Sunday, February 22, 2015

Vermont Author Don Bredes, POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD

There's a lot to discuss in terms of the new book from Vermont author Don Bredes, POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD. Fortunately, for readers who emerge from this dystopian novel eager to talk with someone about some of the pressing aspects, Bredes is hosting passionate discussions; check in at his website http://donbredes.com, and click through to the topics that burn for you.

But first you'll need to read the book (of course). It's not a mystery, yet I want to write about it here because (a) the author's local (yeah, we do that at Kingdom Books), (b) the topics embedded in the tale are hot ones, and (c) the book has been described as YA (young adult) fantasy.

Let's get to the plot: Fifteen-year-old Polly Lightfoot, a gifted "natural" witch whose magic still benefits from the words found in spells, is supposed to be hiding her talents while living with an aunt and uncle in New Florida. Her father's trying to keep her safer than she would be in their original home up where New England once was -- the area's been taken over by the post-nuclear-war forces that insist on complete Christianity, and even burn witches alive.

But living with her relatives includes obeying them and their pastor, and Polly can't do it. With the unexpected arrival of her animal familiar, the raven Balthazar, who can communicate with her directly, she's motivated to run away, head north, try to get home to where people accept her for herself.

Thus begins an epic journey through areas of environmental collapse, radiation danger, clusters of "frenemies" who will assist Polly under some conditions, then turn her in under others. It's a Pilgrim's Progress in dystopian attire, and I would toss away the "fantasy" label and replace it with "magical realism" -- parallel to Howard Frank Mosher's Walking to Gatlinburg  and Disappearances. (Not coincidentally, Mosher and Bredes are long-time friends.)

Classic analysis of genre novels -- those that submit to such genre conventions as having an ending that somehow mirrors and fulfills the opening, and a main character whose strengths and weaknesses interact with situations and eventually justify the good or sad ending -- often consider two arcs that define the book: an arc of plot, and an arc of character. Powerful novels often make the two interdependent. As a simple example (since we're talking teenaged protagonists), Harry Potter becomes courageous and moral through his choices in frightening and distressing conflicts. At one point in the noted seven-book series, the very wise wizard Albus Dumbledore shows Harry that even a mythic sort of situation can't force a person to be a particular way; it's one's choices that create the path.

Looking at POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD in these terms, the plot arc -- escaping oppression, traveling a long distance with little support, evade enemies, reaching (we hope) safety -- is straightforward, and Bredes enables its forward motion through Polly's friend on the road, Leon, as well as the short-phrased guidance of Balthazar flying ahead and above. The character arc is set in motion through Polly's age, 15: We may assume she is naive in many ways, unskilled in wilderness survival, semi-skilled in the magic that makes her a witch, and is going to deepen as a person while she remedies these "not-yet" factors of herself. Classic "YA" direction also assumes Polly will move from teenager status to something more adult, by experiencing loss, making uncomfortable decisions, and following her longing to connect with her father and her "people" in the north.

Some of this does in fact take place; there are also character changes in Polly's friend Leon that are interesting to look back on. It was intriguing to me, though, that I could have replaced Polly with an adult (say, someone in her twenties or thirties) in much of the book. In other words, the ways the plot arc and character arc connect have less to do with the drama of entering adulthood, and more to do with a determination to keep moving north, across the obstacles.

Also at play in the book is a "mission." This idea is introduced in the first chapter, when we learn that Polly's father has a mission for her to tackle in Florida, as well as wanting to keep her safe there. I felt that the mission rarely took on definition, though, as Polly showed little personal commitment to it -- just suddenly accusing herself of failing it, and at another point, being assisted to regain an item she's lost possession of, but neither moment takes up many pages or much room in her emotions. I would have liked to see the mission fleshed out more -- which may come in part from my enjoyment of the way mission and mythic are often bound together in "fantasy" genre books.

I'll be interested in following the path of this novel in the wide world; will teens read it, or will it become largely a book that adults seek out, looking for how Bredes handles the "cli-fi" theme (social collapse melding with climate collapse) and appreciating the connections also to the Salem witch trials of New England and Arthur Miller's The Crucible? For me, the book also reawakens an urge to re-read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, another grim look at where dogma and destruction can lead.

