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.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Affair, by Lee Child

Reviewed by JB for Seattle Mystery Bookshop, www.SeattleMystery.com
$28.00
ISBN-13: 9780385344326
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Delacorte Press, 9/2011
After a couple of books with what I thought had major problems, Lee Child is back in form for The Affair (signed copies available). Perhaps it is due to this being a prequel, that is, in a way, a smaller story, a narrower focus, more of a whodunnit. Hard to say.
But this story takes us back to Reacher's final case as a military investigator, back in the Spring of '97. There's been a murder outside a 'secret' military base and he's sent to get into this small Mississippi town to look for information – a back-up investigator to the one sent into the base itself. From the start, things don't add up and Reacher forms an alliance with the police chief, herself a former Marine, to search for answers.
As with the best of the Reacher books, about every other chapter there's a major plot twist. I would continually think I knew what was coming but I was invariably wrong. It was wonderful, the best kind of entertainment. Is the murder related to someone on the base or a local? Reacher is warned going in that there are heavy politics involved so he needs to tread lightly but get answers. Can't really give you more – that'd ruin the chain of surprises.
Delightful too were the links he laid in that point to the actual first book in the series, Killing Floor to the small town in Georgia mentioned by his brother Joe in a postcard. Haven't read that since it came out 14 years ago (actually, I probably read an advanced copy a few months before it was published, so it's been more like 15 years!) and I should sit down and re-read it.

Anyway – Lee Child's The Affair – read it, read it now. It's alottafun!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Red Mist

from Kingdom Books, http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/

RED MIST, a Kay Scarpetta Forensics Novel, by Patricia Cornwell

This is the nineteenth in the forensics detection novels that feature Dr. Kay Scarpetta, and it brings her back to the South, where readers first met her -- this time, visiting the Georgia Prison for Women. It's a strange thing for Kay to do. She's been invited to meet a prisoner there, the psychologically bizarre mother of Dawn Kincaid, who attacked Kay during a criminal investigation near Boston. The attack took place in the home that Kay and her husband, FBI agent Benton Wesley, share. And in a powerful sweep of plot, author Patricia Cornwell takes Kay Scarpetta back into the horrors of the attack and the triggers that led to it: factors that include a complete breakdown of Jack Fielding, the forensic examiner's second-in-command for so many years that their relationship has embraced two entire careers, one after another.

But all that is mere detail in what Cornwell provides with the disturbing opening of RED MIST: an ominous, frightening, horror-haunted entry into a "heart of darkness" of Kay's own, throbbing with Southern heat, jungle-like plant growth, and layers of threat from people who think they know her -- and believe an entirely different version of the attack sequence, one that makes Scarpetta herself into a cruel, malicious stereotype of a power-drunk woman.

It's hard to say that one Scarpetta book evokes more horror than another; each one finds a different way to do so. But this one, in which the unhealed psyche that the forensic examiner carried inside her falls victim to hints and allegations, gets creepy very quickly. And as a reader, what horrified me the most was the steady patter of pieces of verbal evidence falling on and around Kay, without her paying attention to them. Narrated by Kay herself in the first-person present, the novel shakes with Kay's uncertainty, collapsing ego, and lack of attention to the dark forces and twisted people around her.

For example, in the visit to the Georgia Prison for Women, the warden herself begins almost immediately to threaten Scarpetta, using as grounds for her verbal attacks a version of Kay that's distorted like a carnival mirror's effect. Curious comments from the warden insist that Kay's visit come after previous kindnesses to the prisoner -- someone Kay's never responded to in any way. And somehow, word of the prisoner's sexual advances to Kay's colleague is open news at this prison, even though it's never been made public. The warden hints that there are already threats to Kay as well, saying, "Seems like you might not be inclined to seek out anything unsafe after what you've been through." The implication is clear: Even this warden, Tara Grimm, is unsafe for Kay.

