Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Edgar Award Nominees: 2015 Juvenile and Young Adult, plus (2014) ONE CAME HOME, Amy Timberlake

Seems the TBR (to-be-read) pile never really dwindles, especially when it's time to add the Edgar Award Nominees. These are selected by the MWA, the Mystery Writers of America, and the award title refers to the late, great Edgar Allen Poe.

Here are the 2015 nominees in the Juvenile category:

Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick
Space Case by Stuart Gibbs
Greenglass House by Kate Milford
Nick and Tesla's Super-Cyborg Gadget Glove by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder
and Steve Hockensmith  
Saving Kabul Corner by N.H. Senzai
Eddie Red, Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells
And here are the 2015 nominees in the Young Adult category:

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi
Nearly Gone by Elle Cosimano
Fake ID by Lamar Giles
The Art of Secrets by James Klise
The Prince of Venice Beach by Blake Nelson 
I'll be gathering a few to read over the next couple of months; the finalists are announced at the Edgars Banquet, which this year is set for April 29.

I gave myself time to read the 2014 "Juvenile" category winner this week -- ONE CAME HOME by Amy Timberlake, also a Newbery Honor Book for 2014. Set in 1871 in Wisconsin, a year of an amazingly huge nesting of passenger pigeons there, this crime fiction/adventure ("A Sister Lost. A Body Found. The Truth Buried.") arrives in the voice of 13-year-old Georgie (Georgina) Burkhardt, whose sister Agatha's body is being buried in the first chapter. Soon Georgie's doubts and guilt about that body send her out investigating how Agatha died -- murder, or not dead after all? -- along with one of Agatha's suitors and riding her own rented mule. Thanks to her shooting skills (she has her own Springfield rifle), Georgie's better prepared than most to deal with violent criminals. But she's not as well prepared for inflicting death on a human. Or, for that matter, for the complications of adult affection playing out in front of her.

It's a good read, loaded with passenger pigeon lore as well as a wonderfully feisty protagonist. Timberlake evokes the landscape, Georgie's state of mind, and the wild vulnerability of American frontier life vividly, and I know I'll want to read this one again. And to share it with a lot of other readers.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sarah Graves, New Maine Series: WINTER AT THE DOOR

Sarah Graves, Maine author of the clever "Home Repair Is Homicide" thriller series, launched a new series this month with WINTER AT THE DOOR. The great plus of introducing protagonist Lizzie Snow, a homicide investigator from Boston who's just taken a job in the Great North Woods of Maine, is Lizzie's knowledge of crime and investigation -- she's a professional, and used to taking care of herself. Within limits.

But Graves gives us a glimpse -- and only a glimpse -- of the wounds still bleeding for Lizzie. Something's gone terribly wrong in her family. It appears one of her relatives may have survived: a nine-year-old niece, Nicki. And the tip Lizzie Snow has, from her former (and faithless) boyfriend Dylan, says Nicki may be a hostage of some sort, living in the near-lawless wilderness of Aroostook County. That's why Lizzie's taken the anti-career move to the rural region. And it's already looking grim: Instead of a patrol slot, Sheriff Cody Chevrier has a grubby little office for her, and an assignment in community policing. Color Lizzie NOT impressed.

Still, Chevrier's move is a complex one. He's not just staffing an unexpected grant-funded position -- he's sneaking an experienced homicide cop into a situation where retired police officers around him are dying of assumed suicide, and he's convinced they've been murdered.

Lizzie does luck out in adopting, or really being adopted by, a local assistant willing to rehab her office practically overnight, bring in the communications gear she needs, and even walk her suddenly added canine companion for her. Of course, the Tattoo Kid -- nicknamed Spud, in this wide potato-farming region -- looks like a walking nightmare, with his piercings and more. But he's surprisingly competent, and for a while, Lizzie feels like she's got some good luck after all.

