Sunday, July 8, 2018

Last Call by Paula Matter: Reading Room Review

I received an advanced reader's copy of Last Call before I knew anything about it or the author, and then I started hearing/reading about its debut from other bloggers and sources. Its clever word play description from the publisher, with phrases such as "she'll be serving time instead of drinks" and "before she ends up behind the wrong kind of bars" indicated to me that this book is one I wanted to read. Even the title is a witty word play. I do so love finding a talented new author and a gem of a book I hadn't realized was waiting for me. Last Call is that debut that heralds great storytelling from a source with much more to come. Paula Matter (Matter rhymes with otter) has arrived on the mystery/crime scene with her first novel in the Maggie Lewis Mystery series to the delight of all who enjoy their sleuths as down-to-earth amateurs with a good dose of derring-do.

At 46 years old, Maggie Lewis is trying to just stay the course. It's been two years since her husband Rob was murdered, and she's struggling to hold on and wishing she could go a day without crying. Paying her bills is a matter of Russian roulette, and even with taking on a tenant for half of her Victorian duplex that she and Rob were renovating and working as a bartender at the local VFW, Maggie seems to be fighting an uphill battle. Not that she is just a weepy, sad figure. Maggie is a scrapper, and if grit and determination mean anything, she will be a survivor. But, it's a precarious situation, and she needs everything to remain constant to move forward. The VFW job is a major deal in her effort to keep it together financially. Having worked as bartender there for five years, since she and Rob moved from Miami to North DeSoto in northern Florida, Maggie is familiar with the rules and regulations of the VFW and the regular customers, some who are pains in the behind. One of the rear pains, a Korean War veteran named Jack Hoffman, is found murdered in his truck outside the VFW the morning after Maggie finally had a night off. Maggie immediately is suspected due to something found at the scene, and those in charge suspend her from her job. Desperate to prove her innocence and return to work, Maggie enlists the aid of her tenant Michael, who just happens to be a former cop from Pennsylvania waiting on his private investigator license. 

There are quite a few aspects of this novel that make it work for me, providing a great read and a new series to look forward to. Paula Matter was right on target with her presentation of the VFW, its atmosphere, its activities, and how much it can mean to some veterans who need a touchstone in their lives, a place to see familiar faces who have shared their experiences. She even got the smoking that is allowed at the bar right. From personal observation, I felt Matter captured the spirit and atmosphere of this place, and the authenticity was crucial to the story's success. The best part of the story though was Maggie herself, a character that I grew fond of from the very beginning. She may seem a mess at first glance, and she might very well be, but she is a wonderful work in progress, a character with wit and tenacity and a growing desire to work through her heartaches. Supporting characters of her friends Michael and Brenda add strength to the meaning of second chances and better days.  And, I enjoyed the Southern flavor of the story, with Matter's succinct, but humorous inclusions, such as the correct Southern pronunciation of the expletive "shit."  I won't spoil it for you if you don't know.  Look for it in the book.  The story was just a read that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I eagerly await the next installment in the series.

I was given an ARC of this book by Midnight Ink, and my review is based solely on my personal opinion.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

July 2018 New Books

Summer 2018 is a scorcher right now, and the books of summer continue to sizzle, too.  July has some intriguing books I'm looking forward to reading, but I'm also reading ARCs for August and books for the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in September.  It's going to be a challenge to fit any more books into my schedule, but here are some titles that are tempting me to do so. 

