I can’t think of a more perfect title for a collection of Ed Hoch’s stories about Dr. Sam Hawthorne than Nothing Is Impossible. The title applies as well to the author as it does to the stories. While it would be impossible for just about anyone else, Hoch had a story in every issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for 34 consecutive years. I can’t see the future, but I doubt this record will be broken. Dr. Sam Hawthorne was one of many series characters created by Hoch, and when it comes to crimes that appear to be impossible to commit and impossible to solve Dr. Hawthorne is the go-to man. Nothing is too tricky for him, not even the one in the “The Problem of the Crying Room,” in which a man is apparently shot with a pistol, currently in the possession of the police, formerly owned by another man who confessed to the crime and committed suicide the day before the deed took place. One of the interesting features of the Dr. Hawthorne stories is that they take place in chronological order and are set firmly in a historical context, beginning with the first one set in 1922 and continuing through the final one set in 1944. This is the third collection of the stories (the subtitle is Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne), and it contains 15 of them, covering early 1932 to late 1936. Hoch’s death in 2008 brought an end to the series, but there are enough of them for several further collections. Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, provides an insightful introduction, and there’s a checklist of all the Dr. Hawthorne stories at the end of the volume.
A number of the stories in Small Plates, by Agatha-winner Katherine Hall Page, feature Faith Fairchild, caterer and minister’s wife, so you won’t be surprised to learn that recipes are included. It’s the stories that really matter, however, and since I like a good ghost story, I enjoyed “The Ghost of Winthrop.” There’s also a hidden will, always a good plot device. Faith doesn’t appear in “The Would- Be Widower,” a story that proves you should be careful what you wish for. The longest story in the book is the final one, “The Two Marys,” which also lacks Faith, but not faith. It’s a quite satisfying Christmas story that reads well any time of the year.
Hoosier Hoops and Hijinks, edited by Brenda Stewart and Tony Perona, is a themed anthology from the Speed City Indiana Sisters in Crime. Every story is about basketball in one way or another, and the stories are interspersed with bits of Hoosier basketball biography and history. Terence Faherty’s “The Big Slowdown” has the unnamed Hoosier eye making some clever deductions. Editor Stewart’s “Redemption” is about what can happen after a bad blunder in the Big Game. Diana Catt’s “The Art of the Game” is about art, all right, and a stalker, too. In Tony Perona’s “Snowplowed” a state senator’s past comes calling. There are 14 other good sports stories here, too, along with an introduction from Hank Phillippi Ryan.
John Joseph Adams, editor of Dead Man’s Hand, presents 24 stories of the Weird West, many of them crime-related. Walter Jon Williams’ “The Golden Age” has the origin stories of some steampunk superheroes and supervillains at the time of the California gold rush. The Reverend Mercer, Joe Lansdale’s itinerant preacher, takes on a vampire in “The Red-Headed Dead.” Christie Yant’s “Dead Man’s Hand” jumbles the cards and the time streams. One of my favorite fantasy stories is Robert Bloch’s “The Hell-Bound Train,” and Mike Resnick pays it homage in “The Hell-Bound Stagecoach.” Beth Reavis’ “The Man with No Heart” takes its title literally. This anthology is a lot of fun if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary.
The award for the strangest title goes to The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform, edited by David Cranmer, who explains the book’s origin and purpose in his introduction. The stories are a mixture of crime, noir, and the “new weird.” Terrie Farley Moran’s excellent dark crime story, “Dust to Dust,” is reason enough to buy the book, but all the other stories are fine and strange.
This is the third Christopher Marlowe Cobb thriller written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Robert Olen Butler. Cobb is a former American journalist working for the Secret Service during World War I in 1915 London. He is assigned a cover as an American journalist who is sympathetic to the German cause, and tasked with discrediting Sir Albert Stockman, an English nobleman who is secretly working for the Germans. Cobb’s mother, Isabel Cobb, a renowned actress, is also working undercover. She is appearing in Hamlet in both London and Berlin, but her other job is to insinuate herself with Sir Albert. Unfortunately for Cobb, she falls in love with her target, further complicating the operation.
Cobb finds assistance in Jeremy, a British agent of German origin, and his assignment takes him on a journey through WWI Europe featuring period espionage tactics, cameos from figures like Albert Einstein, and an authentically rendered historical setting. The last quarter of the book keeps the reader on edge with satisfying plot twists as Cobb and fellow agents try to foil Sir Albert’s diabolical plan.
