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, March 31, 2012

Available Dark

Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand, Minotaur, $23.99.
Recommended by Jamie Agnew, Aunt Agatha's, Ann Arbor, MI, www.auntagathas.com:

 
In her first appearance, Generation Loss, Elizabeth Hand's protagonist Cassandra Neary provides this memorable self-portrait:
 
I caught a glimpse of myself in a dark window: a gaunt Valkyrie holding a spear taller than I was, teeth bared in a drunken grimace and eyes bloodshot from some redneck teenager's ADD medication.
 
"Hey ho, let's go," I said, and went.
 
Neary has many of the qualities more expected in a male noir protagonist. She's violent, bad tempered, substance abusing, cynical, haunted, corrupt, but yet able to tell the difference between right and wrong at the crucial moment and equally able to act decisively on that knowledge.
 
Above all she's a survivor, who despite her punk motto No Future, has found herself stubbornly living on. A devastating rape and the collapse of the New Wave into the Reagan years have left her barely functional, working (unhappy wretch!) in a bookstore, unable to connect with anyone or anything.
 
In Hand's second mystery Available Dark, Cassie having to some small extent achieved redemption, not to mention cash, from her first adventure, finds the past reaching out to shove her into a perilous future. Her signal artistic achievement, a long out of print book of photographs called Dead Girls, a punk era chronicle somewhere between Cindy Sherman and Weegee, has developed an underground life of its own, becoming a sort of loadstone that attracts morbid, artistic and dangerous people into her life. On the strength of its continuing reputation she's asked by a series of shady middlemen to travel to Helsinki in order to evaluate some one of a kind photographs being sold by a decadent, former superstar fashion photographer.
 
At the same time another powerful force compels her northward as she's anonymously mailed her own old photograph of Quinn, the man described as "the only person I ever really cared about," who she hasn't seen in decades, the envelope postmarked Iceland.
 
She consents to embark on the grand tour of cold, stopping in Finland to be floored by the pictures, which, though morbidly suggesting serial murder and ritual killing are also stunning works of art. She then surreptitiously flies to Iceland on her employer's dime, hoping to find Quinn.
 
It's in Iceland that both the writing and the action crank up. Everyone involved with the Helsinki photographs seem to be getting killed, and when she finally encounters Quinn and his own group of shady associates, it's obvious they're also knee deep in the whole bloody affair.
 
Hand's descriptions of Iceland are especially powerful – a country whose economy is as bleak as its landscape, a noir world of paganism and black metal where no one can be trusted and the very climate is deadly. It all ends in a violent resolution in the middle of frigid nowhere which reveals who the real criminals of the contemporary world are.
 
Available Dark is as lean and fast moving as its protagonist, but with a strong, meditative ballast and a stark view of the nature and even attractiveness of evil. The northern setting, though undoubtedly trendy these days, is an integral part of the book, the end result leaving the reader anticipating another visit from Cassandra Neary.
 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

reviews

The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
What a great thriller! Debut author Owen Laukkanen is sure to become a
legend with his fast paced and unique style.
Four recent college graduates are very frustrated when they find
themselves with plenty of education but no job. They joke about
robbing banks or perhaps kidnapping. The second option becomes a
reality when they find how easy it is to find a ?mark? via the
internet and demand a small enough ransom that the family will pay it
quickly and not call the police. Although they swear it is just a
temporary situation, the easy money and greed keep them in the racket
for two years. Things suddenly get much more complicated when they
kidnap Terry Harper whose wife pays the ransom but his ego will not
let him be victimized so easily and he reports the crime to the
police. Next, the foursome fail to do enough research on a victim and
kidnaps, and in a moment of panic, kills Donald Beneteau, a huge
figure in organized crime. The result is they have law enforcement on
their tail, as well as some ruthless organized crime thugs hired by
Beneteau?s family.
The amateurs are forced to become professionals with the action never
stopping and becoming increasingly explosive until the ultimate brutal
and final confrontation.
The Professionals will be released on March 29, 2012 and we have
signed copies on order. Owen is working on a second novel. He is
definitely worth waiting for!
-- Bunny Hand, Mysterious Galaxy San Diego

G.P. Putnam?s Sons , $24.95.