That is, until Dylan Hudson shows up, in the very manly flesh, to complicate almost everything. Turns out he's tracking criminal activity up here, too, and Lizzie can't deny there's still chemistry between them, even though she has every reason never to trust him in her personal life again.

Back to the title: This suspenseful two-track criminal investigation opens at the end of October, which in the north country really is the season of "winter at the door." But couldn't that expression also apply to the cold evil of a malicious psychopath loose in the area? And could Lizzie's missing niece be part of the same possible crime wave that's killing the sheriff's old colleagues?

Graves alternates points of view between Lizzie and the criminals here, which in many mysteries would lead to some sympathy for the wrongdoers. But not this time. In fact, I hadn't realized this Maine author could write the dark side so deftly and effectively -- I shuddered at a number of points.

This one is a good winter read, tightly plotted and all too believable. And if I quibbled with a couple of issues -- the distraction of not one but two suitors for Lizzie, her lack of teamwork, and a finale that didn't quite follow through on the level of evil proposed earlier in the book -- I also found this a compelling start to an exciting series. Grab this first title, and clear room on the shelf for the next one: The Girls She Left Behind. Considering the plot threads left unresolved at the end of WINTER AT THE DOOR, I'm already shivering with foreboding. I'll be following Lizzie Snow, for sure.

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Brothers Grimm Mystery: Sardonic and Playful Investigation from P. J. Brackston

Welsh author Paula Brackston is known for her historical mysteries that feature witches; now, under the alternate name P. J. Brackston, she brings us a new series, GRETEL AND THE CASE OF THE MISSING FROG PRINTS. If you like Jasper Fforde's books, or (to jump genres) those of Douglas Adams, this one's for you!

Remember when you first learned that "fairy tales" weren't just for kids? And in fact, the originals were far more gruesome -- Cinderella's sister chopping off pieces of her foot in order to wedge herself into the glass slipper, and so on? Brackston takes this into a darkly funny and twisted form of growing up, by letting Gretel (yes, that Gretel) be the one who's become an adult: focused on food and clothes and social events, and supporting herself and her witless brother Hans by working as a private investigator ... in Bavaria, during a time when royalty and dukes mattered (say, the mid 1700s). Imagine a Germanic sort of fairy-tale land, much as the Brothers Grimm did. Now add the highly practical: Gretel's famous for her investigations already (although this is only the first book in the series), and when a case involving two missing prints by the artist Albrecht Dürer comes her way, finances demand that she accept. Besides, she'll get to travel to much more urban Nuremberg, where wigs are done properly.

I wasn't sure I could focus on this one -- but on the second page found this:
Gretel returned to deciphering the loopy lettering [in the client's letter]. The green ink appeared to have been applied by a man of shaky hand and feeble mind. Perfect client material, in Gretel's experience. In her many years as a private detective she had learned that it was preferable by far to be in the employ of simpletons and nincompoops, for they were easily pleased, easily strung along, and, crucially, easily parted from their money.
Okay, that was my moment -- I knew I'd read the whole thing.

Of course, there's competition for the investigation, as well as trouble getting paid, clues that confuse, and, since this is after all the land of Gretel (yes, that Gretel) and Hansel, some side issues like talking rodents (very helpful!) and an unpleasant hobgoblin or two.

But rest assured, Gretel's efforts are true to the spirit of detectives in every era, as well as those of a fashionable woman with a reputation to uphold. There's a lot of fun here, and I'm sure since the next in the series involves a cruise (!!), there's plenty more entertainment ahead.

The author's website isn't great, but you can click here to see it. Also check here for some encouragement from Brackston on the writing process. The book is showing up on some "young adult" (YA) lists; if you know a teen who is already into sardonic European humor, it will be a good fit.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Korean Police Procedural: Martin Limón, THE IRON SICKLE

The ninth Sueño and Bascom mystery from Martin Limón, THE IRON SICKLE (Soho Crime), takes a small, tragic crime -- a murderous attack in a military claims office, by a local man who's obviously unbalanced -- and follows an intrepid pair of Army investigators through the city of Seoul and Korea's mountainous rural regions, spinning a taut, well-told story of suspense. And at the same time, Limón exposes some of Korea's large, tragic history: from the 1970s (the time when the mystery is set) backward into Japanese occupation and American-aided liberation, and forward to the swift growth of the Pacific Rim country, into a future of power and prestige.

