Monday, June 26, 2023

Book Reviews Continue -- Over at the Writing Blog

The reviews are shorter now, and less formal, but with fresh energy. Don't miss the recommendations for new books, especially Chris McKinney's Eventide, Water City. Here you go:

Friday, June 09, 2023

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Au Revoir but Not Goodbye, May 31, 2023

Dave and I took huge joy in creating Kingdom Books, first as a specialty bookshop (mysteries, poetry, Vermontiana) and then as a review blog. Dave's been gone four years, and I miss him all the time, but ... things must move forward, not back.

Effective today, since I'm reviewing at the New York Journal of Books and Historical Novels Review, I won't be posting more on this blog. But I'll leave it in place so you can search past reviews. 

As of 5:30 pm (Eastern), this blog racked up incredible numbers of page views (see below), and that's because of YOU. Thank you.


KINGDOM BOOKS Blog Stats, Page Views, as of May 31, 2023:

All Time 646759
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Yesterday 208
This Month 8640
Last Month 8485

Adventure, Murder, and Twists of Bookstore Merriment from Tamara Berry, in MURDER OFF THE BOOKS

Tamara Berry's wicked sense of humor is a great match for her neatly twisted plots in her "By the Book Mysteries," set in the Big Woods country of the Northwest. Crime novelist Tess Harrow's family legacy in this timber-centric town isn't as wild as her best-selling status, but it does include a former hardware stores (see the earlier books of the series) that she's turning into a bookshop of her own, with of course a stack of her newest release on the counter.

But Grand Opening plans run awry when (of course!) murder sweeps into town once again. This time, a top-selling podcaster arrives at the same time, and starts to paint Tess's recurring corpse discoveries as possible indications that she herself is a criminal!

Perish the thought, or even better, perish the podcaster. Except that's not going to happen. Tess's daughter is thrilled by the visitor. Her definitely difficult mother sweeps into town at the same time -- and the corpse turns out to be Tess's mother's boyfriend of the moment, the notorious Levi Parker, who might have tried something deadly if he hadn't been killed first. And oh yes, Tess and the sheriff may or may not be an item. Complications.

Is your head spinning yet? Jump into this lively bibliomystery laden with smart sassy women and to-die-for dialogue, as well as a plot that gets more crazy and more likely at the same time, page by page. MURDER OFF THE BOOKS is the fun mystery your summer reading stack has been waiting for. 

[The earlier books in the series are Buried in a Good Book and On Spine of Death -- treat yourself!]

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Nordic Noir in 13th Harry Hole Crime Novel from Jo Nesbø, KILLING MOON

 [Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Nesbø never releases the heartstrings through an otherwise classic dark police procedural.”


Harry Hole, depressed Norwegian detective, has fled to California as the 13th book in this “Nordic noir” detective series opens. It takes one to know one, they say, and an aging actress and gambling addict named Lucille, hanging out in the bar with him, nails Harry as running as running away from something—his wife? No, she’s dead. “Ah. You’re running from grief,” Lucille readily assesses.


For Harry, that could be both the sum and his ending, since he’s ready to give up on everything. But (with plenty of Leonard Cohen lyrics along the way) it turns out that seeing Lucille assaulted because of her gambling debts wakes up the protective side of this aging police detective. And that, in turn, readies him to accept a return to Norway to solve a crime, provided he can get a big enough fee to pay off Lucille’s life.


It's a poignant and emotional way to pull Harry Hole back into action, and Nesbø never releases the heartstrings through an otherwise classic dark police procedural. DNA analysis, cocaine trafficking, violent crime—it all piles up across nearly 500 pages of detection. Alternating points of view bring in forensic sleuth Alexandra Sturdza, as well as a highly unpleasant set of manipulative criminals. Sturdza, despite her first gray hairs, is glad to recall once being told “her body was a cross between a tiger and a Lamborghini” and her wry comments and quirky expertise add fun to the narrative.


