Sunday, April 15, 2018

To the Woods, the Woods -- for Horror and Crime, from J. P. Choquette and Jenny Milchman

I never used to carry "bear spray," aka heavy-duty pepper spray, into the woods with me. Bears in New England aren't interested in connecting with humans; sing loudly, or wear "bear bells," and they will move away before you're close enough to know you have company. Most other wildlife behavior is similar here (although nothing likes being stepped on). But the first time I realized a human was following me on those long lonely paths, I bolted to the camping supply store to buy a large personal spray canister.

So two books from my stack have struck a shivery chord of recognition for me recently. The first, which I was re-reading (it came out last fall), is J. P. Choquette's Vermont horror novel, SHADOW IN THE WOODS. It starts with a few hints about a Sasquatch and a disappearance, then fades to normal with Addie Preston's prep for a group hike with clients. Addie is a relatively new mental health counselor with an understandable crush on her older male colleague, Dr. O'Dell ("call me Dell"). And she's thrilled to be the second professional on an eco-therapy effort, taking four patients up into the mountains for overnight camping and new experiences of coping with their internal anger and fears.

But some of that anger is not so internal after all, and neither are the terrors, some of them perfectly rational as Addie realizes nobody has the skills to save her from even the ordinary perils of rain-washed trails, limited map skills, failed phone service ... and a quick run of injuries and losses turning the trip into a nightmare. Choquette (who has written sleuth fiction in the past but is on an exuberant roll with gothic-inspired suspense situations now) sets up the likely losses, and spins Addie into panic-stricken coping efforts. Some readers will wish the book were longer, with more room for Addie to face her own changes -- instead, it's a tight 248 pages of action and response, a good weekend read (as long as you're not planning an overnight trip up your mountain, right?).

Escalate that sense of dread and peril with the newest book from Jenny Milchman, WICKED RIVER, coming out May 1. This is her fourth, and she's ramped up the intensity and threat in every twist. Start with newlyweds Natalie and Doug Larson, headed for a back-country honeymoon in the Adirondacks. So what that there are six million often-roadless acres in front of them ... they have GPS, Doug has friends who may cross paths with them, and between their rugged vehicle and a new canoe, and Doug's massive expertise, everything should be fine.

Except there are people hiding in those forested acres who have no desire for company -- or if they do want Natalie and Doug to come see them, there are no valid exit plans that will succeed, once a wilderness psycho and a few criminal moves get woven into the journey.

I was so creeped out that I had to read this one in short bursts. And I bought a new canister of bear spray. Sinister? Yeah. And besides, Doug's injured, way too early in the intense adventure, and the two of them in many ways barely know each other. Of course, Natalie can push that thought aside:
You didn't question a bond like theirs just because things had gone horribly wrong. Look at what Doug had been willing to do for her when it came down to it. She didn't want to be out here without him. She didn't want to be anywhere without him.

Doug lowered himself onto the forest floor, gingerly positioning his arm. "I was trying to save you," he said mildly.

"Oh Doug," Natalie said. Tears stung her eyes, though there didn't seem to be enough of them to fall. "If you had died, I don't think I could have gone on without you." She said the words with more certainty than she'd spoken her vows just six days ago.
But Natalie's underlying unease isn't groundless; Doug has in fact compromised their safety, and she's nowhere near understanding what's ahead.

You'll want your own pepper spray after this one. You might want to schedule a practice session in the back yard, to be sure you're prepared.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here


Saturday, April 07, 2018

Shaping the Modern World, and Spy, in THE DARK CLOUDS SHINING from David Downing

The Cold War ended, and many Americans thought the America/Russia espionage dance ended around the same time. Readers of the espionage fiction of John Le Carré could be forgiven for believing it had wrapped up, devolved into some sort of economic tradecraft operated as much by Big Corporations as by the governments of what were once the world's major powers. Money seemed to be taking over, with China the economic power to try to understand. Like the end of Britain's colonial domination, it all seemed to come down to profits.

Then, presto! American elections are "messed with" by today's Russia. Understanding the motives and thinking of the massive nation on the other side of the globe suddenly matters in new ways. Pull up the curtain on a riveting drama -- and enhance it with David Downing.