Last but not least, a word to those who may have strong religious frameworks: Don't look for them in POLLY AND THE ONE AND ONLY WORLD, where Christians are fanatics, and witches are mostly born that way. But do take a look at this recent New York Times blog post, which I think is worth considering in terms of how this book, and others moving into the YA field, are constructed: Childhood Heroes ... by Rachel Kadish.

Thanks, Don Bredes, for stepping forward to promote discussion of our pressing issues as a culture and as an ecosystem.  And a warm thank you to Green Writers Press, publisher, for daring to step into controversial fiction in its Vermont and national profile.

Icelandic Noir: SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Publisher Minotaur Books has labeled SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME, the February release from Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, "a thriller." That's not the half of it -- this intense and thoroughly frightening investigation featuring Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (fifth in the series) is also a ghost story, a horror story, and an entangled and engrossing investigation into crime and criminals.

Investigating on behalf of her legal office, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir goes to a secure psychiatric facility to meet a very twisted and unpleasant long-term inmate who wants to sponsor re-opening a case -- but not his own. It's unclear why, but he asserts that a younger man at the facility, Jakob, who has Down Syndrome, isn't guilty of the arson that's put him here. The investigation bumps up against more death and destruction, and although Thóra realizes she's being used in some way, there has clearly been a miscarriage of justice and her task is to prove it and rebalance the scales.

Brace for a slight resistance in the translation, as well as the protagonist -- although Thóra is clearly heroic in her choice to accept the case and investigate a series of horrible events, it's hard to warm up to her. It's her mission that's compelling, instead: to learn rapidly the laws around imprisonment of the disabled, to protect herself from the air of menace surrounding so many people in this investigation, and prevent the unpleasant and even evil aspects of the case from affecting her home.

"Noir" means black, and this one's steadfastly dark in subject matter; it's a good fit if you're a Kurt Wallander fan, isn't as extreme as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and gives a persuasive look at social aspects of crime that need attention. It's not necessary to read Yrsa's earlier work, but if you're collecting Scandinavian or, more broadly, international noir, I'd recommend the full series.

Cara Black, MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS (March Publication)


I love this image of Cara Black with her newest Aimée Leduc investigation: MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS. This is the 15th in the well-liked series, and Aimée is at a critical point in her career and her personal life: She's a single mom to a six-month-old, struggling to keep her detection and security business profitable, while sleep-deprived and always late for everything (for those who don't have kids, here's the thing about it -- with each addition to the household, it's harder and harder to get somewhere on time).

MURDER ON THE CHAMP DE MARS open in Paris (of course!) with the detective once again racing the clock, trying to complete a surveillance task and still get home in time for her own darling baby's christening. But what should be a sweet (and brief) event with little Chloé and a few friends turns personally menacing, with the unexpected arrival of her ex-lover, father of her baby -- and he's not there to reconcile with her, but to introduce his newly acquired wife, as well as a hunger to take custody of the baby.

Small wonder that the arrival of an important clue to Aimée's own past, in the form of a boy who is a French Gypsy, one of the Romany people known in Paris as les manouches. The boy needs immediate help for his mother, who's in a hospital, on her deathbed, insisting on revealing only to Aimée a secret about Aimée's own (long-dead) father. It's a dangerous secret, one with roots in the Second World War, the concentration camps, and people still living who have betrayed each other.

Black does a masterful job of keeping the threads of suspense pulled taut, and braiding this complex investigation that puts Aimée Leduc and her family, friends, and career at risk in two directions at once. No, you don't need to read the others in the series before this one, although it would help you grasp why this detective wears Louboutin heels while on stake-out and considers a vintage Courreges dress to be part of her surveillance uniform -- so you may want to indulge in the others after devouring this latest title. The series is cleverly set in the 1990s, so technology has almost no role in the detection, and a quick mind and open heart and a team of allies are the essentials of the job. From Soho Crime, of course! (March 3 release.)

Pub Date March 3: KITTENS CAN KILL, Clea Simon

Here's a title to reserve for March reading, a classic traditional mystery with plenty of twists and memorable characters -- several of them on four legs.

Those familiar with Massachusetts author Clea Simon's "pet noir" series are already accustomed to the wild premise of this amateur sleuth series: Pru Marlowe, an "animal behaviorist" who works via referrals through the local vet, animal shelter, and even the town, specializes in changing how critters behave. But her methods go beyond the standard reward and reliability systems -- because Pru is also an animal psychic, someone who "hears" words from the cats, squirrels, dogs, and even a ferret around her.

