Monday, July 28, 2014

A Little "Longmire" News

This is pretty far in advance to say so, but ... we are planning to have signed copies of a number of Craig Johnson's "Longmire" mysteries available in mid November. We've been preparing for months, and can hardly wait to meet this Western author whose books have now become a popular television series.

And Dave found a fun article recently on the changes that TV fame has brought to the author and his Wyoming locale. Check it out, here.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Top Summer Suspense: THE GOOD GIRL, Mary Kubica

THE GOOD GIRL is a debut thriller from Mary Kubica, a married mom of two who lives outside Chicago and has a degree in history and American literature. Now, forget the author details and focus on the book -- because this is one of the summer's big winners.

When wealthy but unhappy Chicago socialite Eve Dennett gets a phone call from one of her daughter's colleagues at an inner-city school, she brushes off the caller's concern about Mia Dennett not showing up for work. As far as Eve and her judge husband are concerned, Mia is a disappointing daughter, confused about her role in the world, unwilling to meet her parents' expectations, and a bit of a flake. If she's not at her art-teaching do-gooder job, well, maybe she forgot.

Detective Gabe Hoffman's main concern at first is meeting his sergeant's demands on a maybe-missing-person report that involves such powerful people; "Don't f** this one up," was the order from above. Not that Gabe would do so deliberately. But balancing the unpleasant emotions of the two Dennett parents with their reluctant and partial information is a challenge, for sure.

And then there's Mia herself: We meet her early in the book, through her mother's eyes, in a jump of the timeline as the two of them head out of a post-trauma psych appointment, with Mia's impatient and abrasive father ready to drive them home. Clearly, Mia's badly damaged by whatever it was, and whoever it was, who caused her abduction. Where has she been? How did she get there? Who is responsible for this?

Kubica uses a highly unusual framework to pry open the story in all its emotions and facts, alternating not only the narrators and points of view, but also the time at which they are communicating: "Before" Mia's return, and "After." Each chapter is neatly labeled with speaker and time zone -- and tightly packed with tension, shock, anger, and mixed motives. It's clear that only discovering what really happened is likely to free up Mia, whose amnesia includes a new name for herself, as well as multiple levels of fear, even to as small a thing as the radio being too loud.

But getting to the truth requires opening the layers of Mia and her life, and Kubica holds these layers tightly in suspense, even as winter's ravages push the urgency of the discovery process. It isn't until the final chapters that all of the details so painstakingly assembled build to "what happened."

There are two minor drawbacks to the book -- the sometimes challenging before/after framing (you have to pay close attention), and the present-tense narration, which is coupled with each character missing a lot of information that the others have. Yet those become gradually part of its power as a narrative. And the book's positives -- its relentless pace, its flawless peeling back of the psyche, its sometimes shocking but always acutely portrayed versions of what love is and what love does -- make this an amazing debut, and a mystery I expect that I'll always remember and compare others to.

The publication release date is July 29 (two days from when I'm writing this); that's enough time to place your own pre-order, or, if you want to think about things a bit further first, to explore the author's website, here. THE GOOD GIRL reveals a lot of pain, and a comparable amount of love and loyalty. Definitely worth reading, whether you get to it within the summer reading season or let it linger on the shelf until the long evenings of autumn or even the fierce windy winter in which its memorable chain of actions is set. Published by Harlequin's mystery arm, MIRA -- another example of how this imprint is bring out some of today's best mysteries.

Washington, DC, Mysteries: Max Allan Collins and Andy Straka

Last fall my mystery-collecting husband Dave and I took advantage of a national mystery conference being almost in our area, as Bouchercon was held in Albany, New York. Spending four days with 1200 mystery fans was amazing. And so were the authors we met there, including the prolific Max Allan Collins and his genial researcher and co-conspirator, Matthew (Matt) Clemens.

So I picked up a copy of this team's 2014 political suspense thriller, SUPREME JUSTICE, to relax with on a few summer evenings. In some ways the book is set in an uncertain future: The nation has its second African-American president; the court case protecting first-trimester abortion, Roe v. Wade, has been overturned; and with a right-wing-dominated Supreme Court, search and seizure provision of the USA PATRIOT Act thrive, overrunning traditional Constitutional protections.