But Limón never paints with a broad brush -- he nails the story and the suspense through personal detail. Like the Koreans around them, investigators George Sueño and Ernie Bascom deal with orders that make hardly any sense to them. The reaction the "brass" has to the murder that's taken place on their base is to send these two seasoned Criminal Investigation Division officers to patrol the fences. Yes, it's because they've annoyed an officer or two. And they're not exactly the favorites of the Military Police, either -- Sueño's taken the crazy step of actually learning Korean, to speak with suspects, victims, and witnesses, and Bascom, well, he's been known to engage in something more than just lust with the ladies. Only when the politics of the case engage Seoul's own investigators in an effort to not solve the case (!) do the teams demand Sueño and Bascom in action.

The "iron sickle" of the title is the murder weapon, and it's in use -- or another one like it! -- for more slash-and-slaughter events clearly aimed at the American military. But there's some aspect to the crimes that's embedded in Korean symbolism, as George and Ernie find what looks like a totem at one the crime scenes:
"Wait a minute. What's that?" I pointed. The beam of Ernie's flashlight followed mine.

"Hell if I know," Ernie said.

There was a jumble of wooden crates, most of them flattened, thin slats held together by thick wire. One of the crates was standing upright, the slats of wood forming a teepee-like shape. Atop that, strands of wire had been woven into a flat, rectangular grill. The entire edifice stood about three feet tall.

"Christ," Ernie said.

Hanging from the construction was a dead rat, eviscerated and dangling from its back paws, thick blood seeping from red guts.
It's a crazy item to find, and emphasizes the insanity of the criminal and crimes. But as the investigation continues, the two CID men find that the darker crimes of the past may lead toward exactly this response -- and the people around them who seem craziest may in fact be the ones most wounded, responding in ways that make perfect sense.

And that, of course, is how they team up with the beautiful psychiatrist Dr. Prevault, and the struggling Korean therapist, Doctor Hwang.

Soon the team is racing toward the site of a military disaster from the past, trying to sort out their own form of sanity and justice.

Limón's ninth book in the series is tightly woven, hard to put down, as the tension continues to ramp, and the investigators take grave risks. You don't need to read the earlier books in the series, although they'll add to the bond with Sueño and Bascom if you do. Me, I'm looking forward to book 10, later this year (maybe the end of summer?) -- and I may just decide to re-read the entire series while I wait!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Ready for the Caribbean? Try THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, Timothy Williams

Maps change, as politics reshape them. And our interest shifts the familiar parts. So if it takes you a moment to locate Guadeloupe, in the “French West Indies,” roll with it. And at the same time, locate neighboring Martinique. It will help with geography and perspective as crimes, some deadly, rapidly accelerate in the new mystery from Timothy Williams, THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE (Soho Crime).

William is a CWA (Crime Writers Association, UK) award winner, and this is the second in his new series featuring “judge” Anne Marie Laveaud, a French import in the island’s justice system. If you’re not yet a steady reader of French crime fiction, note that the term “judge” here is not the same as its American meaning: It’s “juge d’instruction” in the full term, meaning the person who directs a criminal investigation and who also makes the call on who to charge with the crime.

Anne Marie’s overwhelmed this time: The high-profile death of a local environmental activist, Rodolphe Dugain, is being blamed on the police for harassing the politically prominent man. A first quick survey of the situation convinces Anne Marie that a “suicide” label could be premature, and that there are a lot of women in the area with complicated relationships with Dugain.