Although that's obviously a great tool in her work (because she can find out, for example, exactly why a dog is barking so much), it's a personal handicap of increasing proportions. Earlier titles in the series showed Pru's hesitation about getting involved with the local police detective, Jim Creighton, KITTENS CAN KILL finds Pru routinely allowing Creighton into her home at various hours, and the couple is working out what they can and can't ask each other. But above all, since even Pru initially thought the animal voices she heard showed she was crazy, she's desperate not to reveal her talent to the police officer.
My next call was to Creighton.

"Hey, Jim. Just a heads-up." He was driving -- I could hear the road.  That as fine. I planned on keeping it short. "I'm going to bring the Canadays' kitten back after the funeral. Jill, the youngest daughter, just okayed that."

"That's fine, Pru. Turns out we don't need him for any testing."

"No death by kitten?" I was joking. ...

"Look, Pru, you know I can't give you details, but I think it's fairly safe to say that the lab won't need the kitten. They've got enough to work with without it.."

"So, you do suspect something?"
Creighton may not intend to give Pru a hand (or any information), but he's not good enough to prevent her insight. And he has his own about her. Pru's secret -- shared only with her loyal but often sardonic and stand-offish cat Wallis -- gets increasingly hard to protect. After all, it looks pretty irrational that Pru is insisting on keeping and protecting the life of a 6-week-old white kitten found next to the body of a local lawyer. Who would believe her if she said the kitten had witnessed a killing? In fact, among the lawyer's three competitive daughters, there's even some notion that the kitten's arrival caused the (accidental) death of their dad. One daughter is even pushing to euthanize the wee ball of fluff, out of anger at the death.

But Pru and her resident four-footed ally, Wallis, know better. Still, sorting out the few phrases that the inexperienced kitten conveys isn't easy, especially as time presses -- there's a will being read, a controversy over who controls the kitten, and more wickedness that Pru barely guesses at, before it's not just the kitten who is in danger.

Skeptics, relax: The solving of the crime and Pru's revelations about the people involved come through hard, traditional investigative work. Consider the pet psychic aspect to be scene music, if you like, and plunge on into this well-constructed and intriguing mystery. Clea Simon knows what she's doing with those three sisters, as well as Pru Marlowe's eccentric support team. It's a good read, and a great distraction for the in-between season of March, coming up.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vermont Gothic Thriller: THE SILENT GIRLS, Eric Rickstad

It's been a few years since Eric Rickstad's first book, Reap, garnered so much attention and introduced the Northeast Kingdom region of Vermont to a fresh set of readers. In THE SILENT GIRLS, Rickstad goes well beyond the ticking clock of suspense and the dangers of a thriller, to the very creepy aspects of a true Gothic. You know what I mean, if you've read Jennifer McMahon lately -- but subtract any chance of humor along the way.

A short first chapter, datelined Halloween, sixteen years earlier than the rest of the book, lays out a bloody and painful horror component at the start. But then THE SILENT GIRLS shifts apparent subgenres, becoming a classic police procedural, Frank Rath -- once a noted police detective in northern Vermont but working as a private investigator instead -- agrees to back up a local investigation into a missing teen. When Rath and his official colleagues find four more missing teens in the area over the past two years, the pattern hints at a serial killer. But the girls who are missing seem to have nothing in common: not body shape, grades, background. What could be the motive for their abductions? And is there a chance to save any of their lives? When one teen's body is found, the case takes on even more urgency.

Rath is a classic noir investigator, haunted by inner turmoil and guilt and a bad alcohol habit; his fellow investigators also show aspects that could make an employer uneasy, from anger to addiction of sorts. And what Rath has kept secret, especially from his adopted daughter, is erupting in unpredictable ways, thanks to an unexpected parole hearing for the killer who'd ended Rath's earlier career path.

Brace for dark, grim, and even horrific in this one -- an excellent interview with Rickstad (click here) tips a hat to the recent trends in Scandinavian crime writing, as well as to Stephen King. The book is smoothly written, tightly paced, with a taut plot that insists on quick reading. Clear the schedule (and keep the lights on).

A quick note to fellow Vermonters: Don't try to map the towns, roads, and counties that Rickstad lays out -- they're not where you'd expect. Pretend it's all new to you. Except, of course, for that grim stretch of late October and early November weather that's been called "locking time." That, and the cruelties of some Rickstad characters and plot twists, may feel familiar, after all.