And soon the imprisoned woman, Kathleen Lawler, is scaring Kay as well, although it's hard to know how she could follow through on her delusions. Again echoing the tropical disorientation of "Heart of Darkness," or of George Smiley in a prison in India, questioning the man who would become his arch-enemy Karla, Scarpetta observes the incongruities around her, yet fails to seize on them and question them. Perhaps the most frightening moment in this lengthy prelude to the book's eventual action comes when the prisoner unthinkingly uses the term "them" in reference to what was, as far as Kay Scarpetta knows, one baby born while Lawler was in prison. Kay repeats the phrase, questioning it, but the moment floods past in a rush of other narration from the prisoner, and it appears Kay has missed a critical clue -- for many pages, and many attacks and deaths, yet to follow in the book.

Readers of the series will shudder with Kay at threats to her marriage to Benton Wesley; at implications that Pete Marino may have betrayed her; at an intrusion into Kay's life from a forceful woman whose connection to Scarpetta is through her beloved niece Lucy.

Right before reading RED MIST, I re-read book four in the series, Cruel and Unusual, which uses a very different narrative structure and a much less intense set of metaphors and moods. But it reminded me of why I've bought and read every Scarpetta novel at some point, in recognition of the force and emotional connection with which Cornwell endows her characters. In some ways it made it hard for me to give way to the author's insistent path in this newest book. And in others, it convinced me that no matter how uncomfortable I became, I had to push on, to discover what Patricia Cornwell had created this time.

Worth every moment, I think, and as the book settles in me, I feel even more strongly about it. An extra plus of this publication is that Cornwell is front-and-center lately in a more public persona than she's shown in years. It's been good to see her and listen to her on TV and radio this month. And for an intriguing interview online, check this one with Janice Kaplan at The Daily Beast.

This book stays on my "re-read these" shelf. It's a keeper.
 
~ Beth Kannell

Edited for Death

Edited for Death
Michele Drier
Mainly Murder Press, October 2011
ISBN 978-0-9836823-1-8
Trade Paperback

The recent death of a US Senator, also a World War II hero, leads Amy Hobbes, manager of a small-town newspaper, to send her reporter, Clarice, to the Senator's nearby hometown on assignment. Marshalltown, in Northern California, is a survivor of the Gold Rush days and Amy believes the Senator's story could lead to a book, possibly her ticket out of the dying newspaper business.

Juxtaposed with Clarice's research is the story of an American G. I. in Heidelberg, Germany, in the waning days of World War II, a story that mixes fear with heroics and a moment's decision that will have repercussions many years later.

Clarice's research in Marshalltown brings out some interesting background about the town and the Senator's family, centered in the old hotel now owned by Senator Calvert's grandson, but nothing seems to be especially exciting. Then, a death occurs in the hotel, a death that may be due to murder. The possibility of murder, of course, send Amy's and Clarice's investigative instincts into overdrive.

The author's debut novel is nicely done with only the occasional misstep, mainly having to do with why the characters would do certain things. These plotting errors didn't interfere with my enjoyment of the story and connecting World War II to the present-day mystery adds a depth that lifts the book above many debuts. The only thing I didn't like has to do with a personal preference—I really don't care for first person present tense—but I'll look forward to reading more by Ms. Drier.

from Leila Taylor, http://www.cncbooks.com/blog/

 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Bumsted Books of the Year

from Whodunit? http://www.whodunitcanada.com/home

Jack's Picks

In the past, one book has for me usually distanced itself from the pack as the "book of the year," but this time around I am unable to single out one title. Instead three books jostle in my mind as outstanding. One is Ian Rankin's latest, The Impossible Dead. As we all know, Rankin retired John Rebus a few years back. Rebus was ready for retirement. He was drinking too much and had become far too cynical. In his place has come Malcolm Ross, a policeman in a unit that investigates the wrongdoing of other cops, commonly known as "The Complaints." Ross drinks Appletizer and has less angst than Rebus, but his cases are as complex and political as his predecessor's.

As a historian, I really appreciate the series by C. J. Sansom based in Henrician England. I am hard-pressed to think of another that better combines historical detail, sharp plotting, and a likeable detective. Heartstone, the fifth in the series, maintains Sansom's high standards. To the historically-accurate plot of England preparing for naval war against France in 1545, Sansom adds a number of subplots, including one involving Shardlake and his relationship with a woman erroneously housed in Bedlam. If I have a problem with this book, it is in the large number of overlapping subplots, which require several chapters to resolve at the end.