As detective novels go, this one is on the edge of being a thriller, since there’s a “ticking clock” for Harry Hole to discover and arrest a serial killer. Technically, he’s only got to prove his client didn’t do the crime, in order to have the needed funds wired to his bar buddy Lucille’s account and get her released. But of course, proving innocence is much more direct if someone else is clearly guilty. Because he’s on a short time leash, Hole takes bigger risks and cuts more legal corners than might be wise. It makes sense, in the context, and it ramps up the suspense.


Fans of the series will find this sleuth’s grief and loss powerful, and will appreciate how life forces Harry back into the work he does so well. Newcomers to Nesbø’s well-established investigations won’t struggle for context, though; Harry Hole’s sense of blame for his wife’s death and his overwhelming need to accept responsibility for another life are quickly established and push the plot.


At the core of Killing Moon is the painful reawakening of attachment in Harry’s life, through reconnecting with an old flame and her child. It’s a terrific contrast to the self-centered menace of criminals, and lets Nesbø dip into more classic tunes, beyond Leonard Cohen. The most satisfying lullaby Harry can offer to a child turns out to be “a low, slow chanting in a rough voice that now and then hit the notes of an old blues song about the perils of cocaine.” Truth seems to be the best currency with this child. For Harry, that in itself offers more risk and pain.


At the same time, it provides another hostage to keep Harry Hole investigating, as a new kidnapper invites Harry to check out the night’s moon: “You can see the eclipse is under way. When the moon is completely covered,” the villain offers, he’s going to slit the throat of someone Harry loves.


Running away from grief? Rephrase that: Once again, Harry Hole is running for the sake of love.


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

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Fresh Updated LA Noir from Daniel Weizmann, THE LAST SONGBIRD


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Weizmann’s updated LA noir storytelling is pitch perfect, so this quirky investigator stands in for each of us, committing in a fumbling fashion to doing what’s right even though we’re not equipped for the journey.”


Pull up that poignant song about driving a beautiful woman in your taxi cab and never forgetting her. Hold onto the emotion—now, pin the story to Los Angeles, to the brutal competitiveness of performance and production, and to the significance of small and persistent acts of kindness.


Too saccharine? Fear not. Daniel Weizmann roughs up the story of a Lyft-driving songwriter on the night streets as he hard-boils affection, friendship, loyalty. That means grit, lots of it, from drug-fueled disasters to twisted personal secrets.


Yet The Last Songbird, personified here by aging yet still famous folksinger Annie Linden, never quite loses the heartache and beauty of the old songs. By the time driver Adam Zantz trusts Annie Linden enough to share his own songs with her (he writes both the lyrics and the melodies) in the strange privacy of his hired car, she’s also won his faithfulness. When she and her bodyguard are brutally murdered (with Adam a suspect, of course), there’s only one mission possible: find the killer and bring them to justice. Even though that won’t bring Annie back, it will let Adam keep hearing and feeling the support of her voice.


“She was a songwriter’s songwriter, a taker of lyrical chances,” Adam clarifies. Annie’s become his antidote to despair, too: “Annie Linden, my Annie Linden, never had any place to hide. Because she believed in love, like a religious devotee. She said as much to me on the road when I asked her where her songs came from.”


Extra horseradish on the side for this dish of neo-noir, please, since Adam (Addy to his friends) presents a Jewish flavor to all his choices. His friends twist toking and Torah, like Ephraim Freiberger, aka Double Fry, who explains that his paparazzi work is bounded by not selling any photos that could embarrass someone. Addy checks this: “Embarrassing someone is strictly forbidden?” Double Fry responds, “By the Torah, it’s like murder.”  Tough boundary for a photo career in LA, though!


Adam’s songwriting future may be dead in the water with Annie’s murder—she was the first and only significant person who’d believed in his work—and the darkness of his nights, with its long ugly driving shifts through LA’s special brand of despair and denial, threatens his inner life as well. But under Double Fry’s pressure, he nails his urge to solve the crime: “I owe her—for giving me hope when I had zero. And I’m pissed. ‘Cause if I don’t find out who—If I don’t find out who [killed her], maybe nobody will.”