Plunging into this situation is Joseph Reeder, an uncertain hero for sure. Reeder's action as a Secret Service agent in the past, taking a bullet to protect his President, made him nationally acclaimed -- but the public and especially his colleagues turned against him when he later quit his job, letting it be known that he couldn't keep supporting an administration that he felt obliged to criticize.

But a few people still believe in Reeder's skills, especially the set he has honed as a private consultant: his people-reading skills, which he now teaches as part of the field of "kinesics," noticing how people move and speak, and reaching conclusions about their intentions and actions. DC homicide detective Carl Bishop tags Reeder for a task force when a conservative Supreme Court Justice dies in a bar robbery gone bad. And Reeder's urgent task becomes convincing the layers of DC law enforcement that robbery was never the point of the crime -- changing the balance of the Supreme Court, though, was premeditated and intentional.
Reeder concluded: "You may say that hanging our entire investigation on my take on Judge Venter's body language is an incredibly foolish tack to take. And I would agree. ... But I will stake my reputation ... which isn't much of a bet in this company ... on being right."
A new law enforcement partner, risk to Reeder's family, and enemies around him on the urgent task force ramp the tensions up quickly, and Collins's trademark pacing and dialogue (built effectively and cleverly over a story treatment he credits to Clemens) makes SUPREME JUSTICE a compelling and intriguing read, raising tough questions about our national government while knotting all the threads of plot and character into a classic action investigation.

Just before picking up the new Collins book, I received a copy of Andy Straka's THE K STREET HUNTING SOCIETY from Cedar Creek Publishing. This was a new author to me, although Straka has 10 novels to his credit and has won a Shamus Award for his Frank Pavlicek mystery series. Pavlicek, like the author, is a licensed falconer living not far from Washington, DC, and he's a former police officer from New York City. But as a private investigator, he and his daughter Nicole team ip to help their friend Jake Toronto provide private security to a multimillionaire software entrepreneur. When the scene goes wrong, with two of the protection team wounded and a software developer dead, Frank and Jake tackle the hunt for a killer who's been known to law enforcement in the region already -- a serious professional with the skills to murder and hide.

Forget the falconry aspect of the protagonists -- Straka brings it in more as metaphor than anything else, although I gather his earlier books have used the bird skills a bit more. Instead, this is a traditional political thriller with good twists, especially in terms of motives and targets. It's a shorter book, closing at page 200, and is built mostly on dialogue, as well as the swift action pace. I found it a good read, and I'll be keeping an eye out for Straka's other titles. (This is book 6.) Straka also has an intriguing blog, which is easy to find from his author website (click here). Two small final details: I was impressed with the quality of editing for this book, especially considering it's from a small publisher, where my expectations are lower; and second, ignore the title -- it's a total misfit. Let me know what you think when you have a chance to read this one.

Amateur Sleuth in the Deli: TO KILL A MATZO BALL, Delia Rosen

I get a kick out of the amateur sleuth mysteries that Kensington provides as paperback original. These are generally light-hearted, quickly paced, with likeable protagonists and no gruesome nightmares.

TO KILL A MATZO BALL, the new "Deadly Deli" series title from Delia Rosen, fits all those descriptors -- except, as amateur sleuth and relatively new delicatessen owner Gwen Katz notes several times, the threats here are directed at her personally. That's quite a change from what Gwen has experienced so far in her Nashville, Tennessee, restaurant and catering operation. In earlier titles (like A Brisket, A Casket and A Killer in the Rye), Gwen's helped out others around her whose lives tilted from some form of murderous attack. This time, she's in danger from the very first chapter.

Rosen (who is actually Jeff Rovin) keeps the action rapid and questions multiply: What's the Chinese underworld doing around Gwen's deli? Why is the deli a safer place for her to sleep than her own home? Is there a leak in the police force, where her former boyfriend Detective Grant Daniels (who is no longer "into her") works? And will business ever get back to normal, after all the gunshots fired around Gwen?