Downing, whose recent espionage series are published by Soho Press (Soho Crime), came into his own in the "Station" series that he set during World War II in (mostly) Berlin, Germany, with protagonist John Russell trying to operate as a person of integrity during the Nazi years there. Then in 2013 he leapt back in time to World War I with the release of Jack of Spies -- the first in the Jack McColl series. Jolting thought it was for readers to change wars, continents, and protagonists, Downing made it clear that his understanding of the major shifts of the Great War provided yet another panoramic view of how forces of history shape the stage.

THE DARK CLOUDS SHINING is the fourth and final Jack McColl book (I wonder what war Downing will tackle next? hold that thought). This time the most important action and tensions take place in Bolshevik Russia, although from March 1921 to August 1921, McColl is swept across the Russian Revolution's effect and southward into the next revolution in action: that of Mahatma Ghandi leading India into rebellion against British overlords. There are shootings, betrayals, passionate lovemaking -- but most of all, Downing finds his "inner Russian" in this book, often pausing as his characters inhabit dingy apartments, train cars, and safe houses, to let them argue the right and wrong of their efforts.

At first the dark reflections occur mostly around Caitlin, McColl's lost love from the first book in the series; Caitlin's enmeshed in battling for women's rights and children's safety in this new Bolshevik world, working with the brilliant woman leader Kollontai at the Zhenotdel organization. Kollontai sees what Caitlin can't yet:
"Ever since the civil war ended, we've been in retreat. Oh, I know we've had victories -- the abortion law, the apprenticeships, the unveilings the other week -- but they're all things that don't cost money and don't inconvenience men. ... Things I thought we'd settled for good, we're having to fight for all over again. We're regressing, in more ways than one. ... In order to survive, we Bolsheviks have done some terrible things ... we must hold ourselves to a higher standard, if we want to save our revolution. If we don't, then heaven help Russia."

"We must fight each battle as it comes," Caitlin said, more to herself than her friend.
This dark sense of realization will eventually free Caitlin to make frightening personal choices, as an M-Cheka officer, Komarov, takes control of her life and moves her back into contact with Jack McColl. Whether it's arguing with a political opposite number or testing McColl's allegiance to Britain, to the best of Russia, and to her, Caitlin takes the measure of what's right.

McColl is less likely to vacillate: He's operating under specific orders to stop a possible international disaster, while trying to also "hide in plain sight" as Komarov takes over his life, too. In Komarov, the author updates Russian philosophy and literary wisdom, as the slightly inebriated -- but canny -- Russian secret service officer reveals his soul (or the part of it he's willing to share) to Jack McColl:
"In my first year as an investigator, I was jut a problem solver, and quite a good one, if I say so myself. But if that's all a city policeman does, he ends up holding his nose There are no men better placed to understand society than those that police it and no men more wary of radical change, because they know they'll be in the front line when the bombs and bullets start flying. Which is one of the reasons policemen drink a lot," he added, tipping back the glass of vodka.
These meditations darken and deepen the crisis that McColl must manage (while appearing to "be managed"). Downing is so skillful in his pacing that although perhaps a quarter of this 368-page action novel is spent in such conversations, there's never a sense of drag. The espionage, difficult choices, and knife-edge balance of whether Caitlin and McColl will ever reconcile keep the suspense taut and the twists powerful.

Can you read this without reading the rest of the series first? Sure. In a sense, by spacing the titles a year apart, Downing almost forces that sense onto readers. But if you can make time, I'd recommend reading straight through the four Jack McColl books, to appreciate the buildup of costs that Downing presents.

And although you may not want to directly apply McColl's choices to world politics a neat century later, you'll surely come away with a better grasp of Putin's background and sense of pride and entitlement. As Jack Kennedy (a highly uneven yet brilliant past American president) pointed out half a century ago, understanding both our allies and our enemies as people is essential for our own survival.

David Downing's masterful "Russian Revolution" sequence is a great way to get started.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here


Friday, April 06, 2018

Yummy Debut for a New Series from Denise Swanson, TART OF DARKNESS

I'm late discovering Denise Swanson -- her mysteries are already well known, and she's written many! Last September she released the first in a new series, "Welcome Back to Scumble River," jump-starting an existing run of books but with fresh energy (the first title was Dead in the Water).