The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye
The wars of New York City are heating up 1845. Nationality, religion
and sibling rivalry all play starring roles in this intriguing
historical mystery. Author Lyndsay Faye writes a gritty and compelling
fictional story that clues the reader into the fledgling days of the
New York City police department and the political and social issues of
a turbulent time in American history. The Gods of Gotham is a great
addition to the personal library of anyone who enjoyed The Gangs of
New York.
-- Nicole Porter, Mysterious Galaxy Redondo Beach

Amy Einhorn Books, $25.95

-- Maryelizabeth Hart

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Mysterious Galaxy Books
San Diego, CA
Redondo Beach, CA (October 2011)
http://www.mystgalaxy.com
http://www.facebook.com/MysteriousGalaxy
http://twitter.com/MystGalaxyBooks
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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Killer Book: The Night She Disappeared

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


The Night She Disappeared by April Henry
Henry Holt, ISBN 9780805092622, $16.99


We know Portland author April Henry from her adult books and because of her makes-us-laugh sense of humor. She has co-authored other young adult books, but this is her first solo YA venture.

This is a different kettle of fish than Henry's adult books. It's serious and thriller-intense. Kayla Cutler, a 17-year-old girl, disappeared while delivering pizza. Her coworkers and classmates, Andrew "Drew" Lyle and Gabriella "Gabie" Klug, become involved even though they know next to nothing about either Kayla or her disappearance.

Drew is trying to earn enough money to keep a roof over his head. In the brief scenes in which she is introduced, it's obvious that something is wrong with Drew's mother, and his father is nowhere to be seen. Henry draws out Drew's story over the course of the novel, until his plight is finally revealed. It could be maudlin, but Henry does a good job making it moving instead.

Gabie is the daughter of two high-powered surgeons. She's smart, independent by necessity, and down-to-earth. Gabie had switched shifts at Pete's Pizza with Kayla. It was Kayla who was working the night that Drew took a phone order from a man who wanted to know if Gabie was working that night. Drew didn't answer his question, and Kayla took the delivery. And disappeared. The police and Kayla's family do everything they can to find her body and her killer. Gabie, on the other hand, has a vague feeling that Kayla is still alive.

Gabie and Drew struggle to come to terms with Gabie's intuition and the opposing evidence the police have found, including a young man they suspect of being the killer.

It's not just a book for young adults, old adults can enjoy the tension and characterizations as well. Henry is a good storyteller, and she fashions her plot well.

Review of Helpless by Daniel Palmer

Helpless

By Daniel Palmer

Reviewed by Tracy Allerton
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
www.murderonthebeach.com

Helpless, Daniel Palmer's second novel (after last year's best-seller Delirious), once again explores the ways that modern technology can be used to destroy the lives of innocent men. It's a page-turner of a thriller that builds to an exciting climax and fitting denouement.

          In this story, Tom Hawkins, 43, is a former Navy SEAL who now works happily as the coach of the girls' soccer team in his hometown high school. Not so happy is his personal life: He is bitterly divorced from his high-school sweetheart, Kelly, and distressingly estranged from his teenage daughter, Jill -- a star player on the team.

          When Kelly is killed after fleeing from an intruder in her house, Tom is suddenly thrust into the role of full-time dad. He and Jill take tentative steps toward reconciliation, until Tom is branded as a sexual predator by a sly cyber-bullying campaign. An anonymous blog accuses him of sleeping with a schoolgirl teammate of Jill's, followed by the discovery by police of under-aged porn images on his work computer. These events put him in the sights of FBI special agent Rainy Miles, who investigates cyber crimes against children. Despite Tom's protestations of innocence - and her growing attraction to him -- Rainy is determined to bring him to justice.

          Things for Tom become increasingly desperate as he fights to clear his name and discover the truth behind Kelly's death and these personal attacks. It seems that his problems are tied to a dark secret from his final days in the Navy, and he   must utilize all of his knowledge and military training if he and Jill are to survive. Kensington, 25.00

--    Joanne Sinchuk Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Pineapple Grove 273 NE 2nd Avenue Delray Beach, FL  33444 Phone: 561-279-7790 murdermb@gate.net www.murderonthebeach.com

Review of Chalk Girl

The Chalk Girl

By Carol O'Connell

Reviewed by Sue Wilder
Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore
www.murderonthebeach.com

A school class trip to Central Park on a beautiful spring day turns to mayhem when a plague of rats descends on the park. The teacher keels over from a stroke and Coco, a small red-haired girl who was not part of the group, disappears into the ramble area of the park, pursued by a predator.