If you love Nashville, cozy mysteries, and heroines with pluck who also need a hug (sometimes a passionate one), grab a copy for summer fun. The Yiddish expressions are a bit over the top this time, I think, and the author's "real" gender seems to leak through in more places than I expected. But as always, for a Delia Rosen mystery, the clues are well scattered, the motive-means-opportunity makes sense eventually (if a bit eccentric!), and the twinned environments of Southern city and Jewish deli create a unique atmosphere. Available as both paperback and audio version, like the others Rosen/Rovin has written (author/publisher website here).

THE ARSONIST, Sue Miller

A Boston author, a New Hampshire setting, a crime in progress (serial arson), and potential insight into how communities react to multiple fires -- how could I not read THE ARSONIST by Sue Miller? Plus, I've had the pleasure of listening to Miller in person (her earlier novel The Good Mother may be the most well known of her work). And summer reading should expand to more than one genre, right?

Best to say it right away: THE ARSONIST is not, in spite of its name, crime fiction. Nor does it provide insight into the criminal mind, or even the crime. The title is a masterpiece of misdirection. Still, the novel is vivid and intriguing, and I enjoyed all of it except the ending (if you find you like the ending, please DO place a comment here and explain your reaction, would you?).

Frankie Rowley is home from her aid work in East Africa, for what her family expects is her usual short breathing-space visit -- in this case, to the family summer home in a small New Hampshire village, where her aging parents have just settled to become year-round residents. But Frankie already knows she may never return to Africa. In the midst of an early midlife crisis, questioning her easy-loving lifestyle, her relationship with the ex-pat community abroad, and even the value of her humanitarian efforts, Frankie is more than jet-lagged. She's life-lagged.

On her first, mostly sleepless, night "home," Frankie's out walking when a whiff of smoke hints at the first of the summer housefires. She tunes in gradually to what's going on, as she simultaneously (and with many levels of doubt) begins an affair with the editor of the local paper. And the final strand of tension comes from what's happening to her parents, as her father's "forgetfulness" races toward an inability to recognize his family and himself. Is Frankie supposed to walk away from her own complicated life to become the family caregiver?

I loved the questions raised in THE ARSONIST, about self, about our parents and our communities, about the symbiosis and sometimes the painful clash of "summer people" and year-rounders. (It's not really an issue where I live in Vermont, but there are similar frictions that root in social status and education and power and other life choices.) And the writing kept me enraptured until, as I mentioned, the final few pages, when I felt that Miller tossed out the "show don't tell" rule and hurried to complete the book in a "glimpse of the future" that felt awkward as well as sad.

I'm really interested in other opinions on this one. Yes, get the book -- but don't expect a mystery, right? I can't say much more than that without throwing spoilers into this write-up. Let me know what you think, and whether you've enjoyed this. I certainly did.

New Nonfiction on Spy Kim Philby: Two Lively Reviews and an Interview

The espionage novels of John Le Carré, for me, are more than classic spy fiction -- they are the material I go to repeatedly when I want to analyze for myself how a gifted storyteller can deepen a sentence or passage, open a character, revel in rich description without slowing the action.

So I listened eagerly to this morning's National Public Radio interview with author Ben Macintyre, whose new book is A SPY AMONG FRIENDS: KIM PHILBY AND THE GREAT BETRAYAL. And it's a sign of how fiction can become part of us that I thought, "Amazing! The way Macintyre described him, Kim Philby was enormously like Le Carré's character Bill Haydon!"

And that's almost exactly backwards. Le Carré built Bill Haydon, nemesis of his loyal British spymaster George Smiley, after considerable research into Kim Philby. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) was the result, ten years after the end of Philby's espionage career.

The review of A SPY AMONG FRIENDS in today's New York Times book review section uses a quote from Le Carré at the end of the review, in a very satisfying way. In fact, the novelist adds an afterword to Macintyre's new book, sharing notes from his 1986 interview with Nicholas Elliot, a fellow spy (loyal in this case to the British) who hero-worshipped Kim Philby until Philby's shocking life as a double agent, working for the Soviets, was revealed.