I’ve always thought that dedicating a book to someone is such a wonderful thing to do. So many dedicate those pages to their spouses, parents, children, even agents and publishers.
Some, of course, dedicate to longtime fans or use the dedication as an auction item to raise money for charity.
And here is what she has to say:
“Robert Barnard introduced me to the wry, literate, beautifully written, and laugh-out-loud-funny mystery novel. I started reading him in my 20s or early 30s and I own all of his books. I will keep them no matter what, although the paperbacks are rather falling apart,” says Malliet.
“He is the only author I would always order from the UK in hardback (he tended to be published there first, and I could not wait for the US edition to come out). I had to read whatever he was writing as soon as I could get my hands on it. There is no author I've ever felt that way about and I doubt I will again,” says Malliet. Mystery Scene featured Malliet in the 2010 Winter issue.
“His later books became dark: I don't mean violent, exactly, but the themes were just dark and rather depressing. Convoluted family situations, is what I recall. It was the earlier books I fell in love with. Death of an Old Goat, of course—his first. Blood Brotherhood—set in a monastery and hysterically funny about religious types. Political Suicide—a complete romp, a skewering of politicians, which is easy to do but so difficult to do well.
“He took on the working class and the high and mighty, making no distinctions. I say he skewered ‘types,’ especially petty tyrants, but there was just a wry humor and intelligence at work that was never mean-spirited.
“Anything I know about comic timing and sentence structure and the use of the English language and the slow buildup to the punch line I feel I owe to my reading and rereading of Robert Barnard. His plotting was excellent, too—I don't think I ever guessed who dunnit. But he was a lifelong Agatha Christie fan and it showed. I would also recommend highly to Agatha fans his bio of her: A Talent to Deceive,” adds Malliet.
Through the years, Malliet met Barnard a few times, mainly at the Malice Domestic conferences where “he could be found in the smoking area, so I would seek him out there. I was just in awe of him and gushed a lot, I'm afraid. Don’t ask me to recall what was said. It took all my courage to talk to him,” she says.
Malliet also remembers being seated at the same table as Barnard and wife, Louise, during a St. Hilda's conference where he was a main speaker. “But it was a large table for eight or ten people and the person he really spoke with was my husband who sat right next to him. Darn it! But that is how the seating fell out. I pumped my husband for details later and all I recall now is that Bob Barnard had a lovely pension by this time from his years teaching in Norway and was happily settled near Leeds. Still writing books, of course. I remember also that at this conference was an American woman, a big mystery fan, who I think told me she had showed up on his doorstep one day just to say ‘hi.’ I found that disturbing but I gather he wasn't bothered,” says Malliet.
And finally there was her fan letter to him.
“This was probably the second fan letter I've ever written in my life (the first was to P.D. James) but I started to realize Barnard would not be with us forever and I wanted him to know how much pleasure his books had given me over the years. . . . Sure enough, he wrote back on a postcard picturing heather on Haworth Moor. The card came from the Bronte Parsonage Museum, a cause to which he and his wife were devoted. This card in its enclosing envelope has remained on my bulletin board ever since, there to inspire me. It was stamped by the Royal Mail in Leeds with a date of 24.02.11 and on it he writes: “I am suffering all the ills of 70-plus, but I have another book of short stories coming out.” He goes on to talk about A Mansion and Its Murder coming out in the UK after some delay caused by a change of publisher,” she remembers.
Such memories and inspiration would be, of course, cause for a dedication.
A new Chief Superintendent Peter Diamond mystery is always a cause for celebration. This is the 13th, and I’ve read them all at least once. Whether you’re a true fan or a newcomer, you’ll love this latest entry.
During an art auction, the high bidder for a newly unearthed stone sculpture of Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath” is shot and killed while trying to prevent three masked gunmen from making off with the piece. Was the shooting an unplanned homicide by incompetent thieves, or was it a cleverly planned assassination disguised as a heist? With very little to go on to identify the gunmen, Diamond and his staff are forced to look at all aspects of the victim’s life, as well as the history of the Stone Wife.