There will never be another Stieg Larsson, and it is time that we stopped looking for one. The Millenium Trilogy was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. There are other good Nordic writers, however. This year I was particularly impressed with Jussi Adler-Olsen's The Keeper of Lost Causes. As is usually the case, Adler-Olson has been publishing for some years, and this book, while the first in English translation, is hardly his maiden effort. Adler-Olsen is Danish, and so the setting is a bit unusual. So too are the premises of the book. A Copenhagen cop who has been involved in a violent incident in which colleagues were killed (and in which he failed to draw his gun) is so damaged by guilt that he becomes a pariah within his unit. He eventually is exiled to a newly-created Department Q, located in the basement of the police building, which is charged with investigating cold cases. He is Department Q's only member, although he soon acquires an assistant, an Arab named Assad, who is officially employed as a cleaner. Assad, it transpires, is not only a brilliant detective but an experienced one, having worked for some years for some Middle Eastern secret service agency. The two men work together to solve the long-ago disappearance of a member of parliament. Good stuff!

Wendy's Picks

My book of the year for 2011 is C.C. Benison's, Twelve Drummers Drumming. This is the start of a new series for the author of the 'Her Majesty Investigates series'. The main character, Rev. Tom Christmas, aka. Father Christmas, is the new rector of Thornford Regis, a small English town. However, although the town seems idyllic and a far cry from the inner city where Tom Christmas had previously worked, all, as we might guess, is not as it seems. It is the classic English mystery with a modern setting. Miss Marple might be surprised at the way the townscape and public behaviour have changed but she would not be surprised at the secrets and the evil that lurks within.

2011 has been a good year for me as a number of my favorite authors have had new titles. I have been a big fan of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles 'Bill Slider' series since it started in 1991, and have always been sad that she neglected this series because of the demands of her historical series, The Morland Dynasty, now up to #34. However, by some fluke this year there have been two Slider novels published. In March, Body Line was published and since August has been available in trade paper. In November, we received Kill My Darling, the 14th in the series and only available so far in hard cover.

The tenth in Barry Maitland's Brock and Kolla series, The Dark Mirror, finally arrived in trade paper in September, followed in October by Chelsea Mansions, only available in hard cover. This series is set largely in London and its environs and gives a very contemporary view of the city and British society. The seemingly random murder of an American tourist visiting the famed Chelsea Flower Show is the starting point for Chelsea Mansions. The second death of a Russian oligarch leads David Brock and his team to travel long distances in both time and space, to the United States and into the long forgotten past.

I used to be a big fan of Val McDermid but recently I had been finding her a little too dark for my taste. However, I really enjoyed her most recent title A Trick of the Dark, a standalone set around an Oxford college. Charlie Flint, is a clinical psychologist, whose career is somewhat under a cloud, is asked by one of her undergraduate advisors to look into a murder.



Two Christmas Mysteries

 
What Mary Alice is reading:
Christmas Mourning ($7.99) by Margaret Maron There is something special about a Christmas mystery and by the hand of Margaret Maron it is a real gift. Christmas Mourning, 16th in the Deborah Knott series, brings Judge Deborah Knott and her sprawling Southern family together again, but the death of a young cheerleader in a car crash dims the lights. It was no accident and the answers can only be found after the teens and Aunt Deborah get together before the holiday and anniversary of the talented sleuth. Not to be missed…I would see that this is under the tree for your favorite reader.

Also available as an eBook

What Richard is reading:
Twelve Drummers Drumming ($24) by C.C. Benison I don't think we could have dreamed up a more perfect Christmas mystery than Twelve Drummers Drumming by C.C. Benison (remember her from the Jane Bee mysteries?). We've got the village of Thornford Regis, we've got a vicar and sleuth named Father Christmas who's a single parent with a nine year old daughter and we've got a murder victim—the daughter of the choir director. Just a perfect treat for the season. Let's hope they do one of these every Christmas.