Just as she could be untangling the threads, though, her boss pushes another death to higher priority: the probable rape and murder of a young tourist, whose bikini’d body is discovered near a nude beach. (This will be almost the only chance to get to see "tourist" side of the island -- most of the narrative slips behind the hospitality front, into the frictions of island life.) Meanwhile Anne Marie’s own life is cascading into disaster, with her son acting out at serious levels in school, her lover (one of the dubious perks of being a single mom) putting pressure on her for commitment (and he’s the one who’s still married!), and her clerk (griffier in the local language) setting her up repeatedly for discomfort and argument.

Williams is a gifted storyteller, who deftly braids Laveaud’s conflicts around being an attractive, unmarried, powerful woman into the press of dual unfolding investigations. (I found some of the novel’s transitions abrupt, making me suspect the original manuscript of this book was shortened with some cuts that bled a bit … it almost feels like the bumps of a translation at times, but that can’t be the case; Williams is London born and teaches in the French West Indies. But the plot is intense enough to drive the narrative past these moments.)

And the layers under the murder investigations include more than the personal for “madame le juge”: The conflicts around her resonate with class conflict, captured in the local expression that sets urban Martinique against the island residents: “the gentlemen of Martinique, the honest folk of Guadeloupe.”

Nor is Laveaud herself blameless in the stresses threatening to derail her investigations. Whether and how she can untangle her career seems likely to influence whether she can find a politically workable solution that will also bring justice – which is, after all, the root word for judge. Right?

You don’t need to read the preceding book in the series (Another Sun), but … once you walk with Anne Marie Laveaud and her questions for “the honest folk of Guadeloupe,” chances are that you’ll want to make room on your shelf for more from Timothy Williams, who also has a series set in Italy; the author website is here.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

New Series from Maine Mystery Author Lea Wait: TWISTED THREADS

Lea Wait's "Shadows Antique Print" mystery series, caught between Maine and Cape Cod, has been a lot of fun, and mirrors much of her own life, right down to the adoption that Maggie Summer is expecting to make -- whether or not she finds a way to get married to her sweetheart.

Wait's new series, the "Mainely Needlepoint Mysteries," leaps into fresh terrain with Angela Curtis, Angie to her friends, "Angel" to her grandmother. An experienced assistant in private investigation from her work out West (it takes a lot of energy to leave Maine behind, but Angie's got it!), she's back in Maine at "Harbor Haven" because her mother's been found.

If only that were good news ... Throughout her teen years and then her work life out in Arizona, Angie's believed her mother walked out of single parenting, abandoning the role for something more romantic somewhere else. But the quickly revealed truth is, her mom's been dead all this time, and the body is still in Haven Harbor.

With her camera and interview and analysis skills, Angie might find threads unraveling that lead her to what happened to her mother, and why. But the distractions around her include threats to her grandmother's needlepoint business and co-workers and friends, plus possible fraud, and even more personal risk than Angie's ever handled.

Still, Gram has handled a lot, some of it while Angie was still too young to pay attention, and her advice boosts Angie along in Down East Maine style:
For the first time in my life, I saw the wisdom in Gram's insisting I wear a hat.

"Don't look 'em in the eye," she was advising. "Walk fast, keep walking 'til you get in the car. Don't look out the car window. Scrunch down. Me, they've already seen, but you're a novelty around these parts. Pete Lambert from the police department is out there. He'll make sure we get out the drive."

I looked at her with increasing respect. "You've done this before."

"First time was when your mother disappeared. But it wasn't as bad in those days, and I managed to keep you away from most of it. But ever since Lauren found that body, those TV folks have been all over the place. They want us to be crying or screaming or doin' something else dramatic for them." She shook her head. "Harrumph. We're civilized folks. We're not putting on that kind of show here in Haven Harbor."
From the lively dialogue to the quick twists and suspense, and to Angie's own skills in pulling apart the pattern of the crime(s), this is fresh exciting writing. I think Lea Wait's taken the "amateur sleuth" aspect right to the edge, using Angie's training as a boost into more aggressive pursuit than most cozies can boast. And the pace and vividness show that this Maine author had come into her own, with a series that promises excitement, adventure -- and some insight into the heart of a very smart and savvy young woman.