What makes the Peter Diamond books so popular? The plots are complex, but not complicated. The characters are believable and not caricatures. The relationships between Diamond and his team are true to life—sometimes funny, sometimes contentious, but never forced. While most mysteries of this length (over 350 pages) include several murders and several investigations that somehow connect at the end, The Stone Wife makes do, most entertainingly, with one murder and several members of the team coming at the investigation from different angles.
Peter Lovesey has written 26 highly praised mysteries and is the recipient of the CWA Gold and Silver Daggers and the Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement, in addition to many US honors.
Set in 1932, this frothy historical tale succeeds more completely as a relationship fable than as a mystery. The opening sentence “It is an impossibly great trial to be married to a man one loves and hates in equal proportions” sets the tone for the entire novel.
The setup for the story is quite traditional: lovely Amory Ames, married to the rakish Milo (referred to in the first sentence), has been pondering the wisdom of her five-year marriage when her old suitor Gil turns up, asking a favor. His sister Emmaline is on the verge of what he feels will be a disastrous marriage, and he wants Amory to accompany him to Brightwell, a seaside hotel, to try and talk her out of the match.
Amory, frustrated by her husband’s own unannounced comings and goings and his wide reputation as a ladies man, scandalously agrees to go with Gil. When they arrive at the Brightwell, there are many nudge-nudge-wink-wink responses to the unmarried travellers. Inevitably, Emmaline’s dastardly fiancé is murdered, and Gil becomes the main suspect. Gil’s devastated sister won’t leave her room and Amory feels she must do what she can to clear her old flame’s name. Complicating matters is the surprising arrival of Milo, who has suddenly become very attentive to Amory.
The Brightwell’s vacationing group presents the reader with a wide array of suspects for the crime, and the seaside hotel is a perfect, secluded location.
To me, that’s all backdrop to the really interesting dilemma that Amory finds herself in romantically: Is it the steady, virtuous (and perhaps murderous) Gil who is the right man? Or is it the gorgeous, peripatetic Milo whom Amory belongs with? She feels she can trust neither, and the author is expert in keeping you guessing.
When a second murder occurs, the plot thickens. By the time I got to the end, I was as invested in the outcome of the killer’s identity as in which man Amory would ultimately choose. This is a pleasant, light, and surprisingly thoughtful read.
In Murder on the Ile Sordou, M. L. Longworth employs the roman policier style of Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret books, while also tipping her hat to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None with an isolated island setting.
Examining Magistrate Antoine Verlaque goes to Sordou, near Marseille, for some rest and recreation with his significant other, law professor Marine Bonnet. They stay at the sumptuous Locanda Sordou, newly reopened after many decades. The resort boasts magnificent Mediterranean terrain and an up-and-coming chef in its kitchen. When a murder ensues, Verlaque’s vacation turns into a busman’s holiday.
In addition to Verlaque and Bonnet, the others staying at Locanda Sordou are Bonnet’s best friend Sylvie, an American husband and wife, a faded actor and his spouse and stepson, a moody teacher-poet, and a quarreling Parisian couple. The psyches of the vacationers are brilliantly delineated by Longworth, as is the superbly described hotel personnel. When it appears that the killer is likely a guest or a staff member, Verlaque is faced with a bit of soul searching—the sojourn has created camaraderie among the hotel inhabitants; the victim was the sole exception.
M. L. Longworth takes her time getting to the mystery in Murder on the Ile Sordou. This is a character-driven book, and the body isn’t discovered until almost halfway through the narrative. She lays the groundwork with a deft hand, slowly building up to the murder of the despicable victim.
The fourth novel in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provencal Mysteries is a splendid read, but requires a bit of patience. The pace saunters, but it’s a rewarding literary promenade.
International politics thrive on the “golden hour” principle: political trauma caused by a coup can be reversed if action is taken swiftly and professionally. But the key is the first 100 hours.
Author Todd Moss, a former diplomat, uses this principle for an exciting, multilayered look at international politics and the people who rule nations in his debut The Golden Hour.
Diplomat Judd Ryker’s belief in the golden hour is put to the test when he is named director of the new State Department Crisis Reaction Unit a few hours after a coup erupts in the West African country of Mali. Ryker knows the area well—he was a member of a team that evaluated water management in Kidal in northern Mali—but the former Amherst professor isn’t as prepared for the local attitudes that stymie his efforts to improve the situation. Various groups, countries, and even US agencies have their own agendas for the country, and Ryker finds that his office is a convenient scapegoat for others’ plans. It’s a landscape where enemies become friends, friends morph into enemies, and violence erupts quickly.