What makes Macintyre's book especially appealing to me is his willingness to dive into Philby's psychology -- as well as Macintyre's established record of portraying the English with nine previous books that unearth and vividly capture betrayal and crime among the "well-dresssed British men in danger" (Boston Globe reviewer Matthew Price's phrase).

For a delicious set of view of the book, check out today's review and the interview (which will be available as an audio file after noon today). As NY Times reviewer Walter Isaacson wrote, "I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a novel." This book will be a great treat for fans of espionage fiction, and for those who love a classic British mystery.

The New York Times review is here.

The Boston Globe review is here.

And for the NPR review, click here.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

New Today from Taylor Stevens: THE CATCH

About twice a year I wish I lived near Texas ... and now is one of those times. Not for the climate, or the urban traffic, but for the presence of Taylor Stevens, talking with readers at her release events this week for THE CATCH, the fourth in the grimly satisfying suspense series that features Vanessa Michael Munroe -- better known simply as Munroe, for good reasons.

Lacking the Texas journey, I'll settle for re-reading THE CATCH. An advance copy arrived here a couple of months ago, and it was really hard to wait until the release month, so I gave in and devoured the book early ... and it's stayed with me ever since.

Munroe became an iconic character as of book 1 in the series, The Informationist. A multilingual expert in digesting information at a level that's of value to big corporations and syndicates, Munroe is also the product of an extremely abusive childhood, one that's given her good reason to prefer the anonymity of dressing like a slender young man, and made her -- for survival's sake -- highly proficient in martial arts and out-thinking very smart criminals and syndicates.

But books 2 and 3, The Innocent and The Doll, have further wounded, even crippled, Munroe emotionally, and at the opening of THE CATCH she's hiding in male guise, working for a small maritime security company in Djibouti, Africa, with a relatively simple commercial job to do. If she'd applied her brilliance to her own life -- granted, hard for any of us to do -- she might have realized the respite would be temporary. Events quickly overwhelm her best intentions, as her boss forces her into armed guard work on a ship bound for Kenya ... via the Somalian coast.

Following Taylor Stevens into the dark and violent menace of Somalian high-seas piracy is an exhilarating journey into today's "darkest Africa," where poverty and greed and vast chasms of opportunity create the ultimate criminal wonderland. Munroe's quick conclusion that a highjacking of the ship she's guarding isn't what it seems leads her to escape with a hostage, the ship's putative captain. But she's seriously wounded, unable to defend herself and her hostage with her usual skills, and even her quick linguistic gifts send her into increasing danger.

When Munroe finds an information broker who may be able to help her crack the multiple shells of criminal plans surrounding her ship's highjacking, she's inwardly elated but must stay in grim persona, driving a bargain for what she needs with this Somali hawaladar, broker of information and money:
"Not CIA?" he said.

She shook her head.

"What agency then?"

"None," she said. "Just an individual."

"With money to spare, and you speak my language."

She nodded.

"There's no way to guarantee you're telling the truth?"

"None," she said. "But I don't want anything from you that might incriminate you."

He shifted forward again, deeper against the desk than he had before, so that his face was closer to hers, his expression clouded with mistrust and accusation. "If there are no demands for ransom and the ship disappeared, where does your information come from? How do you know a ship was hijacked?"

"I was on it," she said. ... "If the hijacking was paid for by Somali money, then tell me nothing, return me half the money, and I'll be on my way. If it was foreign investment, then I only ask that you give me whatever rumors are passing through on the wind, and the payment is yours."
It's not that simple, of course, and Munroe's adaptations to being wounded and ill make her in some ways more like "the rest of us" for this adventure -- more vulnerable, more at risk, more dependent on friendship. Except ... her emotional wounds have cut her off from the very people she most trusts and needs, the ones who've worked with her and care about her, even if they don't always understand her. And in the midst of trying to stay alive and resolve the crimes and free up the people for whom she has taken responsibility, Munroe also needs to resolve her relationship with her past -- and future.