Also available as an eBook

 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Aunt Agatha's Year's best

from auntagatha.com
 

Top Ten List 2011

Every year, one of my favorite tasks is assembling my Top 10 List, which usually (actually always) involves winnowing and eliminating - at the end of the list, there are even more titles I really enjoyed. This year I'm moving two perennials to the "Emeritus" category - Louise Penny and William Kent Krueger - they are almost always on the list so, while including the wonderful book each of them wrote this year, I've left room for 10 other titles as well. Happy reading!

Now You See Me, S.J. Bolton, Minotaur, $25.99.

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"We lie to dying people, I realized that evening, just as the first sirens sounded in the distance."

Bolton goes from strength to strength, delivering an original read every time. While her first three books were set in remote British locations, this one takes place in London, and is a straight up police procedural - or is it? As the cops working what quickly become obvious are copies of Jack the Ripper's killings, it's also obvious that the killer is fixated on one of the policewomen, who the rest of the squad keeps under close watch. What isn't clear is - is she being watched because they think she's connected to the killer, or because they're worried about her? Or both? Bolton keeps you guessing, and this is a wonderfully twisty thriller with her trademark wonderful use of setting. What also sets this book apart is her look at the crimes, and at the work of the policewomen involved, through a gender lens. It's not a polemic, but it gives the reader a female-centric view of crime, not only the murder cases, but also some rape cases in a correlated thread. You could also just read this book because it's a terrific thriller. Either way, this is not an author to be missed.

Killed at the Whim of a Hat, Colin Cotterill, Minotaur, $24.99.

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"A number of lands around the globe have what they refer to as a southern temperament. Thailand is no exception. Old Mel could surely have gone running off screaming for help...But he was a southerner. He broke off a stem of sweet grass to chew while he sat on the concrete segment and gazed into the abyss."

Colin Cotterill has transplanted the charm and humor of his Dr. Siri series to his now native Thailand, and created an entirely new family of eccentrics for readers to love. His gentle and ironic touch is unchanged, though his new central character, Jimm Juree, is a young woman instead of a 70-something man like Dr. Siri. Jimm lives with her family in crowded Chang Mai, and as the story opens she discovers her mother has sold the family business and bought a resort in the middle of nowhere. The photos of the Gulf Bay Lovely Resort and Restaurant made it look beautiful; the reality is slightly different. A former crime beat reporter, Jimm is bored by the tiny fishing village where the resort is located. However, she is delighted when two skeletons are discovered buried in a VW bus, and as she explores the mystery, she also begins to love her new town. She shares the stage with her eccentric and strong willed mother, her grandfather, who rarely speaks, and her brother, Arny, a sensitive 31 year old virgin and bodybuilder. The story is clever and surprisingly complicated, tied together with chapter epigraphs taken directly from the lips of George W. Bush, whose malapropisms are somehow wildly appropriate to Jimm's new life in the provinces. The gentle interplay of the family â€" the grandfather who starts to speak; the mother who appears to be getting forgetful and is sneaking around in some kind of Ninja costume, and the changing love fortunes of the shy and awkward Arny - are the true heart of the book. This is one of the reads of the year.

Murder Season, Robert Ellis, Minotaur, $25.99.

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"She could smell it in the pillow as she pulled it closer. On the sheets as she rolled over in the darkness and searched out cool spots that were not there. Murder Season. She was floating, drifting. Cruising through an open seam between sleep and consciousness."

If there is a writer to resemble, it might be a good idea to resemble Michael Connelly. It is no disrespect to say that Robert Ellis' tightly plotted police procedurals set in LA and featuring homicide detective Lena Gamble resemble Connelly's Harrry Bosch novels. However, the gender change up makes the whole enterprise fresh. Ellis happily also shares Connelly's sharp plotting and ability to give the reader a twist that has been fairly laid out for the reader, yet is still a surprise. I think police novels are the modern equivalent of the private eye novel â€" the police in contemporary mysteries often think and operate somewhat outside the box, much like an old school private eye â€" so using the old P.I. tropes are a natural fit. Ellis embellishes the tropes and makes them his own, and one of the ways he does this is with evocative prose. In this tricky story involving a notorious Hollywood murder case, Lena has much territory to navigate, with the help/hindrance of an old cop on the way down. In true noir fashion, she's never sure who to trust, but the reader can easily trust Lena, whose smarts never lead her in the wrong direction. Beautifully written and plotted, it would truly be a shame to miss this wonderful novel.