In The Golden Hour, Moss juggles complex political issues in an energetic plot inspired by the very real August 2008 coup in Mauritania in northwestern Africa. As Deputy Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Moss was sent by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to negotiate with the junta leader, and he uses his experiences to deliver a credible international thriller that never succumbs to cynicism, even when showing how peace and co-existence can seemingly be impossible concepts to some. The result is a story where amoral characters mix with those trying to make a difference, although in international politics the difference between the two isn’t always clear.
John Gload is an old man in his seventies, a former farmer who still bends down to sift the soil through his fingers. He is also a dispassionate killer. Author Kim Zupan, in his debut novel The Ploughmen, has created an intriguing plot based on the relationship between Gload, now a prisoner, and Valentine “Val” Millimaki, a young deputy in the Montana Copper County sheriff’s department. There are plenty of murders in this psychological crime story, but it’s no mystery who committed them even if the evidence is thin. Gload is understandably proud of his killing and disposal techniques, which over the years has left very little for coroners to identify.
The sheriff has reassigned Val to the night shift at the jail, in the hopes Val can get Gload to talk and possibly confess to some unsolved murders before his trial. What happens is a whole lot of something else. Not friendship, but a comfortable camaraderie grows between these two dissimilar, but complementary souls.
Val’s life is falling apart. His wife has moved out, Gload hasn’t confessed to anything, and all his search and rescue jobs for the last 13 months have ended badly. No live rescues, just bodies have been found. Only his three-year-old shepherd dog Tom provides the deputy a measure of comfort.
Periodically you have to wade through adjective-loaded prose, but if you stick with it, the writing evens out and rewards you with exquisite phrases like tracking “hieroglyphics of mice and squirrels” in the snow. Readers will feel the pull of the vast state of Montana and the area around the Missouri River Breaks as described through the eyes of Gload and Val.
If you’re looking for something unusual, The Ploughmen might be it. Val is a pleasant character to spend time with, and Gload, well, just be glad he’s fictional.
You is an incredible achievement for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that author Zoran Drvenkar manages to make the reader identify and sympathize with no less than 13 different characters, including a notorious criminal and a serial killer. The novel, which is written almost entirely in the second person, puts the reader in the minds of each character as the story unfolds—including one character who is sharing his perspective from the hereafter.
I was mesmerized by this tale of five very close-knit teenage girls who became the targets of one of Berlin’s most hardened underworld crime bosses. Drvenkar’s insight into the minds of girls this age is spot-on, from their concerns about boys to their looks to their love/hate relationship with each other.
While on its face the story may seem like a struggle between good and evil, being able to actually become each character and see the world through his or her eyes makes it quite clear that no one here is one-dimensional. The girls aren’t angels; the killers aren’t simply evil. There is ugliness from all sides, as well as occasional moments of exquisite beauty. This dichotomy kept me furiously turning pages. You know that all of the characters are on a collision course and you know that it can’t end well.
I plan to get Drvenkar’s first book, Sorry, to see more of this very formidable talent at work. I also want to read You again to appreciate the nuances of each character, since I sped through it so quickly the first time following the action. I highly recommend that you give it a read as well.
Night of the Jaguar, a debut novel by Joe Gannon, takes place in Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, a time and place with which Gannon is intimately familiar from his work as a freelance journalist during the Sandinista Revolution. Gannon paints a vivid picture of a country barely recovering from one conflict—the overthrow of General Somoza’s dictatorship—while descending into another as the Contras try to wrest power from the new Sandinista government. Chaos rules, and everyone, from the CIA-backed Contras to a US political delegation to Nicaragua’s own State Security, has their own agendas.
Ajax Montoya, a hero of the Sandinista revolution, is now a police captain after a fall from grace. Only six days sober, he is trying to solve a murder while suffering from delusions—neither he nor the reader knows whether his visions and paranoia are based in reality or are the result of too much alcohol and war-related stress. Gannon does a very good job of letting the reader feel the pressure-cooker atmosphere in which Montoya lives. In this shifting political climate, it’s almost impossible to tell where anyone’s loyalties lie, making Montoya question the motives of everyone around him. And the constant, unrelenting weight of feeling like one is always being watched at home and on the job is enough to make any person question his sanity.