The clumsy but persistent efforts of this spur-of-the-heartache amateur sleuth pull him into danger, of course, as well as waves of anguish over his past and over his desperation to “make good” to Annie’s memory. Weizmann’s updated LA noir storytelling is pitch perfect, so this quirky investigator stands in for each of us, committing in a fumbling fashion to doing what’s right even though we’re not equipped for the journey.


Of course, classic noir would spit Adam back out in misery at the end. Case solved, or not? Annie still an inspiration to him, or lost in the clutter of her own revealed mistakes? Things change: An author who creates a Torah-hugging buddy for his protagonist can’t be consigning the case, or Adam’s songs, or hope itself to the dumpster. Best of all, in a new twist on noir (but a definite plug for those taxi-now-Lyft drivers), a playlist of the book’s songs wraps up this irresistible tale, putting all the half-spoken secrets back into active memory. Van Morrison, anyone? Mick Jagger? Dylan? Who is the “last songbird” that you’ll hear bringing you home?


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

Fresh and Lively Summer Reading, THE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“How could a former US President finally be able to take over an action-hero team? And what might the costs of that effort become? Or even, dare we imagine, the rewards?”


A fresh release of this lively thriller from master author James Patterson and presidential expert Bill Clinton comes just in time to add gusto to the summer reading stack. The President’s Daughter offers a quick and believable trip into the lives of a former President and his family, tucked into a secure compound in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—but no longer protected the way a serving President’s home would be, in any sense.


Bill Clinton’s humor and persistence peek through the narrative every couple of pages, making double-takes common all the way. For example, Matthew Keating is far from resigned to a quiet post-importance life, despite losing his slot to the maneuvering of the woman he’d brought in as vice president: “Unfortunately, I went into a tough presidential campaign with more experience as a Navy SEAL in battles overseas than in political wars at home. And I was still angry about it, so angry I was tempted a couple of times to resign and let her have the d*** office before she rode to victory in the November election. But I couldn’t do it. No current or former SEAL would ever give up before the job is one. And no president should, either.”


Between the pithy statements of a former President commenting on his own role, and the page-turning plot with James Patterson’s quintessential crime threats and villains, there’s barely room for the “President’s daughter” of the title to exert her own leadership. Off for a romantic hike with Tim, a possible long-term partner, Melanie Keating no longer has any Secret Service coverage—and a Muslim terrorist with a personal vendetta against Mel’s father can access other resentful global allies as he aims to torment the Keating family.


Still, Patterson knows the drill, and when Mel can finally take the lead in this action thriller, she does so from her own form of strength, having practiced and prepared in advance in case she was ever taken hostage: “Me feels the SUV stay on a dirt road for a good length of time, and she resumes counting one more time, going one thousand one, one thousand two, and keeping focused. The tears have stopped. No time for tears. Her legs and arms are cramped, her mouth is dry-raw with the cloth stuck inside, and she’s wondering how long it will be before Tim’s body is found.”


One of the delights of this partnership of authors is their expertise—there’s no moment of doubt about a proposed weapon or strategy, because Patterson is an established pro. And the insights into POTUS emotions and actions are surely as authentic. In The President’s Daughter the former President takes opportunities to spring into action himself (“former SEAL” = “always SEAL,” right?), which is worth a few chuckles, imagining that Clinton couldn’t resist putting himself into a landing party. In fact, much of the plotting for this exhilarating novel must have put that aspect front-and-center: How could a former US President finally be able to take over an action-hero team? And what might the costs of that effort become? Or even, dare we imagine, the rewards?


One small flaw to all this imagining is the way the book’s villains are painted as vulnerable in terms of emotion, intelligence, and insufficient planning. That’s the part that shouldn’t be taken as a portrait of the real world of global threat. War isn’t a game when real lives are engaged.


But that’s a minor complaint, compared the skillful and well-paced plot of this entertaining thriller. An easy and enjoyable summer read, this book from a pair of clever and often humorous authors makes a great addition to the summer reading menu, and leaves a bright lemony aftertaste. May every President’s daughter get to be the hero of a global interchange and family survival, despite the often soiled politics of American life.