Now she's started a second (!) new series, and this one is has many yummy moments. The series is called "Chef to Go" and it opens with TART OF DARKNESS. Count on Swanson, a true pro in the "amateur sleuth" mystery genre, to keep the red herrings splashing and suspenseful twists multiplying. In the classic mode of, say, an Agatha Christie mystery, the tension for the entrepreneur Dani Sloan is steady from the start, but not creepy in any sense ... you won't need to check that you locked the door, or turn on extra lights. Instead, with Dani, readers can chase the clues and try to figure the killer a few heartbeats ahead of Dani's own discovery.

The opening situation fits plenty of daring young entrepreneurs today: Dani's quit her corporate job, lucked into an inherited house practically perfect for a cooking-related business, and scraped up just enough money to get her catering business launched. Except it's a bit short after all, so when three young women attending the nearby college propose to bunk in her spare rooms, contribute rent, and provide kitchen and house maintenance labor, Dani's got an ideal solution. If, of course, the "girls" behave.

She's not much older than they are, but with collaboration from one of their uncles -- a charming unmarried security pro on the campus -- things seem to be working out.

That is, until her first major catering job, for a wealthy and spoiled young woman the same age as her boarders, Regina Bourne, turns dangerous, when a drunk knocks over a bamboo torch and lights the buffet table coverings on fire:
Dani's pulse raced, and for an instant, she froze as the dried grass fiber blazed. Then instinct kicked in and she dropped to her knees. Searching under the table for the fire extinguisher she kept handy anytime she used Sterno to keep the food in her chafing dishes warm, she nearly cried in releif when her fingers brushed the metal canister.

Yelling for everyone to stay back, Dani held her breath and sprayed the flames until the foam ran out. Shakily, she put the extinguisher down and sucked air into her starving lungs.

Before she could catch her breath, Regina marched up to her and demanded, "Clear off this table, and get new trays of desserts out here right now."

Dani blinked. She'd been expecting Regina to thank her, not issue impossible orders.
But that's Regina's way -- so when Regina turns up murdered, there are plenty of suspects with motive to sort through. And Dani needs to make sure the crime is quickly solved, before word of mouth and mean rumors can take away her barely opened business in the community.

It's a pleasure to ride along with Swanson's tight plot and smooth writing, with a side plot (of course) of mild romance. She's a truly skilled mystery author, and the suspense rises just high enough to make the pages turn quickly, while avoiding anything truly gruesome. I enjoyed every page -- and by my favorite test of a book, the number of people I'd like to give a copy to, this gets a very high score!

Sourcebooks Landmark is the publisher, and knowing this is the start of a series makes the slight awkwardness at the end into a promise of plot twists to come in the second title. I'm marking the series as "get the next one ASAP." By the way, there are no recipes included -- something of a surprise for a "foodie" mystery -- but there are plenty on Swanson's website.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Tween" Mystery from Cindy Callaghan, SYDNEY MACKENZIE KNOCKS 'EM DEAD

You've got a young reader in mind, and you reach for a Nancy Drew book from the shelf -- take a moment to recall her "roadster" car, her rather tame boyfriend, the lack of moral crises in her investigations ... and you put the book back, feeling like you've just exposed your own age to yourself. It's nothing wrong with that series; it's just that, well, you know the reader you have in mind is a very modern kid, whose daily frustrations include cell service and figuring out what's bad about certain websites, as well as the usual perils of middle school life, homework, best friends ("forever"), and parents. Sigh.

Take heart. Cindy Callaghan writes for "tweens" -- those wonderful preadolescent kids still full of energy and willing to accept an occasional gift from a loving parent (don't even try to figure out the teen years that lie ahead, you'll "get" them when your reader gets there). Callaghan's books involve a lot of girls, but the boys in them are by turns smart and goofy and if your reader is a boy, he'll have enough to relate to (as well as learning to relate to, yeah, Sydney Mackenzie herself). Grab a few.