The story starts off with a bloody confrontation, and bodies continue to pile up as Montoya does his best to try to solve a murder in a country where murder is routine. It’s a tough, violent place, and this bleakness overshadows the entire novel. While absolutely true to the time and place, this ugliness made it difficult for me to get through the book—the action pulls you along, but often to places you don’t want to go. A brief tryst with an American is really the only light in Montoya’s life—though I should add that, as far as sex scenes go, the couple’s pillow talk was more than a little awkward.
I would recommend this book for readers who like war stories and politically charged intrigue, though it left me depressed. War is hell—and so is life in a country where war never ends.
Although not a big book at a slim 249 pages, Olivia Glazebrook’s second novel (after The Trouble With Alice) packs a big literary wallop. Written in short scenes, in different points of view, and with a plethora of time jumps forward and backward, Never Mind Miss Fox begins like a coming-of-age novel, then suddenly dumps the reader into the present reality of a dangerous marital crisis. This gorgeously crafted novel also ignores the widely accepted belief that a protagonist must be “likable” by giving us an antihero in Clive, a successful London barrister.
Just before his marriage, Clive did something dastardly while on a family vacation in France, and now his cruel past is catching up with him. There’s a lot of angry self-righteousness in Clive’s curiously insensitive heart, and when the secret of his crime emerges, he blames just about everyone around him. His circle of blame includes his parents, his wife Martha, his young daughter Eliza, even longtime family friend Miss Fox, who although she knows what Clive did, kept mum about it. In fact, the only person Clive doesn’t blame for his long-ago crime is himself. This makes Clive a bit of a sociopath, possibly even a psychopath, but instead of turning readers off, his attempts at self-defense when confronted with his seedy past become ever more fascinating as the book progresses.
This is where Glazebrook’s brilliance as a writer truly shines. In the chapters written in Clive’s voice, we see him trying to downplay the impact his crime has had on his family’s life. In the chapters written in Martha’s voice, we discover that she, too, has been carrying around a guilty secret. But it is the chapters written in little Eliza’s voice that reveal the heart of this sorrowful domestic drama. Although Eliza’s exact age is never given, her voice ranges from the whiny I-want-my-mommy stage, to the rebellious preteen who’s convinced she’s smarter than everyone.
It is Martha who finally gives voice to the book’s hardest truth, though, when she attempts to clean out a memory-filled attic and reflects: “Nothing could ever be got rid of. Even if something were carted away for trash it would still exist somewhere, buried in a hole or shredded into bits.” Wisdom to remember in a book to savor.
Peyton Cote made a name for herself as a US border patrol agent in Texas. But following a divorce, she returns to her hometown of Garrett, Maine, where she believes the job will be less frenetic and the town will be a better place to raise her son. But not all is quiet back home in Bitter Crossing.
Peyton finds that her border town has developed an active marijuana trade, with the heavily forested border to New Brunswick, Canada, serving as the perfect cover for smugglers. While waiting for a drug drop late one night, Peyton instead finds an infant, cold, but alive and healthy. Her attempts to find out if there is a link between the baby and the thriving drug trade leads her to a high school history teacher, a University of Maine professor, and a Boston lawyer.
D.A. Keeley launches her new series with a strong plot and involving characters. The author paints a striking portrait of the northern Maine landscape where a fragile economy based on potatoes and a short growing season can turn desperate people into criminals. Peyton’s strong personality and her unfailing courage should make for some intriguing future adventures.
Clam Wake is the 29th book in this Bed and Breakfast Mystery series written by Mary Daheim, so you know she’s doing something right. This time, Seattle innkeeper Judith McMonigle Flynn and her wisecracking cousin Renie are house-sitting for Auntie Vance and Uncle Vince on nearby Whoopee Island. Judith’s husband Joe and his friend Bill are safely out of the picture, fishing in New Zealand, conveniently clearing the way for the ladies to get into trouble.
Of course, the cousins quickly discover a body in the sand, and that’s where the fun begins. Before long they have more motives than they can handle as they meet resident after resident of the small beachfront community Obsession Shores. Since most of the inhabitants are retired, the cocktails flow, and so does the gossip. Daheim introduces a host of offbeat characters as our two heroines struggle to make sense of the murder: there’s the elderly tyrant, Quentin Quimby, who owns most of the island; wacky kleptomaniac Betsy; Jack Larrabee, a travel writer, who may not be what he seems; and a clam bucket load of others.