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

Genre-Busting Irish Crime Fiction from John Banville, THE LOCK-UP


[Originally posted at New York Journal of Books]

“What neither can say aloud is, Strafford failed to save Quirke’s wife in a shooting the year before, and there’s no forgiveness on the table.”


Crime may be impulsive, launched by a forgotten set of car keys dangling from a sports car’s ignition or an easily hacked online account. On the other hand, it can root deep in the history of grievance, violence, prejudice, and war—which makes a far more complex narrative and is, of course, how John Banville situates The Lock-Up. War and its profits, going back to an escape from Germany during the Second World War, mean an excuse for a twisted soul to take revenge via markets and manipulation. 


The death of youthful historian Rosa Jacobs, found murdered in her car in Dublin, provides the entryway for investigating both the “not yet past” past and today’s market rewards. It will take dedicated research (and a bit of provocation) to untangle the threads of motive for this crime, and in the process, two of Banville’s noted characters of previous novels, Detective Inspector St John Strafford and police pathologist Quirke, collude. This isn’t new to Banville’s work—the pair, originally introduced in separate books to probe different Irish issues, appeared together in April in Spain (2021)—but because each is enduring a personal crisis, their conversations cut deeper this time around.


For instance, Quirke (gulping whiskey, of course) abruptly offers an awful description of an autopsy on a child, to which Strafford struggles to make a sympathetic response. Quirke next asks Strafford, “What was your first death?” Strafford takes the question as meant, and briefly tells of shooting an IRA man who’d pointed a tommy gun at him. And what neither can say aloud is, Strafford failed to save Quirke’s wife in a shooting the year before, and there’s no forgiveness on the table.


“Do you dream about him, the IRA man?” Quirke asked.


“No. Do you? Dream about the child?”


“I remember him, that’s all … All that, and the plume of steam coming off the child’s brain.”


The novel won’t get much more graphic than that, although the clumsy dance of intimacy between these two aging men continues painfully throughout. As is the case for the Troubles that background the book, and the Second World War yet further back, there seems to be no calm resolution for the long-term effects of trauma when nurtured today.


Still, with Banville’s Irish home terrain in mind, it’s startling as the action begins to tilt toward distant Israel. Perhaps the ongoing presence of war and violence there provides an apt counter to the fumbled efforts to make peace in Ireland. Or between Quirke and Strafford, a matter that becomes increasingly urgent as the walls separating their private lives are pierced. Loneliness followed by attraction may force the stones of resentment to move, like water that’s been frozen, then thaws, leaving gaps where it’s been.


For some years, Banville separated his literary fiction from his genre work in crime by using the pen name Benjamin Black for the genre books. But The Lock-Up comes out under his own name, and stitches together the two forms of narrative, the way Quirke and Strafford also become painfully connected. The death of Rosa Jacobs? Yes, of course, the investigation brings a solution, even resolution.


But what about the pain of Ireland and its besetting illnesses, alcohol abuse and divisive religion?


“We know a great deal,” Strafford lied. “We have all the pieces, we just need to put them together. You can help us.”

“Why should I?” one likely murderer replies to him. Which is, when you think about it, a very sensible response, one that pierces the walls of genre and makes reading this crime novel a haunting and memorable experience.


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


Sunday, May 21, 2023

Next from Mick Herron, THE SECRET HOURS, in September

I generally review books pretty close to the publication date -- so if the review intrigues you, you'll be able to get the book soon afterward. As a result, I won't post a full review of THE SECRET HOURS  until later this summer.

But not only are there exceptions to waiting for the right moment. There are reasons for exceptions to self-imposed rules like this one. 

Mick Herron's new book, THE SECRET HOURS, will be released in September. Layered, rich, flavored with political insight, wry humor, espionage of course, and above all, love and loyalty, it's being promoted as a stand-alone spy thriller.