At the New Edge of Cozy: CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS, Colette London

Colette London's new "Chocolate Whisperer" mystery series begins with CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS, as top-secret consultant Hayden Mundy Moore, on hand for the noted Maison Lemaitre retreat -- a gathering of the makers of the finest chocolate products -- tries to keep her client relationships a secret, even while looking for her next possible consultant assignment at the posh location just outside San Francisco. Because she's on hand to rescue chocolatiers whose processes hit snags, she's got to stay quiet about her actual contracts. An expert in the many forms of Theobroma cacao and its exquisite flavors and textures, she's honored (but a bit out of her depth, in terms of elegance and wealth!) to attend the conference, and she's invited her hunky bodyguard Danny to keep her company.

So it's a shock when the Lemaitre staffer she's been worried about turns out to be a victim during the first day's events:
Instead, I saw Adrienne. Her limp body was propped in Nina's arms, slumped at a strange angle. Her head lolled. Her chef's coat was stained with blood. Her sleeves were speckled with it, too, as though she'd held up her arms to ward off ... something.

Something, I realized, that had killed her.

Adrienne was ... dead?

It didn't seem possible. But then suddenly Danny was there.

He was fighting through the crowd, pulling me into his arms, tucking my head against his shoulder. "That's enough now."

Oh God. That's when I knew it was true.
Astute readers may already notice more descriptions of bodies (living and dead) and their positions and contacts than many a mystery can boast. And that's surely part of this author's established style -- because Colette London is a new pen name for established romance author Lisa Plumley.

But in spite of its foodie angle, sensuous moments, and sweet recipes (included at the end), CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS is more edgy than many of today's food-related "cozy" mysteries. Hayden takes investigation seriously, and the malicious motivations of some of her fellow chocolate-linked conference attendees are downright dangerous at times.

Even more important, you know the notion that a "cozy" involves a cat and a cup of tea? In this one, even a warm cup of chocolate can be dangerous. Hayden's escapades give a whole new sense to the host who may offer a drink by asking, "What's your poison?"

I'm particularly intrigued by the edginess in CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS because recent work from another author known for her gentler mysteries, Maine writer Lea Wait, also has a fresh uptick in the sting of malice and suspense (see Twisted Threads review).  I'll be watching for more of this trend. I think it's a healthy twist toward blurring the edges of today's mystery subgenres!

But -- back to CRIMINAL CONFECTIONS: Hayden's task quickly shifts from kitchen consults to sorting out whose motivations are murderous, and who might benefit from the death of a significant Maison Lemaitre staffer -- one who actually should have been worried about Hayden's in-process consulting report, about to be issued to company head Christian Lemaitre. Could someone have known what she'd found in the firm's chocolate lines?

I enjoyed the setting, the scenario, and the plot twists, as well as Hayden's confusion of lust and affection for the men in her life. London's style gave me the feeling that this first book of the series had been reworked too many times, with multiple pauses per page for Hayden to analyze what's going on. I'm hoping the second in the series, Dangerously Dark, will move boldly ahead and avoid the "hesitation cuts" of the series debut. After all, the puns and wordplay in this series are so marvelous that it must have a terrific future. Even the cover of this debut announces: "Revenge is bittersweet." Ah, chocolate!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Top British Espionage Fiction: Mick Herron, NOBODY WALKS

The classics in British espionage fiction are by John Le Carré and Graham Greene, and if you love the genre, I hope you've found Charles Cumming and Charles McCarry. I could go on with the authors whose spy novels brush against Britain, too, like Olen Steinhour. Such good books, to feed that hunger for complexity, political savvy, and long-term insight into our world!

And then there are the less known authors who'll surely climb to these heights over time. Of all the contenders at the moment, Mick Herron is one of my top picks. His two books in the Slough House series, Slow Horses and Dead Lions, gave me laughter, heartache, and insight, and I hoped Soho Crime would bring us more in US editions.

The start of NOBODY WALKS seemed like a new series -- working in a meat processing plant in France, rough ne-er-do-well Tom Bettany gets a cellphone message that his 26-year-old son Liam has fallen to his death, and because Bettany lives such a hard life, the message barely reaches him in time to let him get to the funeral in England. Detective Sergeant Welles, investigating the death (Liam was stoned on a balcony -- alone? or not?), actually gives Bettany a ride to the funeral service, where there's nobody he knows, and one lone name that he recognizes, that of his son's apparent girlfriend, who'd also left him a voicemail.