The plot zips along and everyone and everything is fair game for the cousins’ zingers. Although the clues are a little murky, it’s all in good fun. Daheim fans will thoroughly enjoy this lighthearted romp.
This is a completely captivating and charming book. Set partly in the past and partly in the present, the past section features a young Jane Austen working to convert her epistolary book Elinor and Marianne to a longer novel. The reactions of her family and her close friend the Reverend Mansfield to her story inspire and help her, and give the reader the thrill of imagining what it might have been like to hear the author read the “twist” ending of Sense and Sensibility aloud.
In the present, we meet Sophie Collingwood, lately a graduate of Oxford. She’s mourning her beloved Uncle Bertram, the uncle who introduced her to books, reading, and book collecting. Sophie moves into the London apartment he willed her, along with his book collection, but stubbornly refuses to believe that Bertram’s death was an accident. She takes a job in one of her uncle’s favorite antiquarian bookstores, where she meets hunky book collector Winston, who is looking for the novel’s MacGuffin: a second edition of an obscure book by Reverend Mansfield, A Little Book of Allegorical Stories. As Sophie careens around London attempting to find Mansfield’s book—important for reasons that only become completely clear at the end—we watch as she uses her scholarship and librarian skills, as well as a little larceny, to find what she’s looking for.
In his entertaining parallel narratives, Charlie Lovett mirrors Sophie’s relationship to her Uncle Bertram with the young Jane’s infatuation of the mind with Reverend Mansfield. Some of Lovett’s plot points have an obvious resolution; however, the author’s passion for Jane Austen and his knowledge of printing methods and practices of the 1700s truly make this book a standout. The reader gets a nice adventure story, a little bit of romance and mystery, and a real feel for book collecting and for the author’s love of Jane Austen. If it’s a love you share, you may well find this book irresistible.
Nora Blackbird is seven months pregnant. Her evenings are spent covering ritzy social events for the Philadelphia Intelligencer, but her afternoons are spent sunning herself by the pool of her friend Lexie Paine, a Philadelphia society royal who has just been released from prison after serving a nine-and-a-half-month sentence for manslaughter.
The sounds of a rehearsal for the just-discovered musical by Lexie’s deceased next-door neighbor, the famous Broadway composer Toodles Tuttle, are nothing more than background noise to Nora and Lexie as they lounge, until one day they become screams. Toodles’ daughter Jenny, who had been in charge of the musical, is found dead in her bedroom. At first thought to be a suicide, it’s quickly discovered to be murder.
In this, Nancy Martin’s tenth entry in her Blackbird Sisters Mystery series, there is a plethora of suspects for Nora and her sisters Emma and Libby to investigate. Foremost on the list: Toodles’ widow Boom Boom, who had no affection for her introverted daughter Jenny, and Poppy Fontana, the understudy who wanted the lead in the musical, but whom Jenny rejected. And who is the boy in the picture found clutched in Jenny’s hand when she died?
In the midst of all this, Nora and her fiancé Michael, a member of organized crime, are planning to secretly marry in a week, although Nora has misgivings—every man who marries a Blackbird woman ends up dead.
Gia Andrews does not want to return to her Appalachian hometown. Partly because she loves the humanitarian work she does around the world, but mostly because, when she left 16 years before, her father Ray had just been convicted of the brutal murder of her stepmother Ella Mae. But now her father is coming home to die, and Uncle Cal, head of the Andrews family, insists she help care for him during his final days. Uncle Cal swears he’s not guilty. Gia is unsure. Not so her brother Bo and sister Lexi, who both refuse to have anything to do with their father’s homecoming. The town is also against Ray’s return; protestors with signs and blow horns picket their house daily.
When evidence surfaces that Ella Mae was having an affair with their next-door neighbor, the sexually sadistic Dean, who was the only witness against her father, Gia determines to discover the truth. In her search, she acquires an unlikely ally, Jake Foster the handsome owner of the Roadkill Bar and Grill, who also becomes her lover.
Debut novelist Kimberly Belle has written a hybrid of suspense, women’s fiction, and romance, and has done it successfully. (Though it could be argued that sex every night is perhaps a bit too much of a good thing?) By interspersing flashbacks in Ella Mae’s point of view with Gia’s real-time point of view, the reader can see the progression toward the murder alongside Gia’s attempt to arrive at the truth.