The Janus Stone, Elly Griffiths, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25.00.

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"Love is always a force for good...Your love for your wife and daughters, for this woman and her unborn baby. Even your wife's kindness toward her. These are all good things...love is always a blessing."

So many people I respected told me to check out Elly Griffiths I finally did, and boy, am I hooked on Ruth Galloway. She's fabulous. Unapologetically overweight, with no interest in clothes, Ruth instead focuses on her fascinating job as an archaeologist. Set on the coast of England, Ruth lives in a remote location, and she's a convenient expert whenever bones are discovered - in this novel, some are Roman, some are more recent. When I read the first book, The Crossing Places, I liked it so much that I ordered 25 copies right away and proceeded to hand sell them. I can safely say every reader I've introduced to Ruth is looking forward to the January publication of The House by the Sea. These books, aside from featuring a great character - in fact many great characters - also have a good, complex story and a lovely setting and background. I think I'm a life time fan.

Buffalo West Wing, Julie Hyzy, Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99 (paperback original).

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"Two hours later, I had rehashed every moment of the kids' disastrous first visit to the kitchen a hundred times. No matter how you cut the cheesecake, there was no way I could have served those wings."

I always like to include a book on this list that's simply the most fun I had "between the covers" all year. For me, it was this book, the 4th in Hyzy's wildly entertaining series set in the White House Kitchen. In this one, executive Chef Olivia Paras gets a new boss in the form of a new first family, and the new first lady is skeptical, as are her children. Olivia tries her hardest to please her new bosses, big and small, but an incident early on sours things, and it takes a kidnaping toward the end of the book to get the first family on Olivia's side. I found this entry as funny and fast paced as the others but also surprisingly moving. Hyzy really seems to have hit her storytelling stride.

Season of Darkness, Maureen Jennings, McClelland & Stewart, $22.95.

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"Dawn was starting to seep through the trees and the exercise was getting the blood flowing. She kicked her feet off the pedals and did a little swoop from side to side just for fun. Whoopee! There was something to be said about this war. She'd never have this experience stuck in the filthy London back-to-back housing where she'd grown up."

Maureen Jennings hits the ball out of the park with this first book in a planned trilogy set during WWII England, and helmed by local policeman Tom Tyler. This tiny Shropshire town is populated not only by an interment camp for Germans - mainly intellectuals, one of them a student of Freud - but it's also full of Land Girls, the young women who helped to bring the crops in all over Britain during the war. When a body of a Land Girl is found with a mysterious bunch of white poppies, it takes all of Tom Tyler's instincts and some help from the Freudian to help unravel what becomes a series of killings. The killing are tied in a complex way to the town, with emotional repercussions for many of its citizens. A master at complex plotting, wonderful characters, and a vibrant setting, it's wonderful to see the talented Jennings at work on a new series.

Northwest Angle, William Kent Krueger, Atria, $24.99.

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"He woke long before it was necessary, had wakened in this way for weeks, troubled and afraid. A dull illumination came through the houseboat window into the cabin he shared with his son. Not light exactly. More the promise of light. False dawn..."

Krueger uses one of his trademarks - a high drama weather event, tied to an emotional one - to great effect here. As Cork O'Connor's family is enjoying a vacation in a secluded area called the Northwest Angle, a storm comes up and Cork and his daughter Jenny are separated from the rest of the group, and for a time, from each other. While alone, Jenny finds both a dead body and a baby, and the first half of the novel is a bravura chase sequence, with Cork and Jenny's main goal keeping the foundling safe. Skillfully balancing a complex story, some deep emotional threads, and a beautiful rendering of the north woods and waters, Krueger's book is also simply a wonderful, well written thriller. It's another great read from one of our top notch contemporary crime writers.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat, Laura Lippman, William Morrow, $11.99.