However, this book unfolds many of the secrets that have been lurking in Herron's Slough House series. And it's going to resonate more deeply for you if you've already devoured and at least partly remember what happens to which characters in the series.

So this is your book alert: Buy Mick Herron's series now, or borrow it, or dust off your own copies and spend the summer refreshing your attention to the quirkiest, bravest, most ordinary, most-difficult-to-share-an-office-with spies of Herron's disastrous failure side of MI5. 

You will thus guarantee yourself an astonishingly good time in September.

Which in turn causes me to suggest: Get your spouse and/or best friend reading these, too. Then you'll have the ultimate pleasure of sharing a fantastic book with the person you most like. Couldn't get much better than that.

Oh yes, the books you are about to buy, borrow, or dust off (lucky you!) are:

1. Slow Horses (2010)
2. Deal Lions (2013)
3. Real Tigers (2016)
4. Spook Street (2017)
5. London Rules (2018)
6. Joe Country (2019)
7. Slough House (2021) 
8. Bad Actors (2022) 

And you can see a lot of them reviewed on this site by clicking here

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

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Victorian Mystery/Thriller from Tim Mason, THE NIGHTINGALE AFFAIR


[Originally published at New York Journal of Books]

“Because Mason places the killer and his excuses openly among his protagonists, and the threats to Field and his family are menacing and time-linked, The Nightingale Affair is at least as much of a thriller as it is a historical novel.”


Tim Mason’s earlier historical mystery, The Darwin Affair, brought Chief Detective Inspector Charles Field into investigating the attempted London murder of Queen Victoria. In a clever twist of expectations, The Nightingale Affair offers a sequel in which Charles Field no longer holds a position with the police, and has sunk to investigating cheating spouses to earn a living. Other aspects of his life seem well in order, though, with his foster son a newly approved mounted policeman, his foster daughter no longer a thief but a clean and cheerful young woman eager to study nursing, and his wife Jane managing the household happily.


Then, in a matter of hours, it’s all upside down, as Field discovers a murder with the unmistakable “calling card” of a killer he thought he’d finished off during his career, in a stint with Florence Nightingale’s British nurses during the Crimean War in the 1850s. At the same time, his son Tom loses his new job through making a morally right choice that counters his superior officer, his daughter Belinda comes under threat, and his wife is summoned once again to the support of now ailing and aging Miss Nightingale.


The book dances back and forth in time, with the heroic Miss Nightingale at the focus of each scenario, and Field himself endlessly struggling to catch up with the nobility and self-denial that the nursing leader models. Mason shifts points of view often, including indulging the killer himself with a podium that allows vicious revenge to justify all sorts of violence.


Mason’s background includes the stage, and there are abundant Shakespearean moments scattered through almost 400 pages of this lively Victorian thriller. Cameo appearances by Benjamin Disraeli and Wilkie Collins and the involvement of the most noted novelist of the time, Charles Dickens, add twists of interest and humor. But death itself is treated solemnly, a fitting counterpart to the woman Mason presents as a guardian of the lives of young men at war and postwar hospitals: a woman of “breathless speed” and irresistible commitment, Florence Nightingale herself:


“There were fully a dozen people, almost all female, rushing in and out of Nightingale’s tower headquarters when Charles Field first saw her. He knew it had to be Nightingale; she was the calm eye of a whirling storm, standing at her desk, answering questions and asking them, issuing orders, and occasionally making entries in a ledger as she stood. Her voice was quiet but had a reedy strength that cut through the seeming chaos around her.”


Because Mason places the killer and his excuses openly among his protagonists, and the threats to Field and his family are menacing and time-linked, The Nightingale Affair is at least as much of a thriller (think: ticking clock) as it is a historical novel. Yet the portrait of Nightingale both in her prime and as an aging yet still effective advocate is strong and memorable, giving the book its lively flavor that hints at all the shifts in women’s rights and health care about to unfold. Don’t expect an extraordinary police investigation here; read the book instead for the colorful storytelling around this classic “change agent” and her insistence on respect, honor, and care.



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