.  Also like Mrs. Christie, Kuhns seamlessly blends the social setting and characters she is writing about into her mystery. 
Because Rees, the main character, has had some experience both in the army and during his travels unmasking killers, he is asked to lend a hand when one of the Shaker sisters is killed.  The murder seems to point to someone within the community, but for the life of him Rees can't connect the sister's death with a growing string of deaths and mysterious disappearances, nor can he figure out how she was killed on the quiet Shaker grounds with no one hearing anything.
His "assistant" is one Lydia Jane Farrell, who has left the community for unknown reasons, but who can provide a bridge between Rees and the Shaker sisters, many of whom are unaccustomed to talking to outsiders.  While Rees is treated with generosity by the Shakers – he's given room and board as well as a place to set up his loom and work – he's also treated with a certain wariness, as, like all good detectives throughout mystery fiction, he is an outsider.
Lydia Jane proves an intelligent and fearless assistant, though she becomes emotionally involved as she knows almost all of the victims.  The other main thread is the reuniting of Rees and his son, who resents him for leaving him alone after his mother died with his aunt and uncle who, it becomes clear, have not treated him with all the loving kindness one would hope for.  The writing about this father and son is wonderfully well done.
While this is a very traditional mystery with an actual summing up by the main character at the end, it also seems to be organic in the way the story unfolds so inevitably, each plot point and character growing from another.  It all seems completely natural in every way, and I think some of the reason for that is the exquisite insight the talented Ms. Kuhns has into her characters. 
She's set the book up as the first in a series, one that doesn't seem as though it will continue in the Shaker community, but the threads she leaves hanging at the end of this first novel are tantalizing ones.  This is an enjoyable and thoughtful read, and I'd certainly be more than willing to follow Rees on his next investigation.