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"Overdo a slow waddle to the bathroom! This made no sense to Tess. Raucous fun could be overdone. Drinking could be overdone. High-fat food could be overdone, even exercise. But a ten-foot walk to the bathroom?"

This slender paperback, culled from a serial that appeared first in the New York Times, is such a perfect book in its own way that I had to include it. In this book Tess is pregnant and on forced bed rest (something she's not taking well), and with a bravura nod to Hitchcock's Rear Window, the bedridden Tess uncovers a mystery as she watches the action unfold outside her front window. At the same time it allows Lippman to have almost every important-to-Tess character come through the door, and she gives them each their own chapter, so as a reader you learn more about series stalwarts like Mrs. Blossom, Whitney, Lloyd, her Dad, and Crow. While Lippman works with very familiar tropes, she makes them fresh, sometimes through originality of character, sometimes through humor, and always with a snap of her crisp plotting skills. Moving, fast paced, and clever, this is a purely delightful read, and if you are a Tess Monaghan fan, one not to be missed.

A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny, Minotaur, $25.99.

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"Was this how dreadful things started? Peter wondered. Not with a thunder clap. Not with a shriek. Not with sirens, but with a smile? Something horrible come calling, wrapped in civility and good manners."

Penny's latest novel is a long awaited look at the marriage and careers of series characters Peter and Clara, both artists. As the book opens, most of Three Pines is headed to Clara's gallery opening in Montreal. When one of Clara's old frenemies (and former art critic) Lillian Dyson turned up dead in Clara's garden the day after the art opening, all hell breaks loose. While Penny hews to almost golden age conventions in some ways (her story set ups) her emotional truths and revelations are far more contemporary, and this novel is a mediation on jealousy and it's destructiveness in any kind of relationship. The mystery part is as skillful as ever, but here is also the trademark beautiful prose and memorable characterizations Penny's readers have come to expect, as well as her ultimately optimistic viewpoint. Long may she write.

Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey, Random House, $15.00.

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"Every time he came home, Dawson felt a surge of thankfulness, like the swell of a wave. The little house was a sanctuary, armor against the wickedness of the crime he dealt with every day. A bit of a fortress too. His police sense had led him to burglarproof the house to the extreme."

I hear Kwei's series hasn't been picked up, and that's a real shame because both his novels, set in Ghana and featuring Detective Darko, are knockouts. This book moves him to the head of the class as Darko is in his home city of Accra, dealing with the deaths of the some of the incredible number of street children there. While giving the reader a heartbreaking picture of the city, he also gives a balanced one, as Darko's own family life, while not uncomplicated, is far from bleak, and he loves his wife and son. Darko is one of my favorite new mystery characters, as he's not uncomplicated himself - he has anger issues, a little problem with pot, a bit of a wandering eye, and he can "hear" a lie in someone's voice - and at the same time he's a very smart and capable policeman. The novel moves at a fast pace with lots of clues scattered throughout, as Quartey is also a devotee of the classic mystery. I'm truly hoping Detective Darko and his creator find a new publishing home, as I was looking forward to many more outings.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes, Marcus Sakey, Dutton, $25.95.

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"A blurry week ago he had woken on one coast. It had been cold and gray and lonely, beautiful in a desolate sort of way. It had nearly killed him, and maybe he had wanted it to."

This book, like all of Sakey's novels, was impossible to put down, and like the best of them, it also carries some emotional heft. Daniel Hayes wakes up on one side of the country with no memory (or clothes) - but finds a convenient BMW nearby, with clothes that fit - and he drives the car back to Los Angeles, which feels like home to him. As his memory comes back to him in bits and pieces he starts to remember that he was married to a fairly well known television star, she's dead, and he's the main suspect. As Sakey teases out Daniel's memories, as a reader, you're working as hard as Daniel, since what you're working with is no different from what Daniel is working with. Daniel is a writer, and Sakey uses that skill to help him figure out what's going on. The thoughtfulness that Sakey brings to his explication of memory, desire, love and loyalty as a part of Daniel's quest adds to the book's depth. Sakey is also a gifted prose stylist. He makes his prose simple but it's crisp and memorable, with never a misplaced word. A Sakey novel is always something worth celebrating, especially when it's as good as this one.