I'm happy about SYDNEY MACKENZIE KNOCKS 'EM DEAD. Start of what looks like a fresh series, it features Sydney herself, arriving in despair from her California film-adoring life to the property her folks have inherited (and rapidly moved to) in small-town Delaware. It comes complete with a cemetery, and an occupation: Sydney's parents have just inherited the business of funerals and burying, as well as the "graveyard" itself, comfortably named Lay to Rest.

As Sydney struggles to remain a cool California girl (her heeled boots are not doing too well in snow though) and to figure out who the right kids are to befriend in the new school, she's hyper worried that her spooky, death-related family property will doom her social life. She might be wrong about that ...

I was glad to find a subplot, really well done, of probing a bit of local history regarding the Underground Railroad. And a curse. And a ghost.

Lucky you, to be able to give this to the kids you want to tease into adventurous reading!

There are two small but significant mistakes in the book, and Callaghan offers this advice for dealing with them: "Note from author:  Try as we all might to be diligent editors, sometimes mistakes sneaks by.  To prevent any spoilers, I'll like to just ask the reader to please substitute  the date 1862 for 1825.  The publisher is aware and if fixing this for subsequent print runs." Of course you can ink the dates in yourself, as you "pre-read" the book for your younger reader, right? Oh, one more quick note -- the paperback version just came out a few weeks ago. Again, aren't you lucky?

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Quirky Mystery Making a Science Point, ALDO by Betty Jean Craige

Black Opal Books, a small publisher with West Coast roots, is releasing ALDO in paperback on March 24. I've been mentioning the trend of university presses bringing out powerful mysteries, often literary ones or with a strong tie to the press location. In this twist, the light-reading mystery comes directly from a college professor, Dr. Betty Jean Craige -- who has written books in the fields of Spanish poetry, modern literature, history of ideas, politics, ecology, and art.

ALDO may amuse headline readers who'll recognize the tweeting President on the sidelines, and makes a point about universities defending freedom of research and speech. As a mystery, it's more an amateur effort, with sketched characters and heavy revelation of criminal intent. And I tend to resist novels that are making a point more than they are crafting a plot. That said, I enjoyed the book's portrayal of germline genetics research and its implications, and the author's effort to write from the point of view of a Latina immigrant. If those are your collecting interests, you may want a copy for the shelf.

Otherwise, I'd suggest sampling it as an ebook -- a quick read for a plane or train trip or a couple of hours with your feet up. Kudos to the professor-author for tackling university issues in her story.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Love, Death, and Friends Forever, in FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS, by Kaela Coble

Highly engrossing, engaging, and unpredictable -- that's this winter's debut novel from Vermont author Kaela Coble, FRIENDS & OTHER LIARS. But is it a mystery? I'm not sure. It's certainly not a murder mystery; the only death in the book has already taken place before the action starts, and is clearly suicide. Yet some of the classic elements of a finely plotted mystery are very much present: red herrings, costly actions, mixed motives that need unearthing.

Moreover, the pacing is tight, the characters compelling, and ... I couldn't put it down.

Here's the setup: Ruby's visiting her home town (actually by Vermont standards, it's a small city) because of the death -- by suicide -- of one of her friends from the very tight group she survived high school with. But it's not a simple wake: The dead friend, Danny, quit the scene with a bundle of resentments against his friends, intense and painful and even cruel. And he's left his mom (who is hosting the wake) with a letter to read to the group:
You always talked about "the crew, the crew, the crew," like we were some untouchable entity. But when it comes to things that really matter, you guys barely knew each other. I think it's about time you did, if you're going to continue to pride yourselves on being friends since the womb. I know things about most of you that you didn't trust the crew to know.
In addition to this opening, Danny's left a letter for each of his four close friends, including Ruby and the man she's never quite coupled off with, Murphy. Each note reveals a secret that the person is deeply ashamed of. And he expect them to share these? Umm, the timing's not great. Plus there's a note he addressed to himself, which says simply, "I killed my stepfather."

It happens that Ruby already knows something about Danny's own "secret." But revealing that now, so many years after the fact, is going to complicate everything she's tried to put together in her life.