Way to go, Lea! And a tip of the hat to publisher Kensington Books for bringing out this fresh and intriguing series.

That "Spring Will Come" Feeling: TAGGED FOR DEATH, Sherry Harris

Here at Kingdom Books, we're celebrating winter -- and that includes hoeing out a few more things for the spring yard sale that's already in the planning stages. I mean, if we don't do it now, how on earth could we fit that tough decision-making into the garden-digging, seed-planting season that will follow the snow?

So I had a lot of fun reading one of the December "Killer Cozies" books from Kensington Books: TAGGED FOR DEATH, the lively and enjoyable debut of Sherry Harris's "Sarah Winston Garage Sale Series." From the gunshot on page 1, to the tangled twists of Sarah's marital issues -- she and her ex-husband were living on a military base, and now he's got a civilian police job and, it seems, a wandering eye -- this mystery keeps things moving. It's set in small-city Massachusetts, pizza and all.

Sarah's negotiations at "tag sales" are part of how she's supporting herself. And among her purchases are bloody items that could implicate entirely the wrong people. Her slide into trouble has is speedy, irresistible, and entirely understandable!

If you have one of those cars that insists on stopping at each promising yard sale, or even just a yard sale fantasy life, you'll get a kick out of TAGGED FOR DEATH. But it's also a good mystery for relaxing into the long evenings that make winter such a great season for reading. Sarah Winston's struggles as a military and ex-military spouse add extra levels of interest (Sherry Harris know that part from her own life). And when you've finished, you may want to check out Sherry Harris's website, as well as her posts on the Wicked Cozy Authors blog. What a way to celebrate winter!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Exciting Debut Mystery, Mormon (LDS): THE BISHOP'S WIFE, Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison is no newcomer as an author -- her children's books have charmed readers and garnered warm reviews over the years, and in 2013 her memoir of being both a dedicated mom and a nationally ranked triathlete, Ironmom, was her entry into the "books for adults" world.

But in THE BISHOP'S WIFE, she provides a well-told and suspenseful murder mystery, in traditional form with amateur sleuth, that's both a page-turner and far more revealing than most nonfiction can be.

In some places, like Utah and some of Illinois, being a member of the Mormon Church -- also known as LDS, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- is as common as being, say, a Protestant or Catholic is in northern New England or the MidAtlantic states. And it is the quintessential American faith, born here with Joseph Smith (in Vermont!) and forged in a fiercely difficult cross-country trek of pioneers looking for a land to nurture, where they could also nurture their religion.

Yet the historic Mormon tie to polygamy makes even the modern version of the religion vulnerable to casual attacks, and there are many other ways in which its differences -- temples, "sealing" family members to each other, the missionary years that many of its teens tackle -- stand out. Even the title Harrison chose for this work of suspense refers to something that's more Mormon (her choice of term; here in Vermont I'd use "LDS" but she explains her choice on her website) and less understood. So here is the book's first paragraph, which tackles both that difference and a familiarity that anyone who's been a deacon, a community leader, even a den mother, troop leader, or class dad or mom, can relate to:
Mormon bishop's wife isn't an official calling. "Bishop's wife" isn't a position listed on ward documents; there's no ceremonial laying-on of hands or pronounced blessings from on high. But if the bishop is the father of the ward, the bishop's wife is the mother, and that meant there were five hundred people who were under my care. I was used to the phone calls in the middle of the night, to the doorbell ringing far too late and far too early. I was used to being looked past, because I was never the person that they were there to see.
That's Linda Wallheim, and look how much you already know about her -- importantly, for a mystery, you can see that she feels responsible for the care of others, and also that she's used to fading back out of the center of things, letting someone else be "the person they were there to see." Those are two admirable characteristics for someone who'll decide to dig into a crime and stick with the investigation.