One Was a Soldier, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Minotaur, $24.99

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"Are you kidding?" She looked around with lively interest. "I've never been in the Dew Drop Inn before." "For a very good reason. This piss-hole is no place for a- a - " "Officer? Lady? Priest?" "A nice Episcopalian."

I think I can safely say there was no more anticipated return to the mystery reading community than that of Clare Fergusson and her creator, Julia Spencer-Fleming. Happily, this book is not a disappointment, but a great, sprawling, complex read, one that finds Clare back from Iraq, planning her wedding to Russ. Her return is complicated by her struggles with addiction. Her membership in a returning vets support group illuminates different folks in town as Spencer-Fleming skillfully weaves her story to include a wide swath of Miller's Kill, New York. The emotional wallop of this novel is huge, as Spencer-Fleming spares heartbreak neither in her stories of the veterans, nor in her depiction of Clare's struggle. When there's a murder in town, with ties to the vet's group, Clare of course gets involved, more or less shutting Russ out, in classic addict behavior. Things are coming right by the end of the novel, but not before a lot of emotional struggle and heartbreak. The narrative is complex and tricky, as Spencer-Fleming continues to proves that she's also a devotee of the traditional mystery structure. I'm already looking forward to Clare's next appearance.

Also recommended:

Wicked Autumn (Minotaur), G.M. Malliett's sly take on the village cozy; Dogs Don't Lie (Poisoned Pen), Clea Simon's original story about a woman who "hears" what animals are thinking; Motor City Shakedown (Minotaur), D.E. Johnson's sophomore effort set in 1911 Detroit; Winged Obsession (William Morrow), Jessica Speart's compulsive read about the world of butterfly collecting; and Killing Kate (Atria), Julie Kramer's latest and scariest Riley Spartz outing.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Killer Book

Barbara Tom of Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, selects:

Breaking Point, by Dana Haynes (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 9780312599881)

Dana Haynes' first book, Crashers -- the nickname used for the National
Transportation Safety Board's team of investigators of airplane crashes --
brought a quirky but brilliant group of individuals together for an
investigation in Portland. We met pathologist Tommy Tomzak, sharp-eared Kiki
Duvall, and pilot Isaiah Grey, the core of that crash team. This time
around, they are passengers in the plane that crashes in a forest in
Montana. Turnabout is not fair play.

Haynes informs us that it is not unusual for real-life crash teams to have
different configurations each time. Members are drawn from experts all over
the country, depending on who is closest and available, and Haynes'
fictional team is no exception. New faces with new talents pop up to help.
However, Peter Kim, the pain-in-the-heinie from Crashers, is the
Investigator in Charge this time. Gulp.

Further hindering the dream team is the fact that tiny-but-tough Susan
Tanaka is on a rare vacation, so she isn't in charge of enabling the
investigation either on-site or in D.C. By-the-book Peter as the IIC is
missing the elusive creative factor needed to solve the mystery of the
crash. It's a good thing the NTSB survivors -- ostracized by Kim -- form an
unauthorized shadow team.

FBI agent Ray Calabrese and mysterious ex-Israeli agent Daria Gibron are
also back and join our heroes.

A silver-haired mercenary, nicknamed Calendar, caused the crash. One can
only think that his benign-sounding name represents the clock ticking and
time running out. Will the forest fire started by the plane crash destroy
all the evidence? Why was Calendar hired to destroy the plane? Will the
primary go-team stumble on the truth? Will the shadow go-team find Calendar
before he kills them? Are Calendar's days numbered?

The combination of main team, shadow team, double-crossers, and
double-double-crossers puts a lot of players up front, but Haynes does an
outstanding job sorting them out.