The book's chapters alternate time periods between the middle school and high school years and "now," and the critical question becomes, how is Danny, from the grave, orchestrating the threats of revelation among his former friends? And how will Ruby sustain the effects of her own secret being revealed?

This is a debut novel, but has few clues to that -- because the writing is smooth, clever, and expert. I'm curious to see what direction this author's next work will take.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can a Murder Mystery Be Tender? Yes, with RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan

Soho Crime has just added to its Japanese mysteries by publishing the debut novel of Clarissa Goenawan, RAINBIRDS. It couldn't be much more different from the work of Fuminori Nakamura, whose spare, literary noir with crime twists (also from Soho Crime) comes with both power and significant darkness -- instead, Goenawan (born in Indonesia, now living in Singapore) has taken the formalized and gender-forced culture of Japan and embedded in it a work of deep tenderness and ardent storytelling.

The young man who narrates RAINBIRDS is named Ren Ishida; he is about to take his graduate degree in English literature when he gets word that his sister Keiko, whom he hasn't seen in years, is a murder victim, stabbed in the street on a rainy night in a small city quite distant from the siblings' original home in Tokyo. Since he's not needed in Tokyo -- his grad work is all done except for the final ceremony -- he races off to the scene of Keiko's death. And, in a quirky follow-up to the mystery of her life of the past few years, he agrees to temporarily take on her duties teaching English at a cram school. Will he discover who his sister was and why she was killed?

Goenawan clearly has written her own English language here -- no translator involved -- but there is a slight stiltedness to the prose that reminds me of well-done translations from the Japanese. I suspect this also reflects a difference in how a Pacific-Rim novel described different levels of thought and action, in contrast to an American or British one. Here's a sample from one of the more moving moments of RAINBIRDS, when Ren leaves his unexpected housing in the middle of the night to experience what his sister might have, at the same time of night, in the park where she was murdered:
I lay down on the ground, panting. The rain hit my face, but I stayed still and closed my eyes. All I could hear was the sound of rain.

My sister should have been able to guess nobody would come in this kind of weather. She would have known she was about to die. What was on her mind in those final minutes?  Had she thought about Mr. Tsuda, or the guy she had gone out with in Akakawa? Had she thought about me?

Since the day my sister had left Tokyo, I'd hoped for her return, but I'd never told her that. Had I been too proud, or too indifferent? If I'd asked her to come back, would she still be alive?

I clenched my fists. No use asking myself that now -- no answer would bring her back. The day my sister died, a part of me died, too.
Ren's continued probing of his sister's murder will give him a fresh view of who she was and what the relationship between the two of them, stranded by their embattled parents, had really, meant. At the same time, he questions his own behaviors -- perhaps very Japanese ones in terms of having sex with prostitutes and casual partners for one-night stands, but also his inability to commit to the woman who wants to marry him.

I would certainly read another book from Goenawan, and wonder whether the Japanese feel of her writing would continue if she places future novels in other locations, or whether it is somehow part of her personal style. Mystery readers who feel strongly about the conventions of the genre may not be happy with the way RAINBIRDS carves out its terrain. But those who already enjoy Asian literature (including work by Kenzaburo Oe and Haruki Murakami) and those accustomed to the genre bending that takes place in modern noir work will find themselves unexpectedly at home in this less dark, yet self-inquiring, work. Released today by Soho Crime (Soho Press).

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.



Tasting Cuba Through a New Mystery, Teresa Dovalpage's DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN

Exploring another place and culture through an enjoyable mystery in that setting has a long tradition -- readers have long appreciated vintage English village life through Agatha Christie's books, and many who will never reach Italy treasure Donna Leon's Venice. Scandinavian noir takes us to Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland; the Brazilian series by the late Leighton Gage showed us a tender love of place and people coupled with the horror of crime driven by poverty and corruption.

Now it's a delight to be able to look inside Cuba in 2003 in DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN, the first mystery from accomplished Havana-born author Teresa Dovalpage (Soho Crime). Dovalpage calls her book a literary mystery -- I'd rather liken it to the classic "recipe" mysteries, including the current Maine series by Barbara Ross and two food-focused series that Massachusetts author Edith Maxwell (aka Maddie Day) provides.