July 2018

Dear Mrs. Bird by AJ Pearce (July 3rd)
The Last Time I Lied: A Novel by Riley Sager (July 3rd)
Last Call by Paula Matter (July 8th)
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott (July 17th)
Baby Teeth: A Novel by Zoje Stage (July 17th)
The Last Thing I Told You: A Novel by Emily Arsenault (July 24th)
Whistle in the Dark: A Novel by Emma Healey (July 24th)
A Noise Downstairs: A Novel by Linwood Barclay (July 24th) 
Believe Me by J.P. Delaney (July 24th)
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter (July 31st)
Death Over Easy (A Country Store Mystery) by Maddie Day  (July 31st)
A Double Life by Flynn Berry (July 31st)
A Dark and Twisting Path (A Writer’s Apprentice Mystery) by Julia Buckley (July 31st)

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper: Reading Room Review

Reading a book that comes so highly recommended from other reviewers and readers in the mystery/crime community is a bit daunting. Starting from a point of feeling a need to love a book is not my favorite place to start, so I had put off its reading until I finally could no longer ignore the accolades it has received. So, wow! I'm now in my favorite place of loving a book that so many friends have loved and joining in its praise. The overriding successful feature of She Rides Shotgun for me is its originality and turning that originality into a story of non-stop, thrilling action. Do readers really want to read about an eleven-year-old girl who is on the run with her ex-convict dad? Oh, yes, they do. Its unique set-up takes the reader on a journey that is violent and so outside the box of normality that you'd think it might be implausible, but it is mesmerizing and real and completely captivating. It will take you out of your comfort zone, but you will be unable to put the book down until you finish the wild ride.

Nate McClusky makes a big mistake shortly before he is to be released from prison. He kills Crazy Craig Hollington’s brother, and Crazy Craig, who is the leader of the Aryan Steel white supremacist gang, puts out an order from his jail cell to kill Nate, his ex-wife Avis, and their daughter Polly. This green light to kill goes out to all the Steel members in and out of prison, and Avis and her new husband are dead before Nate can warn her. But, eleven-year-old Polly, who shares steel blue eyes with her father, is just leaving school when Nate meets up with her and snatches her away to begin a frantic race against an unyielding enemy. Despite the odds, Nate is determined to save Polly, but the effort will change them both in ways they never imagined.

Along with this story’s originality, Jordan Harper has created characters that will deeply affect the reader. I expect Polly and Nate to stay with me no matter how many books I read in the future. Polly first presents as a shy, bullied child who carries a stuffed bear with her everywhere to shield her and comfort her. Nate is a hardened career criminal who has no time for softness or feelings. But they must come together and work together if they are to survive. The author does a brilliant job of revealing how a person can be both dark and good, and how liking a character is more complicated than their actions. The brutal world that Nate and Polly must navigate is one foreign to most readers, but it is one that exists, and it is an exceptional writer that can bring such a world into view in a compelling story that doesn’t leave one despondent.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review

A visit with Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell is one of my favorite ways to spend time. Since falling in love with this series with its first book, The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie King has never failed to give me a tale that keeps that love burning. Two people of such spectacular problem-solving intelligence and consistently delightful wit as Russell and Holmes are rare and, thus, all the more special. In Island of the Mad, #15 in the series, I'm thrilled that Russell and Holmes are working together again, even though Holmes has a job he's taking care of for his brother Mycroft, too. The duo are such superb sleuths together, and their witty repartee always entertains me. And, as much as I love an English setting, the setting of Venice in this book completely captivated me with its unique beauty and history. 

Barely having had enough time to catch their breaths since The Murder of Mary Russell and the departure of the steadfast Mrs. Hudson, Mary is drawn into a search for a friend's aunt. A call from Mary's oldest friend Ronnie, Veronica Beaconsfield, about her missing aunt, Lady Vivian Beaconsfield, has Mary promising Ronnie to look into the disappearance. Lady Vivian, who is not much older than Mary and Ronnie, had been home to the Beaconsfield estate from her residence at Bethlem Royal Hospital, a London mental institution, for her brother Edward's birthday celebration when she was discovered missing after the party. Lady Vivian's nurse from Bedlam (the informal name for Bethlem) has also disappeared. With Ronnie tied to the care of her toddler, it's up to Mary to do the footwork and follow the clues, clues which lead to the colorful island paradise of Venice, Italy. Mary is excited about revisiting a place where she has ties involving her mother, a place of fond memories and mysterious geography. It being 1925, Mycroft Holmes and the British government are interested in the effect the new fascist government of Italy under Mussolini is having, so Holmes is the natural choice to investigate that interest while in Venice. 