On this particular morning, at six-thirty (groan), the doorbell's pressed by Jared Helm, one of the newer members of the ward (the church fellowship), carrying his adorable five-year-old daughter.  And it's soon clear that the mom in the family is missing.

Linda's investigation is at first mostly secondhand -- the bits that her husband can reveal without breaking a confidence, the smaller bits that a five-year-old conveys in both words and reactions, and conversations with others.

But Linda has a pressing reason, beyond her usual sense of responsibility, to bond with the little girl in this damaged family: She's suffered the loss of her own daughter, stillborn, and although she has sons and a really good husband, she's wounded in ways she can barely describe -- and it's hurting her own marriage, whether she sees it or not.

So her hunt for the truth of what's happened around her is more than an effort to supplement her husband's role as bishop, more than a dare to herself to face the truth of some of the more manipulative men in her social group. It's her struggle to find a way to carry her loss.

Along the way, Harrison opens up some of the traditions, rules, and controversies with her church. (She is in face a member, after her own spiritual crisis, which she's still walking through. Yes, the loss of a daughter. Can God be good, when such terrible things happen?) Some, I already knew about from attending services and visiting in the homes of Mormon friends, years ago -- like Fast Sunday, a tradition of going without food in order to reflect on the experience and give the money saved to those who need it. And bearing testimony, something that also happens in many an evangelical Protestant congregation -- but in THE BISHOP'S WIFE also includes "small children whose 'testimonies' are whispered into their ears by older children. I disapprove of this practice." And bang, that quickly, we're in Linda's uncomfortable shoes: being smart, educated, committed to her church, and questioning it.

This is where, in some ways, the revelations of the book could have been easier for its author if done as nonfiction (which in some ways they have been, both on her website and in Ironmom). It's far too easy for readers to assume that the author "matches" the protagonist. I was aware of pulling away from the story at moments like this, questioning how close that identification really was -- and in some ways that's not so great for staying in the story, feeling the suspense build.

So it's a measure of how well-chosen Harrison's plot twists are, that in spite of those moments of pulling back, I kept reading, reading, reading -- deep into the night, in fact. As Linda discovers her own naive misconception of some of the marriages around her, and the limits of what her role allows her, she takes risks that graduate from emotional and marital to being threatened physically.

The writer of any "amateur sleuth" mystery needs to convince us that we too, in that person's shoes, would take risks and face danger. Harrison succeeds completely, so that Linda's reasoning makes sense, her actions become necessary, and the escalating situation resonates:
"I could come in and help you clean up, If you'd like," I offered. What was I doing? Going into a house alone with a man who might have killed his wife[,] to try to find evidence against him? But I had been drawn into this and I was going to use all the skills I had to resolve it.
Also at stake here, and deftly probed, is Linda's willingness to accept the form of marriage she's agreed to: one where her husband is expected to set limits on her actions, and where her sons question her choices, as well as the religion in which they were raised.

There's a lot going on here, and I was glad to notice that although the criminal investigation wraps up snugly at the end (terrific twists, I have to say!), many of the unraveled parts of Linda Wallheim's life remain to be worked with. It's clear this is the start of a series; I'm looking forward to more.

Grab this book right away if you are fascinated with interior Mormon life; if you're curious about how family and faith traditions come together and want the emotional insight that a work of fiction can allow; if you're brave enough to look at domestic abuse in both a mystery and the culture around us; and if you like well-twisted strands of investigation and discovery. Sure, there are a few patches of Linda's internal dialogue that run long and sometimes slow the pace -- but overall, I felt the balance was worth it. This is an impressive debut mystery for Harrison, and a great finale to the year of strong, diverse mysteries from Soho Crime.

Three cheers for the 2014 crime fiction -- and here's to the adventures of 2015 ahead!