Belle was raised in Appalachia and her main characters are spot-on. Even the minor appearances, such as Fannie, the plump hospice home care nurse with frowsy hair, and Jimmie, Gia’s childhood friend who looks like a grown-up Opie and is now a cop, come alive. The Last Breath is a satisfying read with its secrets kept well hidden until the very end.
At first glance as utilitarian as the white van of its title, Patrick Hoffman’s promising first novel is a deceptive shell game that draws readers into a series of brain-shifting, often-bloody revelations. It’s arguably the best heist-gone-wrong yarn since Reservoir Dogs.
All-night, drug-prowling shewolf Emily Rosario is out on the town slamming down whiskey in a San Francisco dive, trying to figure a way out of her zero-sum life. An apparently harmless middle-aged Russian businessman buys her a few drinks and then invites her to his hotel room. No harm, right? But who’s zooming who?
A week later, Emily’s stoned out of her gourd and holding up a downtown bank, not quite sure what’s she’s doing or how she got there. But then her survival instincts kick in and Emily’s out of there, slipping through the cracks between the cops and her “accomplices,” drugged, dazed, and confused (and packing $800,000 in stolen loot), on the run from both Russian gangsters and the cops. And it soon becomes clear to readers—if not Emily herself—that they’re all equally dangerous. That’s because Leo Elias, a bent and broken SFPD Gang Task Force member, whose marriage, sobriety, and sanity are all circling the drain, is running his own hunt for Emily, visions of all that cash dancing in his head.
There’s a little something for everyone in this multicultural matryoshka of nested scams and conspiracies: dirty cops, black marketeers, strippers, private eyes, junkies and assorted bottom-feeders—but you’d better read fast. Life expectancy in this satisfying whack-a-mole of a novel can be as short as a few paragraphs. The Fickle Finger of Fate comes well greased in this one, and nobody is safe—least of all streetwise-but-people-dumb Emily.
In David Shafer’s novel Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the author posits a darkly comedic scenario involving an international conspiracy to obtain and sell personal information of all the world’s population. The only three people who can stop this evil, albeit uncomfortably plausible-sounding plan are three adults still struggling to maneuver their way through life’s ups and downs: Leila Majnoun, a disillusioned nonprofit employee; Mark Deveraux, an insincere self-help guru; and Leo Crane, a well-meaning, substance-abusing, trust-fund baby. It sounds like the beginnings of a poorly edited joke, but, in Shafer’s novel, they are the characters entangled in an ideological confrontation with an ominous multinational group set on owning our private info.
Only as the momentum builds and the pages continue to turn does the reader ever truly consider whether or not the author will stick the landing. The answer? Mostly. Though the payoff for the globe-trotting trip around the world to save our data from evil feels slightly artificial, the triumph in characterization outweighs any misgivings the reader may have.
Too often in thrillers, the author is forced to overlook the minutia that makes a character interesting to an audience in favor of plot contrivances and ticking clocks. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot delivers great characters. Mark, the self-help guru who divvies out advice to others while his life splinters rapidly out of control, exemplifies this. Instead of using Mark’s occupation and hypocrisy as shorthand for who he is, Shafer neatly generates broad comedic situations that entertain as well as enlighten. In doing so, the author reveals a level of poignancy through his flawed characters. In doing so, the author has created a poignant novel with flawed characters that both entertain and intrigue.
Black smoke and incense perfume the air during Ghost Month in Taipei, as the gates of the underworld spring open, allowing the spirits of the dead to walk among the living. Paper money burns in front of makeshift altars with offerings of oranges, instant noodles, Coca-Cola six-packs, boxes of cookies and crackers, and anything else a relative might need in the afterlife.
Jing-nan, or “Johnny” as he calls himself, is a young shop owner, who hoped to live the American Dream. He’d set his sights on studying at UCLA, but ended up selling meat skewers, like his father and grandfather before him, in Taipei City. Every night he works his food stall Unknown Pleasures (named after Joy Division’s first album) on Jianguo Road, luring customers by putting on a smile and a show for the tourists. This is now his reality—until he reads of the death of his high school sweetheart, the class valedictorian Julia Huang Zheng-lian.