Venice is the proverbial needle in the haystack location to find someone, even with excellent sources of gossip and information. There is the city of Venice; the Lido, where the rich and un-tethered Americans and other nationalities like to play in the sun and party all night; the islands of San Clemente and San Servolo, housing mentally ill women and men respectively; and Poveglia, an island associated with tragedies such as the plague and WWI. Add to the many hiding places, the hampered transportation means of navigating the canals and open waterways, and Venice becomes a tricky place for Mary to find her friend's aunt and nurse. Sherlock has his challenges, too, needing to infiltrate the scene where fascists may end up or be the topic of conversation. Of course, both of these capable sleuths are masters at playing a part, with the right costuming and props. Mary works her way into the Lido crowd, where American Elsa Maxwell holds court and proves helpful in Mary's plans. Sherlock takes on the role of a violinist and works his way into the good graces and musical performances of American Cole Porter. There is the unexpected danger of someone from England, who figures into both of the investigations and especially threatens Mary's. Venice proves a most useful quagmire in which to both find and lose people.

There is so much to enjoy in this latest Russell and Holmes, and Laurie King's taking our sleuthing couple to Venice provided many opportunities to bring in new, exciting characters who actually did live and play in Venice. The history of Venice, both past and at the present time of the book, 1925, was fascinating to me. The fascists black shirts and their beginning infiltration into the life of vibrant Venice was a voice hearkening from the past to the present. History teaches us if we care to pay attention. Just having finished one World War, Sherlock and Mycroft both agree that yet another one is on the horizon. And, on a lighter note, I found great satisfaction in King's witty dialogue for her characters, as always. Russell and Holmes are so in sync that Russell can merely feel Holmes' nod and move forward. A pair that at first might have seemed an unlikely one has once again demonstrated their perfect pairing indeed.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen: Reading Room Review


The jacket description of The Wife Between us reads:
"When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous wife and her obsession with her replacement.
You will assume you are reading about a woman about to enter a new marriage with the man she loves.
You will assume the first wife was a disaster and that the husband was well rid of her.
You will assume you know the motives, the history, the anatomy of the relationships.
Assume nothing."

I think that description says about all one can safely say about this book without giving away too much.  I know that all I had assumed in Part One of the book got smacked down hard in Part Two.  I even went back and read some of Part One again to try and clear up the confusion I was feeling.  It didn't help.  I had to keep on plunging deeper and deeper into the second part to find my way out.  Lights do finally begin to brighten, and Nellie's relationship with Richard and others starts to make sense.  It's not going to spoil the story to state that Richard, the husband at the center of all the turmoil, is a control freak and things are spinning out of control.  Nellie's past is a beast that has haunted her for years, and secrets will be spilled, more secrets than even Nellie is aware of.  Richard will do anything to obtain his happy-ever-after, but Nellie is slowly putting pieces together that are leading to a horrific awakening. 

The twists and turns of this novel are part of its buzz and part of its success.  You just have to keep reading to see what's around the next corner.  And, just when you think the denouement is taking its bow, there's another lovely little twist to enjoy.  The authors employed another twist, a different sort of unreliable narrator, the surprise narrator.  It was rather like having a blindfold on trying to pin the tail on the donkey, and when you raised the cloth from over your eyes, you were indeed surprised.  You assume you know where you're going, but as the book description warns, you will be wrong.

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Stone's Throw by James Ziskin: Reading Room Review

We’re off to the races in the sixth installment of the Ellie Stone series, and the excitement of the horse racing world mixed with the element of murder is thrilling.  As a life-long resident of Kentucky, home of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, this book takes me down a familiar track that has me longing for a mint julep or a shot of bourbon.  Through his exceptional writing and captivating storytelling,  James Ziskin brings the spine-tingling rush of the starting gate to life as Ellie navigates her way through an unfamiliar race to reach the finish line alive and in possession of a murderer most ruthless. 