I'm grateful that I could stay in the cool green safety of the Vermont hills to read this one, even though I'd love to hear Stevens talk about her research in person (she often does so online; best bet is her Facebook feed, where she shares links to some of her appearances). Today's Somalian piracy and the intricacies of Muslim life in Africa also intrigue me, so I like finding them in THE CATCH. Most of all, though, it's Munroe I enjoy and want more of: a wounded superhero of a woman, caught up in international intrigue, struggling for breathing space and for the capacity to trust.

Australian Noir Gets Complicated: HELL TO PAY, Garry Disher

Garry Disher's mysteries have come in two basic flavors: crime with a dash of satisfaction in the investigation (try his Hall Challis/Ellen Destry series), and crime from the point of view of sociopaths who make it their lifestyle -- and then find themselves puzzling out some humanity around the edges (that's the Wyatt series). I'd be willing to call them bittersweet chocolate and unsweetened dark.

But with HELL TO PAY, Disher begins what looks like a new series from Soho Crime, featuring Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to himself and others as Hirsch. The stakes are far different, and the emotions more complex, as Hirsch buckles down to his new assignment as a local constable in a stretch of barren back-country, on the Barrier Highway, under the thumb of the malevolent Sergeant Kropp, his superior officer. Everything appears bitter and painful as the book opens (especially the situation with Kropp and his associated bullies). And it gets worse, as Hirsch's own past becomes clear: He's in disgrace, assumed to have been the whistle-blower who informed on his own "boys in blue" allies in the metropolis of Adelaide, Australia.

That's the reason Hirsch is isolated, despised, tormented by the local police and by Sergeant Kropp: no loyalty to his own kind.

So when Kropp sends Hirsch to respond to a report of "shots fired," Kropp's tone is nasty from the start, even though the call is probably related to some sheep farmers taking pot shots at rabbits or something similar: "No dropkicks on my watch, and no smartarses," Kropp warns Hirsch. An air of unease out at "the scene" turns dangerous as shots fly at Hirsch himself, nearly killing him. But nothing's as it seems -- not the shooters, or their reasoning. And almost before this opening foray into back-country life has resolved, Hirsh is on call again from Kropp, for a body next to the road, possibly from a hit-and-run. When he finds the body, all his instincts and experience go on alert.
So he ran crime scene tape around the area and sat down to wait.

Late afternoon before the accident investigators arrived. Hirsch wanted to hang around, he wanted to propose his theories, but they ignored him, two men and one woman conscious of the dwindling light, the sun smearing itself across the horizon, long shadows playing visual tricks. They took their phtos measured distances, crouched and poked and grid-searched and marked up their diagrams.

"You're blocking the light," the female offices said, her tone indicating she knew exactly who Hirsch was.
His reputation means his efforts are consistently misread, but Hirsch soon has reason to probe this death of a 16-year-old girl more deeply.  Like everything else Hirsch connects with, this isn't what is seems, and his efforts to uncover the truth put him repeatedly into danger, both physical and at the level of soul and self-esteem, as word spreads of who Hirsch is and what he's done in the past.

All of that spells darkness, "Australian noir," and Disher makes us work for insights into Hirsch's character: not a man defend himself fruitlessly, or to lay his grief and fears out in public. But unlike Disher's iconic character Wyatt, Hirsch is readily touched by the pathos and stress of the communities and families around him -- their confusion and sorrow and anger harmonize with his own -- and small details in the way he treats people and the way, despite himself, he falls under the back-country spell of sere beauty win us to his side.

Disher makes a feast out of this layered complexity where personal reserve and the careful distance of career policing mean that the heart is often silenced. There's no gratuitous gore here, no horror show -- but plenty of insight into simple and more intentional evils, and into what it takes to bring goodness back into the light, among those long twisted shadows.

I'm already hungry for the next "Hirsch" book from Disher. I can even let go of the other two series for a while, to fall in with the power and potential redemption ahead in this (presumed) series.

If you're collecting Disher already, buying HELL TO PAY is an easy decision; if you're new to this author, HELL TO PAY is probably his most accessible and rewarding book yet, and a great place to start getting to know his work.