He is shocked to learn Julia was shot in the head while working as a betel nut beauty, far from the city. These girls, usually from impoverished backgrounds, work in enclosed glass booths dressed in swimsuits and lingerie, and are considered one small step above prostitutes. What was his Julia doing there? Determined to discover why she was murdered, Johnny seeks out Julia’s parents, only to find they are frightened of something or someone connected to her death. Unbeknownst to him, he has stumbled into a hornets’ nest of lies involving Taiwan’s powerful criminal underworld, whose gangs have deceptive names such as Black Sea and Everlasting Peace.
I suggest reading Ghost Month by Ed Lin on a full stomach, since much of the action takes place at food stands in the busy Shilin Night Market in Taipei. With places like Big Shot Hot Pot selling noodles and steaming hot soup, vendors pushing warm blocks of peanut candy, and Johnny’s delicious stews and meat skewers, readers might experience an overwhelming desire for dumplings and chili sauce.
This was a fascinating mystery, involving a very different culture, and author Ed Lin provides the reader with just enough details to make the experience feel authentic without slowing down the action. Pair that with a solid, well-thought-out plot filled with unusual characters, and you have an entertaining and informative read on your hands.
In political thrillers, politicians are frequently portrayed as the moral equivalents of Satan. They may start out pure and well-intentioned, but somewhere along the way they decide the ends justify the means, however vile those means might be. This popular literary device could have turned Douglas Brunt’s new novel (after Ghosts of Manhattan) into a stereotypical mishmash, because Tom Pauley, the Republican politician at the heart of it, appears to be a truly decent man who is trying to do the right thing for everyone concerned. But Brunt nimbly avoids stereotypes.
Running against Pauley is Democrat Mitchell Mason, the sitting US president who is certain he’ll be elected to a second term. But my, oh, my, talk about skeletons in closets! Mason has a mistress, and his wife is a reputed lesbian. Aided by a mysterious political operative, Samantha Davis, an ex-child actor turned attorney turned TV journalist, stumbles across an old crime involving the president that could change the nation’s political landscape, but first she must quadruple-check her facts. The skeletons hit the fan during a live television debate, and the resulting drama eventually plays out in the voting booth. Pauley doesn’t emerge from The Means unscathed, either.
Considering the fact that the fate of a nation depends on such disheartening political machinations, The Means might have been depressing—and in a way it is—but given the author’s talent for snarky asides, wit abounds. The scene in which conservative Pauley is “glittered” by a burly transvestite is flat-out hilarious. So is some of the psychobabble these politicians spout when caught fibbing. Again, I’ve never been much of a fan of political thrillers, but The Means is so well plotted (Bless those skeletons!), and so well written (Bless those snarky asides!), I’d elect this book in a heartbeat.
The Dahlias are a group of ladies ranging from the young to the elderly, who are members of a very active garden club in the small town of Darling, Alabama. They vary in plant knowledge, preference in posies, and their station in life, but they do a lot of good in the community and they stick together like glue when one of them is in trouble.
The setting is the early 1930s after the stock market crash and the ensuing run on the banks. Their own Darling Savings and Trust is closed, for who knows how long, and folks are running out of money. The longtime bank president has stepped down and a lot of folk are so riled up, they’d like to see him tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Then a dapper fellow named Alvin Duffy from New Orleans arrives in Darling claiming to be the new bank president and trying to get the newspaper office to print up some “funny money” to keep the town afloat in the crisis. The leery citizens of Darling balk at his “hair brained counterfeiting scheme” and one of the Dahlias takes it upon herself to investigate him.
Meanwhile, back in the woods, another illegal business is trying to keep Darling “afloat” in moonshine, while a determined revenue agent has vowed to shut ’em down, no matter what.
Throw in a couple of heartbreaks, scandals, courtships, murder, revenge, and a troublemaker who thinks he’s just “doin’ the Lord’s work,” and you’ve got a town heading toward disaster. It takes all the sleuthing abilities of the Dahlias, along with their famous party line telephones, to discover just who the villain is, and how to save their town from ruin.
Fans of Susan Wittig Albert’s Darling Dahlia series will love this book. It’s almost as if readers are on the town’s party line, hearing the news—sometimes skewed or untrue, but scandalous and juicy-good. Albert’s sense of era and place in the 1930s South is spot on, and her characters are always enjoyable, be they rascal or hero.