Due to a sleepless August night and listening to the police scanner, Ellie shows up at the early morning hours fire that destroys an abandoned foaling barn at Tempesta Farm, a former horse stud operation.  Located between Ellie’s home beat of New Holland, New York and Saratoga Springs, the authorities consider it just another accidental fire of the dilapidated old buildings left to rot at the farm.  But, ever the investigative reporter, Ellie convinces one of the deputies at the scene to walk with her through the ruins of the barn, and when Ellie pulls on what looks like a silk scarf in the ashes, it leads to two dead bodies.  And, it is Ellie who, when the charred remains are first thought to be a woman and a boy, points out that the silk scarf resembling a racing silk jockeys wear might indicate that the boy victim is instead a jockey.  With the proximity of Saratoga Racetrack and it being racing season at the track, it’s more than a good guess.  With part of the property being in the county of Ellie’s good friend Sheriff Frank Olney and part being in the jurisdiction of another sheriff, Sheriff Henry Pryor, who doesn’t hold her in the same fond regards, it will be more challenging for Ellie to investigate, but being underestimated hasn’t stopped her from finding answers before.  The main challenge is understanding the racing world and navigating it.  Ellie turns to her best friend, Fadge, who is a dedicated follower of the Saratoga circuit and who has been working on perfecting his betting system for years.

Accompanying Fadge to the racetrack helps Ellie learn the lingo and rhythm of this new world where it takes a village to get a horse ready to run one mile.  Betting successfully on the outcome of that one mile race requires a knowledge about the horses and jockeys and track conditions and how it all interacts.  Gaining much insight by watching and listening to Fadge, it is still up to Ellie to infiltrate the inner workings of the horse racing business by interviewing and researching the people involved, and as with most businesses where money is at the heart of it, there are some dangerous people in its orbit.  Of course, Elly has never shied away from the perils that relentless pursuit of a story and justice bring.  Her immersion into this foreign world will take Elly into contact with both the beauty and the ugliness of the horse scene, both on and off the track. Although searching for a killer, Ellie uncovers the chilling existence of bigotry and prejudice among the elite of the scene.  There are meetings and on-scene snooping that put Ellie in the cross-hairs of a desperate killer.  And, the twist I didn’t see coming is a gobsmacking delight.

As I've stated in my reviews before, but which bears repeating each time, James Ziskin gives a dead-on depiction of the 60s, smoothly integrating that world into the story of murder.  Since I grew up in the sixties, it is especially important to me that Ziskin gets it right, and he does, every time.  From the mandatory white gloves worn at the appropriate times to the historical events, such as the Russian cosmonauts and the death of Marilyn Monroe, the author makes it real.  The challenges that Elly faces as a single woman in a journalistic career are ever present in the existence of the publisher’s no-talent, lazy son-in-law who is a constant threat to Elly’s job and some of the assignments she receives.  In this book, the prejudices against Elly belonging to the Jewish faith are also brought to light.  In fact, none of the social ills or prejudices extant in the 60s are sugar coated in this series.  They serve as a cautionary tale of sorts, as to what we could return to if we aren’t vigilant.

James Ziskin has created in Ellie Stone a woman of the emerging 60s, who is independent thinking and acting, breaking down barriers in the job market, determined, and still compassionate and with a great sense of humor.  Of course, she isn’t perfect, and she’s the first to admit it.  She still drinks too much and doesn’t always make the best choices in her romantic connections, but she is showing growth here, a learning from past mistakes.  I was happy to see more of Ellie’s best friend Fadge in this book, and the proven assertion that men and women can be friends during a time period where female/male friendships weren’t as ordinary as today.  In short, Ellie Stone is the perfect female character to guide us through the 60s (and beyond).  I can’t wait to see this changing world through Ellie’s eyes again in the next installment of this series.

One last note about A Stone’s Throw.  It is published by Seventh Street Books, which happens to publish other favorite authors of mine.  James Ziskin has a bit of fun with the last names of some of his fellow Seventh St. authors, and as in finding a murderer, it’s all in the details.  Enjoy the hunt.