PS: Disher's author site often isn't up to date, but it's still of interest, with extra tidbits giving insight into this well-established author: http://www.garrydisher.com.



Sunday, July 13, 2014

Worth the Wait: MURDERED SLEEP, A Dade Wyatt Mystery, R. A. Harold

R. A. (Roberta, a.k.a. Robbie) Harold's first Dade Wyatt mystery, set on Vermont's Lake Champlain, came out to great reviews in 2010 -- and it's been a long wait for the second book (life can get in the way of writing). But I settled in with her new release, MURDERED SLEEP, over the past week, and found a lot to enjoy in this 1906 political and historical mystery in the days of the "first" President Roosevelt ... Teddy Roosevelt, a heroic figure for his leadership in the decisive Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba, when Dade Wyatt followed him.

Now Wyatt's living a quieter life, but performing with a Shakespearean troupe brings him to President Roosevelt's own city, Washington, DC. Harold has deliberately positioned the story in what she says is the decade that best fits the Rayford W. Logan label "the nadir of American race relations." She uses the plight of Black Americans -- their vote taken away from them, lynchings routine, and even unable even to go to the theater in DC where Wyatt performs -- as a backdrop to ramp up the tension among her potential villains. And in true Shakespearean fashion, there are plenty of choices.

Wyatt's past experience in keeping a political disaster from exploding is why his old friend Congressman Dodge summons him to investigate the death of a legislator who's been trying -- without much diplomacy -- to improve living conditions for African Americans in the District. Is it Congressman Nielsen's verbal assault on a colleague that's brought his murder? What other stakes are there? Money? Power? Women??
Judas. Wyatt was struck by the comparison. Usually you thought of him as the betrayer, the false friend, but in that gospel passage Judas was the purist, the zealot offended by money spent on luxury instead of ministry. That sounded like Robert Nielsen. Or was there someone, some cause, that Nielsen had betrayed -- or threatened to betray? His wounds -- some had not bled, made after he was already dead -- suggested some extraordinary eruption of emotion.
Wyatt's in no position to be critical of any peccadilloes he may find as he investigates. He's having a back-stage affair with a married actress. Nor is he immune to American racism, as he discovers to him shame.

Harold's portrait of this little-discussed segment of American history is a pleasure to read, smooth and well paced. Readers won't spend many pages in fear or suspense -- the tale is more mellow, and the stakes for Wyatt are personal and mostly private, not life-and-death. But the clever insertions of bits Shakespearean metaphors, clever details of stage life (Harold has been both performer and playwright), and tidbits from Alice in Wonderland add to the enjoyment of a class historical mystery that provokes fresh insight about American heritage, as well as human honor.

Worth the wait! Thanks, Robbie Harold, for taking another book to press. Catch up with Harold's career through assorted online tracks, but not an author website at this point ... still, there's a hint of book 3 in the wings, with a Civil War widow at center stage. I'll let  you know when the author shares more details. Meanwhile, to check out the first Wyatt book, click here.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Speaking of Independence ... Hattie Davish Turns Sleuth in Victorian Newport, Rhode Island

Anna Loan-Wilsey's third Hattie Davish mystery is in print! A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT follows A Lack of Temperance and Anything But Civil, and we connect with Hattie in her role as a "social secretary" in the town where so many wealthy American families established "cottages" the size of mansions, and mansions the size of housing developments. Hattie wears her role in town with independence yet some unease: She's accustomed to being treated with appreciation and dignity by her employer, but when Sir Arthur abruptly must leave the summer resort, trusting Hattie to complete typing his manuscript and then take some well-deserved vacation (for her first time ever), Sir Arthur's less kindly wife turns the tables on Hattie, shopping her out as an upper-level servant to the extremely wealthy Mrs. Charlotte Mayhew. Scratch the vacation. Forget being held in esteem. Suddenly Hattie's hard-won independent lifestyle is gone, and Lady Phillippa has the power to enforce the change.