Slowly, Bettany's past flickers into focus, and it's violent and laden with secrets. Could his son's death be related? Hadn't Bettany walked away from his government-related career as well as his family, immersing himself in gory, physically demanding work in another country -- wasn't that enough?

But nobody walks away from that kind of career, it seems. And gradually I found connections between Bettany and the espionage setting of the Slough House series, in the same way that a Tana French book will lead back to the Dublin Murder Squad, or a Stuart Neville crime will relate to the Troubles and the resulting criminal syndicate -- there is a violence and brutality underneath the civilized English veneer, and it may add up to worse than the slaughterhouse that Bettany knew in France.

Soon Bettany's trudging along grimy, gritty urban streets and alleyways, his son's ashes toted with him, looking for someone to blame -- maybe the drug dealer who'd sold the weed to young Liam?
Bettany walked on, tote bag in hand.

Invisible, painless bullets struck him dead every step of the way.

He visited more pubs, asked more questions. Nobody was glad to see him. Even those who might have cared, who didn't take him for a cop but a parent tracking a runaway, wanted him gone. 
And some of those are willing to hurt him, even kill him, for asking such questions.

The path toward clarity involves professional gamers and game developers, the casual liaisons of the young, and slowly revealed, the cynical cruelty of a profession Bettany thought he'd left far behind him. Herron's narrative style is tightly paced, with every scene, every seeming digression, turning significant ... and what he puts forward about power in the secret rooms of British government is dark, dirty, and all too believable. Not many laughs in this one, except for the choked bitterness of discovery. Liam's death at the start of the book strongly suggests there can be no "happy ending" to Bettany's quest. And things can indeed get worse.

But there's an art to darkness and revelation, and Herron is a master of these. This book goes on my "read it again and again" shelf with Herron's others. I'll be watching for the next. Meanwhile, if you're collecting espionage with depth, suspense with meaning, a good story with a reason for telling it -- get a copy of NOBODY WALKS. Release date February 17, so grab those first printings while you can.


BEFORE HE FINDS HER, Michael Kardos: Everyone Was Wrong

A dying reporter, a pregnant college student, a 15-year-old news story of a family murder. Michael Kardos brings them together in BEFORE HE FINDS HER and crafts a novel of suspense that depends on the confusions of love and friendship -- and the persistent determination of Melanie Denison, 18 years old and sheltered from almost everything, in small-town West Virginia.

"Everyone knows" how the widely reported murder went, back in 1991: New Jersey long-haul trucker Ramsey Miller killed his wife and little girl and has been on the run ever since. Jealousy, wasn't it? Or was it the long-term craziness that he carried in him, the susceptibility to a science-fiction-style prediction at a moment when some part of him knew he'd lost what mattered most?

Kardos exposes Miller's tortured and tragic thinking, as a sideshow to the main act: Melanie Denison's decision to seek out the truth about her father. Hidden for 15 years with her loving uncle and aunt, within the Witness Protection Program, she's never gone to public events other than school classes; never traveled; even couldn't apply for a library card. But in an abrupt rebellion against the silken ties that bind her and keep her safe, she's found a boyfriend, and she's pregnant. And she can see clearly that everything in her life echoes the theme of hiding, in a math-class moment about the repeated shapes that make up fractals:
"Miss Denison, did you say something?"

She kept looking at the geometric shape, amazed because it was so obvious and true. She hid in her small house, hidden on a deserted road, itself hidden in a small town in  remote part of West Virginia. The same at every scale, her hiding, and so total it felt like a mathematical certainty.

"I'm sorry," she said to the instructor. She was calling attention to herself in the worst way -- a way that wouldn't soon be forgotten. The weird, quiet girl was finally saying something. A few students chuckled nervously. "I just ..." She looked around at the twenty or so other students and thought about this baby growing inside of her, how this smaller scale of herself would end up deeply hidden, too, layer under layer under layer.

This she couldn't allow.
Melanie's insight sends her abruptly out of her home, toward the Jersey shore and the dying reporter whose blog on the crime involving her parents has been one of her secret resources. Critical to her safety is whether her fenced-in existence has given her enough experience to tell truth from lies, and fact from wishful thinking. And safety from danger.

After all, just saying who she is -- that long-ago three-year-old child who was supposedly killed 15 years back -- is breaking open the first layer of secrets.