This is a page-turner that will put a blister on your finger.

Friday, December 2, 2011

from Murder by the Book, Portland - mbtb.com

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Slash and Burn, by Colin Cotterill (hardcover, $25)(due 12/6/11)
Colin Cotterill's books starring Dr. Siri Paiboun have been among our most recommended at the store. Dr. Siri is a coroner in 1970s Communist Laos. Actually, Dr. Siri is Laos' ONLY coroner. He gets into plenty of political and criminal hot water because of his irreverent attitude and acute observations, some of which are not of this world. It sometimes helps and sometimes hurts that he can see ghosts. One particular soul who haunts Siri is an ancient Hmong shaman. The books have humor and warmth, they speak about a time and locale that are beyond the personal knowledge of most of Cotterill's readers, and they also incorporate serious political and cultural issues that affected Southeast Asia at the time.
So it was with great sadness that I read the announcement that this would be the last Dr. Siri book.

Slash and Burn is not as brilliant as Love Songs from a Shallow Grave, its immediate predecessor, but it constitutes a fond enough farewell to Siri.

A MIA U.S. helicopter pilot who worked for Air America (now widely accepted as a CiA/drug-running outfit) is the subject of a search by a joint U.S./Lao group. Ten years after his helicopter crashed, there is evidence that he might still be alive. Dr. Siri is roped into being a member of the team. He, in turn, ropes his wife, morgue colleagues, and best friend into accompanying him. The flamboyant, psychic, and cross-dressing Auntie Bpoo sneaks aboard. She claims she's there to prevent Siri's death, which she has foreseen on her psychic channel.

After a helicopter trip into the remote area where the investigation will begin, after truck rides in which no rut or pothole is left unfelt, after figuring out how the U.S. and Laotian sides will communicate, and especially after a murder occurs, Siri and his gang realize this will be a real busman's holiday.

Goodbye to the intuitive and wise Dr. Siri. Goodbye to his gun-toting, ex-rebel, noodle-making wife Daeng. Goodbye to competent Nurse Dtui and her macho police officer husband Phosy. Goodbye to sweet, mentally challenged morgue attendent Geung. Goodbye to sarcastic former politico Civilai. Goodbye to Ugly, the dog Siri discovers and adopts in this book; we hardly knew ye. Goodbye, even, to weasley Judge Haeng, Siri's incompetent nemesis. But it's not goodbye to Colin Cotterill.

Recently released Killed at the Whim of a Hat was Cotterill's first non-Siri book. It, too, is a winner and has the same lovely blend of humor and seriousness. Nevertheless, we can all have a group hug and together shuffle over to the Kleenex box.*

* A pop culture reference to the last scene in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," still one of the funniest sad scenes ever.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Murder in the 11th House, by Mitchell Scott Lewis ($14.95)

There are many interesting things about this book, including an unusual astrologer/detective and his crusading lawyer daughter. However, there's also a disconcerting mixture of mostly polite talk with a lot of incongruous heavy-duty swearing. David Lowell, the astrologer, is a beer connoisseur à la Nero Wolfe, prickly personality, gentleman, and aikido black belt. His daughter's client is quick-tempered Joanna "Johnny" Colbert, a foul-mouthed bartender accused of murdering a judge.

Reasons to keep reading: Johnny has a gambling problem, so there's an interesting and sobering aside on the mechanics of gambling addiction. I quite enjoyed the fact that Lowell is wealthy, and he made his money in the stock market by using astrology. There are spots of humor, especially with Lowell's secretary, and they were good touches.

Things that make you close your eyes: Johnny develops a crush on the much older and more sophisticated Lowell, and there's an awkward moment or two as his daughter, Melinda, seems to sanction it. Although the book is written in the third person, the only character who is fleshed out is Lowell. It's classic amateur sleuthing meets political thriller meets My Fair Lady, and the mishmash is dizzying.

There's a lot of potential for turning this into an interesting series. Had Johnny's swearing not been so graphically portrayed, the story would have been smoother and better defined. Or, conversely, maybe everyone else should have been harder-boiled.