"Yes, spoiled," Lady Phillippa asserts of how Hattie has treated Sir Arthur's writing career. She continues, "Why else do you think he hired you back after that fiasco in Arkansas? ... And you're lucky he did too or your reputation would've been sullied by the scandal. And then again in Galena? What kind of ill luck do you have, girl? Obviously, Mrs. Mayhew knows nothing about your dealings with the murders and we're going to keep it that way, right?"

And that's the stick: Lady Phillippa can ruin Hattie's reputation and toss her out if she so chooses, so Hattie takes the new (if demeaning) assignment. But it's not ill luck that brings Hattie into murder investigations: It's her capable intelligence and calm trustworthiness, and soon she's applying her investigative skills on behalf of her new employer, Mrs. Mayhew, with another murder investigation underway.

Loan-Wilsey is a gifted storyteller and careful historian (her background before writing involved being a librarian and information specialist), and in A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT she provides a rattling good traditional "amateur detective" mystery with a wonderfully authentic set of "women's issues" from the years not so long ago when women couldn't even cast their votes. Softer in tone than the war-era mysteries of Jacqueline Winspear, Loan-Wilsey's series shows the same adept ear for dialogue and dilemma, with a plenty of adventure and an American sense of justice. A very good series to collect and enjoy, especially for summer reading!

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Brief Mentions: Alan Furst, Åsa Larsson, Joelle Charbonneau

Summer schedules can be downright challenging, but the graduations, birthday, and family weddings are over for now, and I have a great stack of mysteries that kept me calm on the inside while dancing through June's gentle chaos. Reviews will roll ...

But here are three titles I won't be reviewing at length this time:

1. Alan Furst, MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE. Furst's pre-World-War-II noir brings Europe in its potent darkness alive, and although technically his books are mysteries (thrillers), they separate from the crowd in two ways: First, we know the upcoming world events that will  follow the action of each book (war will break out, yeah), so the suspense resides in the smaller, personal details of lives and goodness at risk. This time the protagonist is Christián Ferrar, whose efforts in the Spanish Civil War threaten to give him the ultimate reward, as in, "No good deed goes unpunished." (I was eager to get more details of the Spanish Civil War myself ... I'd always been a bit fuzzy about it.) Second, Furst writes with the lush deliberation of a deep literary novel. The drawback for MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE is that this leads to an ending that's hesitant, sweet, but also distant from the press of the plot. Consider it a tease, perhaps, for the sequels we know are en route. Note: Furst's "sequels" are not a series in the traditional sense -- some characters occur in multiple books, but there is no need to read his others before opening up MIDNIGHT IN EUROPE. And yet ... I want each of them on my shelf.

2. Reading Scandinavian noir? You may still not know the name Åsa Larsson; she isn't at the top of the PR lists. But oh my, her books have gripped me this summer. I'm catching up -- I read Sun Storm and The Blood Spilt, and devoured The Black Path, then cruised into the most recent, Until Thy Wrath Be Past. I'm fully committed to the protagonist, lawyer and crime victim and now dogged sleuth Rebecka Martinsson. The fifth book comes to the United States in August, and I've pre-ordered my copy of The Second Deadly Sin. Most intriguing aspect (besides the character of Martinsson): discovering Swedish prejudices and ethnic groups. Mmm.

3. Joelle Charbonneau's widely awaited final book in her YA dystopian series "The Testing" is here -- GRADUATION DAY. It's a fitting finale to Malecia "Cia" Vale's investigation of the powers running her post-apocalyptic world, and distinguishes the series emphatically from its "older sister" in "The Hunger Games." I wasn't entirely happy with the percent of the book that takes place through Cia's thoughts, present tense, but I think that's more a personal taste -- and I suspect the frame is on target for many "young adult" readers who live in the intense present themselves. No major issues of sex or religion in this series -- it's all about power, personal and governmental. Cia is a reluctant leader, but once she accepts the role, the action is nonstop. More about the books at the author website: http://www.joellecharbonneau.com

Henry Chang, DEATH MONEY: NYC Chinatown Series, Jack Yu

Henry Chang's Chinatown series, set mostly in New York City's Chinatown, is maturing and becoming very strong indeed. In the fourth Detective Jack Yu investigation, DEATH MONEY, Chang keeps the action focused in New York's five boroughs -- and if that seems larger than you're picturing the Chinatown influence, think again. Chang paints vividly the action of the 1990s, with its self-help and legal defense movements on one side, the dark criminality of gambling and prostitution and bribery on the other, and Jack Yu as token Chinese police detective, sent to deal with any Asian deaths that look suspicious. (The book's time period gives Chang space from his own life and from his sources, who sometimes were on the "dark side" thirty years ago but are aging retirees now.)