            Detective Mallory and her partner Riker are called to the scene. They find Coco who has a patch of blood on her shoulder, claiming that her uncle turned into a tree. When they look up, they see a burlap bag hanging from a tree. The bag contains Coco's uncle and is the first of three bags found in the trees. When Mallory and Riker investigate the connections of the victims, they follow a trail stretching back to unreported crimes and buried secrets from fifteen years ago.

            Mallory is known as "the machine" in the squad room. She is extremely bright, obsessively organized, and technologically adept. Mallory is also a damaged personality from childhood which makes her a perfect match for Coco who suffers from Williams syndrome. Mallory tends to follow the money trail in her investigations, which in this case takes her into the upper echelons of New York City's police and political circles.

            The Chalk Girl is intricately plotted. Ms. O'Connell expertly weaves the threads of the current crimes with those of fifteen years ago. The characters are expertly drawn, their motives excellent catalysts for their actions.

            Mallory is one of the most fascinating characters in crime fiction. Before Lisbeth Salander in the Dragon Tattoo series, there was Mallory. The award winning Mallory's Oracle was the first in the series. Driven by her own unique sense of justice, Mallory brings her cases to a satisfying close.

            Highly recommended to fans who like their protagonists dark and fearless and their stories mentally challenging. Difficult to put down.PUT 25.95 

--    Joanne Sinchuk Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore Pineapple Grove 273 NE 2nd Avenue Delray Beach, FL  33444 Phone: 561-279-7790 murdermb@gate.net www.murderonthebeach.com

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bent Road by Lori Roy

Bent Road, Lori Roy, Plume, $15.00.

This is Lori Roy's first novel, and it's nominated for an Edgar.  It's a very assured storytelling voice for a first timer, with an excellent sense of place, and a complex and creepy story.  One of the words I'd choose for this book is "atmospheric" since, sometimes almost unfortunately, as a reader you can picture all too well the tiny Kansas farmhouse where the plagued Scott family lives.

The central family, Celia and Arthur, and their children, Elaine, Daniel and Evie, have come back to rural Kansas after fleeing Detroit in the wake of the '68 riots.  While the year is never specifically referenced, it's made clear by a few details – the memory of the pillbox hats Celia used to wear to church in Detroit for example.  And Detroit seems an entire world away from the rural Kansas Arthur has returned his family to, and it's a world the rest of the family frequently misses.

It's apparent when they return that there are many currents under the family surface.  There is Arthur's sister, Ruth, who seems unhappy with her husband, Ray; there's a missing sibling, Eve, who no one will talk about; and there's the grandmother, Reesa, who seems a little unreceptive to her daughter in law. As Celia thinks to herself , "In Kansas, she doesn't know how to care for her children."  The parameters are so different.
Evie, the tiny little blonde fairy child of the family, becomes obsessed with her Aunt Eve, who she thinks has simply moved away.  She loves the beautiful dresses that her aunt left behind in her closet, and likes to sit in her room at her grandmother's house and look at them.   She's so small for her age none of the other kids will be friends with her.  Daniel, who feels his place as the son of the family has been supplanted by his sister's boyfriend, Jonathon, is trying every way he knows how to grow up but so many things confuse him.

When Aunt Ruth moves in with them after an especially unpleasant confrontation with her husband Ray, the dynamic of the family shifts again.  Celia is glad to have the company; Arthur feels protective of her; and Evie feels if only Aunt Ruth wasn't around, somehow the magical Aunt Eve would come back.  Ruth's sweet spirit has been sapped by twenty years of abuse, a cycle only broken with the return of her brother's family and the boiling to the surface of the family secrecy surrounding Eve.

Things are accelerated by the disappearance of a tiny blonde neighbor girl, one who looks very much like Evie, and apparently her missing Aunt Eve as well.  Somehow in the minds of the town Uncle Ray is responsible for all of these mysteries; in the minds of some of Daniel's new school friends, it's a mysterious black man, escaped from a nearby mental asylum.
 
The two central scenes of the novel involve violence, but they are spaced far apart, so Roy sustains the suspense with the tension of her storytelling style.  Not all the threads end in horror – sometimes the knocking outside in the dark is just a cow, for example – but sometimes, it's not.  It's not knowing when it isn't that sustains the tension of the book.