Kardos peels back layers and makes revelations, page by page. But they are at least as much about the fragile and confusing nature of love, as they are about that old crime. And in his hands, the working and married lives in Jersey in 1991 unfold tenderly, as if a Bruce Springsteen song had come to life in all the fullness of family and work and aching. What comfort can there be? What risk?

BEFORE HE FINDS HER proves that a work of suspense need not be gory, bloody, or pushed by threats of explosion -- the power of the past and the tenderness of the unfolding present make this a very unusual page-turner. And as for Melanie ... what she's risking and daring is simply ... amazing.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Going Global: To Florence with Marco Vichi, DEATH IN SARDINIA; to Dublin with Louise Phillips, RED RIBBONS


Reading darker crime fiction lately? Here are two authors whose mysteries probe very different kinds of evil -- where each redeems the story in a very different way.

Louise Phillips is a significant award winner in Ireland, and Hachette Ireland recently brought her series to the United States. I started with RED RIBBONS, a forensic investigation featuring Dr. Kate Pearson -- she's a criminal profiler in Dublin, where there's plenty of skepticism about her craft and skills among the usual police investigative teams. But the discovery of a murdered child, carefully posed in her grave in ways that must have meaning to the murderer (why the braids and red ribbon? why the prayerful position), pulls Kate into a race-the-clock partnership with Detective Inspector O'Connor and his team. It's clear the killer's likely to strike again, and also pretty obvious that the timing of the next murder may be a lot faster than the investigation can move.

Phillips is deft and sure with pace, suspense, and twists. She lays out two other important narratives: one, the mind of the killer -- at least as skillful as the investigators, and in the lead on this perverse dance; and the other, the confusion of Ellie Brady a woman who's spent years in a psychiatric hospital, numbed with medication, after declaring she'd killed her own daughter. As the strands pull closer to each other, the risk for the probing profiler takes on menace toward her and her family.

RED RIBBONS could take place in most locations where urban landscape meets preserved wilder lands, and the main "feel" of Ireland here is the structure of police responsibilities, as well as a throbbing sense of the power of religious imagery. Even when the crime is solved, there's no recovery from damage done. But (unlike Stuart Neville's books, for instance) it's not especially steeped in Irish history.

In that sense, it's very different from Marco Vichi's series.

DEATH IN SARDINIA is the third in Vichi's Inspector Bordelli series, which is gradually making its way here via release in English in the UK, then in America, thanks to Pegasus Crime - but the series is originally in Italian. This title opens in the December holiday season of 1965, just 20 years from the end of World War II. Through Bordelli, a lonely bachelor unable to quite kick the cigarette habit, or the habit of socializing with a former prostitute, the war is an unforgettable part of his own life. His city of Florence is tinged with the sorrow, loss, and anger that the war's left behind. And although the crime he's investigating -- the murder of a loan shark who seems to have few pleasant qualities -- is clearly personal and related to some recent pressure on a victim-turned-killer, Bordelli keeps coming across threads that lead back to the war: a scandalous photo from a concentration camp, for instance.

Meanwhile he's missing one of his officers, the young police office Piras, who's recovering from a gunshot wound at his parents' home in Sardinia. When Piras realizes that a death in the village community is also murder, for Inspector Bordelli there is significant relief in being able to help the younger man's investigation move quickly forward.

The pace and the dolor of midlife frustrations for Inspector Bordelli echo Henning Mankell's Wallender series -- but with some lovely interludes, like the visits Bordelli pays to the hospital room of a dying colleague, to play cards with the frail Baragli and pretend death's not approaching, while also discussing the case:
"It was probably one of his debtors that did it," Baragli muttered with a wheezy voice.

"That's exactly where I'll begin."

"You've got your work cut out for you, if there are as many as you say."

... "I also found some photographs of a very young girl hidden behind a picture frame on the wall. I've got some men looking for her," said Bordelli, to let him feel part of the investigation. And indeed the sergeant seemed pleased.
Even this small sample reveals the slightly stilted language of the translation, which I suspect reflects partly the original and partly the deliberately slow uncovering of the everyday evils that Bordelli is confronting. There were moments when I felt like I was reading a Russian novel -- one memorable paragraph lasted for two pages! -- but the warmth with which Vichi's protagonists interact with their colleagues and friends kept me reading. It's good to savor this kind of portrait of teamwork and to see the author letting it gently reflect the bonds that soldiers in a long war also form.