This time, Yu pairs the evidence, including a corpse in the river -- neatly executed with a precise cut to the heart -- with his own understanding of how the Chinese groups rub against each other and raise big money from people's urges to play, whether with numbers or games or sex. I especially appreciate the way Yu's perceptions highlight the separate factions among "the Chinese": immigrants from parts of "one country" that might as well be multiple nations, with different dialects, habits, expectations. I'm starting to tune in to my own time and place, asking, "Chinese from where?" when I meet someone new.

Chang takes a classic noir approach to his form, posing short, tight chapters that follow through on one of Jack Yu's actions or guesses. Action, threat, and the wages of curiosity push the pace. And then there's a breath, a pause, and Chang deepens the background detail, the way Yu sees the crowd at the notorious nightclub Fay Lo's:
The betting was moderate, mostly Chinese men chain-smoking around the tables. They looked like the workers he'd seen in the Golden City and China Village and in Chinatown, throwing down their tip money, the hustle pay of sweaty dollar bills, looking for the long odds -- twenty, thirty, a hundred to one.

The gang boys stood out from the civilian players. ... Swagger. Willing to fight and die for the gang family. Though it all aided law enforcement in identifying members by their gang tats and nicknames.
Yu's usual Chinese companion (on the other side, but able to keep their friendship) is still in a coma, so DEATH MONEY sees Yu tackle his assignment alone, barely accepted among the police, and taking a stand against people who connections make them powerful and strong. His only chance is to cut one out of the crowd at a time, and force the play.

Chang is clearly set for a long series at this point, well beyond the Chinatown trilogy he started with. That's good news for mystery readers, collectors, and armchair explorers alike. Oh yes, it's from Soho Crime -- thanks again, S.C. team!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Summer Reading: Intense Mysteries from Established Authors

Here are some terrific releases for this summer, to put into the beach bag or suitcase.

David Downing, JACK OF SPIES. First in a new series, espionage and an unforgettable protagonist, Jack McColl, in the threatening season as the Great War becomes inevitable. Reviewed already: http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/2014/05/world-war-i-espionage-from-david.html ... Full set of Downing reviews, here.http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/search?q=David+downing

Henry Chang, DEATH MONEY. Fourth in the Jack Yu series, set in Chinatown, best yet. Review over the weekend, if I can make time. Missed out on the earlier ones? Reviews here.

Garry Disher, HELL TO PAY. Let's hope this is the start of a new series .... yes, it's that good. Review to follow soon. If you haven't yet read Disher's Australian police procedurals and very dark crime fiction, here's a great place to start. We keep mentioning Disher and Dave and I fight (gently) over who gets which ones first; see why, here.

Anna Loan-Wilsey, A SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT. Third in the Hattie Davish historical mysteries, well plotted and paced, again showing that this author can take her material outside the soft "historical" stereotype with her assertive and intriguing sleuth. June 24 pub date, review soon. Loan-Wilsey's first book was amazing: review for that one, here.

Taylor Stevens, THE CATCH. Exceeds even the high bar already set by Stevens for the androgenous and tough Vanessa Munroe, in another global thriller. July 15 pub date; review in early July. I wait all year for the next one, on edge (really). See why, here.


Julia Keller SUMMER OF THE DEAD. West Virginia, third to feature prosecutor Bell Elkins, full of action, suspense, and bitter questions. Pub date is August, and review will run sooner, as it's worth pre-ordering (and lucky you, if you can attend an author event). Get ready with a look at her earlier work here.