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.