The most memorable  scene in the novel concerns the death of a cow; it's heartbreaking, and affects each family member.  The final violent scene is also heartbreaking, and affects each family member, but by that point in the story the violence is a welcome and needed relief.  My desire to ever go to Kansas has been severely undermined by reading this story, but except for the tumbleweeds, this Midwestern farm landscape could be in Wisconsin or Illinois or Ohio or Michigan.  It feels very familiar in one way, and horribly alien in another.  This is a book about long buried secrets and what they can do to a family and community; and when an author makes one of the villains a catholic priest, and one of the most memorable victims a cow, there's something original at work.  I'm more than interested to see what Roy's second novel shapes up to be.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

from Mysterious Galaxy

Play Nice (Hardcover)

$24.99
ISBN-13: 9780312656072
Availability: Coming Soon - Available for Pre-Order Now
Published: Minotaur Books, 3/2012
Readers seeking a fast-paced exciting series with a tough heroine with a soft spot in her heart for her adopted dog, meet Anna Smith, nee Anya Danielovich. Anya was a trained assassin working for the former Yugoslavian secret service, who faked her own death after a particularly distasteful assignment, and has been leading a quiet nomadic life in the US. As Anna, she keeps to herself, never getting too close to anyone – coworkers, the cute guy at the laundromat, etc. When she is attacked at a San Francisco animal shelter, her rescuer is an assassin sent to fill a contract on her head – who wants to keep her alive long enough to figure out who shot at her before he could. Anna, hired gun Nick Dare, and Lenny, her dog, plus an arsenal combining high tech weaponry and improvised tools, are in a race to discover who wants her dead besides her former colleagues. Who, by the way, take lethal exception to Nick's failure to fulfill his contract on Anna. A high-adrenaline romp for fans of romantic suspense.

-- Review by Maryelizabeth Hart

From Kingdom Books

Fuminori Nakamura, THE THIEF: Dark, Powerful, Japanese

Reading the local newspaper made me sad this week: people hurting other people in so many ways. There are heroic stories, too -- our community comes together in powerful ways when families and small children are injured, whether by fire, car accident, or birth -- and I usually notice those and let the other stuff slide by. But sometimes the reality is: Those dark, "noir" works of crime fiction are telling some of the truths of our time. And they're not pretty.

Fuminori Nakamura is one of Japan's most honored young writers. He turns 35 this year and has racked up a number of awards, including the Oe Prize, Japan's largest literary award. Named for, and selected by, Kenzaburo Oe -- whose books often embrace the life of the handicapped with deep emotion -- the prize went to Nakamura for THE THIEF. And now, thanks to a translation by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, the book is arriving in the US, scheduled for release by Soho Crime on March 20.

I didn't always like it, but I couldn't put the book down. Brutal at times, always gritty, it's narrated by "The Thief" himself -- a professional pickpocket, not only an artist of his trade but schooled in an alternate reality by his original mentor, Ishikawa, who told him, "If you steal a hundred thousand from someone who's worth a billion, it's almost like you've taken nothing." The apprentice thief had countered with, "But it's still wrong," and his mentor agreed but responded, "As long as there is one starving child in the world, all property is theft."

It's not an excuse, but it's a way to stand up against others who feel they're "saints" compared to the pickpockets. And they, in turn, are among the gentlest in the world of crime, especially organized crime. The Thief, it turns out, has failed to protect himself against such violent and abusive enemies. And since he is human enough to care about some of the people he meets, especially a boy who clings to him, the most criminal planners have a lever to use against him, forcing him to use his skills in deadly ways.

Crime, crime fiction -- the inner and outer life of a pickpocket must fit within such a description. Yet this is also written as "post-modern" Japanese literature, with the choppy language, moody imagery, and painful consequences that readers may have already experienced in, say, The Devotion of Suspect X. So fix a cup of (green) tea, dim the lights, let the room grow quiet, and walk into the book with The Thief and his allies and enemies. It's unforgettable. And it's a part of today's Japan that's worth getting to know.
The guy in the suit went on sleeping, and the bartender hadn't moved a muscle. If I could, I planned to watch them until I fell asleep myself. (Nakamura, THE THIEF)
 
- reviewed by Beth Kannell

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

MBTB: The House at Sea's End

From Murder by the Book, Portland, www.mbtb.com:

THE HOUSE AT SEA'S END, by Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,
978-0547506142, $25



Elly Griffiths' books get better and better. This is the third Ruth Galloway book to make it to the shores of the U.S.