I enjoyed DEATH IN SARDINIA, and I'll look for more Vichi crime fiction ... to read when I can make time to linger with the language and characters. Winter turned out to be a good time to read this one.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Embassy Espionage, Teen Version: ALL FALL DOWN, Ally Carter

Ally Carter already has two successful mystery series for teens, especially girls (the Gallagher Girls books; the Heist Society books). With ALL FALL DOWN, her new 2015 release, this author launches the "Embassy Row" series -- espionage where those otherwise hidden members of embassy families, the teens, tackle the necessary sleuthing.

And this one is emphatically not just for girls. Grace Blakely is back in the American embassy in the fictional European country of Adria, with her grandfather the ambassador. She's struggling to defend her knowledge that her mother's recent death was murder, not accident; she's terrified that the label "crazy" will be slapped on her (again) and push her into a haze of medications; but she's determined to find the killer and make him pay for destroying her mother, and most of the joy in her life.

At the same time, Grace's friends -- Noah and Megan, gymnast Rosie, and Alexei, the confusingly attractive son of the Russian ambassador -- are the keys to helping Grace keep her head together and explore the secrets of Embassy Row: its hidden passages, connections, and the mixed motives of the adults manipulating their nations' interactions.

I had a grand time reading this at high speed; the pace and intrigue are terrific, the characters enjoyable, and the notes of teen life and agony (and sometimes exhilaration, let's admit it) are perfectly tuned and timed. Sure, pick up a copy for the teen in your life -- but make sure to schedule time to enjoy ALL FALL DOWN yourself, before you give it away!


Lighthouse Mystery! BY BOOK OR BY CROOK, Eva Gates

Bucket-list items: visit a lighthouse; spend a night in a lighthouse bed-and-breakfast; enjoy a mystery set in a lighthouse ...

Here's a great opportunity to check off the third item on the list, with this month's release of BY BOOK OR BY CROOK, a "first in series" by Eva Gates, set in a lighthouse on Bodie Island in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

And it's a lively and well-plotted mystery, with an armful of Jane Austen first editions, a very intelligent lighthouse cat, and for Lucy Richardson, a 360-view living space in the lighthouse tower, lit at night by pulses of the still-functional ship-warning lamp above her. Even better, Lucy herself is a librarian, eager for a break from her earlier job in the midst of family ties at Harvard. You can almost feel the glow of that southern coastal sunshine (and later, the storms!) as Lucy adapts to being assistant librarian in a charming local library housed in the historic island lighthouse she used to visit as a kid.

But after a moment of pure delight in opening the original Jane Austen books, Lucy's plunged into the conflicts of small-town library board life -- and the party staged to welcome the books for the summer (as well as to introduce Lucy to the community) turns into a murder scene. The victim? The very unpleasant library board chairman, of course: Jonathan Uppiton.

Lucy's boss Bertie, who'd brought the Austen book exhibit and Lucy to the library, takes the murder hard -- and like Lucy, Bertie is a suspect as far as the police are concerned, since she'd had a public argument with the victim:
Her face was pale, the bags under her eyes dark, the lines around her mouth deep. She tried to force a smile. She failed. "Isn't this a mess? What would Miss Austen think?"

[Lucy replied] "Can I get you something? Coffee? Water?"

"No, but thanks, anyway. I didn't kill Jonathan."

"I know that. ... Do you have any idea who would have wanted him dead?"

Bertie lifted her thick, hand-knitted shawl off the coat stand in the corner. She wrapped it tightly around herself, as if seeking warmth. "You were there [at the party], Lucy. Tell me: who didn't want to kill him?"
In addition to skillful pacing, the warmth of sympathetic characters, and the complication of a pair of simultaneous suitors (one of them a police officer!), BY BOOK OR BY CROOK launches Lucy's amateur sleuthing career. It's clear the "Lighthouse Library Mystery" series is going to be lots of fun, and I'm looking forward to many an afternoon of escaping into future Lucy Richardson adventures thanks to Eva Gates.

Speaking of Eva Gates -- one reason BY BOOK OR BY CROOK is such a charmer is that Gates is actually a pen name for accomplished Canadian mystery author Vicki Delany. The book is a paperback release from Penguin Obsidian, and that means extra good news: With Delany's writing taking a new locale, "down here" in the United States, her books, whether written as Eva Gates or Vicki Delany, are likely to show up in more bookstores and on more library shelves nearby.

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.