DEATH COMES IN THROUGH THE KITCHEN opens with the arrival of totally inexperienced, unskilled tourist Matt Sullivan, who hasn't really thought out how complicated his situation is -- but he's coming through customs with a slightly used wedding dress, a gorgeous one, that he plans to give to his Cuban sweetheart Yarmila in hopes of gaining a loving commitment from him.

The problem is, Matt really doesn't know Yarmi all that well -- she writes a cooking blog that describes delicious Cuban dishes and he's been following her via the Internet, in his role as a San Diego journalist trying to promote Latin cuisine. And his arrival during the height of Fidel Castro's police-maintained power means he'll be an under-the-table guest at a fiercely proletarian guest house, and an illicit suitor.

But by the end of the second chapter, we readers know that Yarmi has been murdered -- and Matt, the ambitious American who thought he'd found his lifeetime sweetheart, is now both bereaved, and a murder suspect ... to both the police and Yarmi's, ahem, other connections.

In fact, he's even imprisoned for a bit, and of course his passport is seized:
"Let's see. You meet this citizen, spend ten days with her, don't see her face to face again, send her tons of money," Lieutenant Martínez paused here for effect, "and come back ready to marry her. Is that correct?"

"Yes, compañera," Matt let the reference to "tons of money" slip "That's correct."
Soon Matt's desperation leads him to accepting help from a former police detective turned Santeria practitioner. But will the assistance be enough? And could there be too much benefit for all involved, by tagging Matt with the crime?

I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through Cuba via Matt's naive perceptions, and look forward to the next in this series from Dovalpage -- because there's sure to be more about this set of wild and eccentric characters. New from Soho Crime (Soho Press), released today.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

A Scientific Look Behind a Thriller, in MAKING THE MONSTER, from Kathryn Harkup

Kathryn Harkup calls herself a "science communicator," and her book A is for Arsenic: The Pisons of Agatha Christie made quite a hit a few years ago. Now she's tackled the work of another woman author -- or should we say teenager in this case, since Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein when she was just 18, and saw it published at age 20!

Somewhat to my disappointment, MAKING THE MONSTER: THE SCIENCE BEHIND MARY SHELLEY'S FRANKENSTEIN rarely looks at the author of this classic thriller and sci-fi progenitor. But that's my own curiosity going in the wrong direction -- Harkup is clear from the start that what she's gathered are the scientific backgrounds to the many fresh creative efforts that Shelley drew together into the novel of Dr. Vincent Frankenstein and his animated cadaver, the monster himself. After a brief opening laying out Mary's personal troubles (ouch!), Harkup swiftly moves to the medical, chemical, and electrical amazements that were rocking the European world 200 years ago. I particularly enjoyed her assessments of alchemists and their theories as they played into the eventual novel Mary would craft:
The three alchemists that Mary chose as influences for Victor Frankenstein's early life -- Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa and Paracelsus -- were three of the more dominant names in the history of alchemy as it was viewed in the early nineteenth century. However, the interests of these three historical figures demonstrate the huge range of philosophies held by so-called alchemists. Interestingly, none of the three would have called themselves alchemists and all of them wrote dismissively about those who tried to turn base metals into gold.
That's a fair sample of the writing that Harkup packs into this densely typeset, 300-page book. She moves quickly from one thorough assessment of scientific revelations to the next, including aspects of lack of refrigeration at the time, issues of anatomy, and even embalming:
Egyptian practices of mummification were for empowering the soul after death. The ancient Egyptians therefor saw no need to preserve everything in the body. Most of the internal organs were thus removed with only the heart being returned to the body. The bain was probably allowed to liquefy so it could be drained out of the skull. ... Bodies were dessicated using salts, left exposed to the elements, or dried out in ovens. Such techniques would not have been appropriate for Victor's requirements.
If you're able to overlook the slight queasiness of that liquefied brain part, and find you'd like to know more, MAKING THE MONSTER is meant for you! But it's also a great background text for those appreciating (or writing for!) TV shows like Criminal Minds, as well as grasping more of the background to Thomas Harris's grotesqueries. In other words, even if you can only digest a chapter or two now and then, there can be good reason to have this comprehensive reference on your shelf.