Ruth is an archaeologist at a university in Norfolk, England. She's also a self-styled consultant to the police force. Although she prefers old bones, she also has to contend with freshly murdered corpses on occasion.

It's Ruth's continuing underlying story that makes the series so rich. In “Crossing Places,” the first book in the series, Ruth met DCI Harry Nelson and they began a strange and strangely romantic alliance, even though Harry is married and Ruth is not interested in changing her hard-won intellectual life for him. But, of course, things gang aft a-gley, or it wouldn't be an interesting story. By “The Janus Stone,” Ruth was pregnant and determined to go it alone. Now Ruth is the mother of a baby girl, whom she single-handedly is raising after steadfastly refusing to name the baby's father. Which brings us to “The House at Sea's End.”

Six skeletons are found in a seacliff crevice, the bones uncovered by erosion. Through modern forensic techniques and the coincidental appearance of a German researcher, the bones are determined to belong to World War II German soldiers. How did they die? Why were the bodies hidden? A couple of other recent deaths appear suspicious, but these deaths are of old English men. Are they related? Ruth is part of the archeological team investigating the soldiers' bones but soon finds herself embroiled in a village mystery. As erosion eats away at the small coastal town of Broughton Sea's End, so do Ruth and Harry chip away at the mysteries that seem to accumulate like falling dominoes.

The answers aren't neat and presentable in Griffiths' mysteries. Some of them produce more predicaments in the best cliff-hanging fashion. Moral ambiguity looms large and even the most outwardly heroic of souls can harbor a touch of the devil. It is that confusion of motivations and the occasional rising above that makes Griffiths' stories so very interesting and worthwhile.
 

MBTB : Hunting Sweetie Rose

From Murder by the Book, Portland, www.mbtb.com:

HUNTING SWEETIE ROSE, by Jack Fredrickson (hardcover, $25.99)



Jack Fredrickson has written three Vlodek "Dek" Elstrom books, two of which I've read and enjoyed tremendously. Fredrickson has the right mix of humor, good characters, interesting plot. It takes a while to brew this mix -- there have been three years between books -- but it's worth the wait.

Dek lives in a castle. Actually, Dek lives in a turret, the only part of the castle his grandfather finished, in a town just west of Chicago. The turret requires extensive work, which Dek accomplishes slowly as he can afford it. He has had to battle both the Rivertown town council who wants to zone him out of existence and his own impecunious state. Dek was once a high-powered investigator, but now he's grateful for the occasional case. His fall from grace came when he was accused of an indiscretion which he did not commit. Everyone heard the accusation, but very few heard the exoneration. Misfortune heaped upon misfortune, he and his wife divorced soon after the fall when Dek turned to alcohol while wallowing in self-pity.

That's the background. Now here's the current situation: A man in a limo hires Dek to investigate the death of a clown who fell from the top of a building while entertaining a crowd. The police say it was suicide, but the mysterious client hints otherwise.

Of course, it soon becomes something other than a clown falling off a building. With the help of his colorful old friend, Leo Brumsky, Dek's ex-wife, and a new -- and beautiful -- friend who happens to be a reporter, Dek soon finds something rotten in Chicago high society.

From tales of the antics of septuagenarian Ma Brumsky and her pole dancing friends to an explanation of why Dek needs to plant flowers on his jeep, Fredrickson's humorous touches never detract from the main storylines, but they're a wonderful addition. Here's a description of a business secretary Dek faces down:

"She's a formidable, helmet-haired woman with a British accent and a Transylvanian demeanor. Her name is Buffy, and that is the only laugh she offers the world."

Then once he forges into the office's inner sanctum:

"I sat down on leather taken from a burgundy cow."

From the description of a Chicago building called the Wilbur Wright:

"Even though the Wilbur Wright was small -- ten stories is nothing in a city anymore -- the Wright brothers for sure would have been impressed. I was standing higher than they first flew, and I'd made the ascent without getting a single bug stuck to my teeth."

The humor balances the poignancy of Dek's own story and the tale of Sweetie Fairbairn.

If only Fredrickson's publisher would see fit to issue the Dek Elstrom books in paperback, it would be a perfect world.