The book is published by Bloomsbury, and retains its British-isms. Great timing, for the 200th anniversary of Shelley's book. And if you're hungry for more about the author of Frankenstein herself, check out Fiona Sampson's book In Search of Mary Shelley -- Sampson is even appearing at times with Harkup in the United Kingdom, in this brave new era of appreciating the women who crafted potent thrillers and gothic horror at a time when they were better known as victims of Jack the Ripper and others.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.

Italian Mystery Series Debut from Mario Giordano, AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

What a great trend, to have European mysteries being translated at a newly rapid pace to bring fresh settings and attitudes to American readers! AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SILICILAN LIONS was written in German, even though Mario Giordano is the son of Italian immigrants to Germany. So its arrival in "the States" via Houghton Mifflin Harcourt meant translation by John Brownjohn (deftly!), with healthy dashes of Italian exclamations left in place. This confusion of heritage also means there's a lot of varied culture packed into the book, and the first few chapters are tough going -- Aunti Poldi, known formally to her new neighbors as Donna Poldina, is from Bavaria, a "free state" of Germany, and her formal name is Isolde Oberreiter. After some years of sorrow -- a challenging marriage, then widowhood and abrupt loss of funding, and some chaos in Africa that we never quite learn about -- Poldi has opted for a fresh start, near the sisters of her late husband, in Sicily. And with a view of the sea.

Adding to the mild confusion in the book's opening is the author's choice of double narrators: both Poldi herself in "third person," and her would-be writer nephew, to whom she is explaining what's taken place whenever he's back to visit her. After a while, I settled into the routine, and by about one-third through, I was totally in Poldi's pocket, eager to see how she would assess a crime scene and simultaneously open doors for her own passionate sense of life as crammed with love and erotic delight (or pierced by the lack of them!). How do the two narrations work? Here's a snippet, as Poldi's seaside walk leads her to the corpse of the missing hired helper Valentino she's been searching for:
When Poldi came nearer a cloud of flies rose from the remains of his head.
With a groan, she knelt down beside him. Just crouched beside the corpse, whimpering softly as if that age-old song of grief could bring him back to life. The big pebbles hurt her knees, but she scarcely felt the pain. She grasped his left hand, which was as cold and hard and dry as the stones on the beach.
"Oh, Valentino, why did you never say a word?"

She fondled his cold hand and stared at the sea and the rising sun, to avoid having to look at him. It wasn't her first dead body and she wasn't easily shocked, but the sight of the mangled face affected her deeply. She turned her head away and tried to concentrate on his hand, on his dirty fingernails and the familiar tattoo.

At length, however, she forced herself to look.

"That was when I made Valentino a promise," she told me later. "An almost automatic process was at work, that's why. It was genetically conditioned."

"You mean a kind of ... criminalistic hereditary reflex?" I asked, remembering the psychology course I'd dropped out of.

"Bullsh**. It was the hunting instinct." She looked at me. "Either you've got it or you haven't."
From here on, Auntie Poldi is hunting for the killer.  It won't be easy -- she's making friends in her new neighborhood, but she's still a ways from feeling accepted by Sicily, and her outbursts of Bavarian language (and insight) aren't always welcome. With a marvelous cast of characters, from the sexy (but unable to commit) police investigator, to the wealthy landowner obsessed with the German poet Hölderlin, to her new French friend Valérie, to her helpful and eager sisters-in-law, Poldi plunges into Sicilian entanglements. And crime solving -- she's determined to be the first to reveal the killer. (Uh-oh.)

Even during the slow first few chapters, something about Poldi and her nephew pulled me into this "amateur-sleuth" mystery -- and by the second half of the book, I was scooting away from other work on the flimsiest of excuses, just to catch up with Poldi's next charge forward. I liked the clever chapter openers, too, which hinted at what would emerge. And I found the ending delightful -- including its clear opening for more Auntie Poldi books ahead. (This interview with the author reveals that two more are already written.)

I already have three people in mind to whom I'd like to give a copy of this rollicking, passionate, and engaging mystery -- perhaps the best metric of how good a book is.  Looking forward to more. Forza, Aunti Poldi!

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.