Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Birthday Month of Plenty

February is my birth month, and I have been getting presents all month long due to the outstanding number of great new book releases from favorite authors.  I'm beginning to suspect someone planned this for me.  Hahaha!  I can't help but show my gratitude by posting about the books I've read for February already and the ones that I'm scrambling to get to.  Happy Birthday to me!

I just finished this new one with a new character by Kristi Belcamino and posted my review yesterday.  My words upon finishing Shadow Man were, "Hot damn!"  Most used phrase for Kristi's characters is "kick-ass." 

Although The Dark Angel doesn't come out until May in the U.S., I couldn't wait until then to post something about this amazing tenth anniversary book in the Ruth Galloway series.  If you can't wait, and with this series who can, it's available through U.K. ordering resources.  I've already posted a review for this one, too.

The second book in the Agnes Luthi series seals the deal for me that this Swedish set series is a new favorite for me.  My review for this book is already here on the blog, too.

When this book arrived today, I actually squealed with delight.  I've only just started it, and I am thrilled to have another Doyle and Acton book in my hands.  I will be reading happy tonight.

Here are the books of February that I am running toward as fast as I can.  My birthday month may spill over into the next month just a bit.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Shadowman by Kristi Belcamino: Reading Room Review

I would have read this book in one sitting, but I made myself get a few hours sleep. When you read Shadowman, you will understand just how hard it was to put down this book even when I knew I had to. As it was, I didn't acquiesce to the needed sleep until 4 in the morning. There is just no good stopping point in Shadowman, as it grabbed me hard with its prologue and just kept on grabbing and grabbing. Kristi Belcamino creates female leads who blaze across the page as passionate in their loyalty to those they love as they are about justice for those wronged. Already established as an author of kick-ass characters with Gabriella Giovanni and Gia Santella, Belcamino now gives us Maggie Bychowski in the Sanctuary City Mysteries.

Maggie has moved to the hills of northern California to take a job as the lone female on the Sanctuary City Police Force. Her work place is an unfriendly atmosphere at best. At worst, well, that comes later. Maggie is willing to put up with the town nepotism, the behind-her-back name calling, the police cruiser that smells like vomit, and other general lack of respect to be close to her twelve-year-old daughter who must live in a care home nearby. The job is essential for Maggie to pay for the quality care her daughter receives, and so she tries to not stick out too much and blend into a routine of doing her job without making waves.

However, Maggie rather quickly gets on the wrong side of the dominant Earl family, whose positions include everything from police chief to D.A. to mayor. She sees Sgt. Earl doing something nobody was supposed to see. It becomes as much a matter of keeping her job as doing it, and then a matter of much more severe consequences. Maggie is not without allies on the police force, with a couple of law abiding as well as law enforcing co-workers who take her seriously. But, the well is poisoned in the town of Sanctuary City by the Earls and those who fall under their influence.

And, there is another poison infiltrating the community, an unseen source of evil and secrecy. A trio of twelve-year-old girls are in online communication with a dark fantasy figure called Shadowman, who works on the insecurities and fears of the young to corrupt them. Shadowman’s lure of leaving all their troubles behind to join him in living at his castle where life is all video games and freedom comes at the price of a barbarity of unimaginable horror. Not unlike the Earl’s family hold on many of the residents of Sancturary City, Shadowman threatens retaliation for non-compliance with his commands. When Shadowman’s urgings result in tragedy, will Maggie be able to uncover the truth as the wagons of Sanctuary City circle? Will Maggie be able to save herself in the process?

I can only add that Shadowman is a book readers don’t want to miss. It is sure to be on “must read” lists throughout 2018 and in contention for awards. Kristi Belcamino is an author with deep resources of the imagination, and she knows how to put pen to paper to bring them to life. The suspense of this novel is constant, an edge-of-your-seat experience that is as thrilling as it is frightening. And, the ride is only over when it’s over, and it’s not over.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Dark Angel (Ruth Galloway Mysteries #10) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

The Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths is celebrating its 10th Year Anniversary this year with the publication of The Dark Angel. Do not expect it to be a light-hearted celebratory tale. This book is Elly Griffiths at her most devilish best. It’s light and dark and all shades in-between. I love it and hate it and love it again and want to read it all a second time.

At this point in the series, it’s impossible to review a book in it without spoilers from previous books, so do yourself a favor and don’t read this review if you’re just starting the series, and for goodness sake, you will want to read them from the beginning anyway. They’re too good to skip any.

So, the big bombshell in the book before this one, The Chalk Pit, was that Michelle, DCI Harry Nelson’s wife, is pregnant at age 46. With Nelson’s pull towards Ruth Galloway, the star of this series and forensic archeologist, and trouble in his marriage, the pregnancy is a stunner to all. And, then there’s the matter of Michelle’s lover, Tim, who used to be on Nelson’s serious crime team. Oh, what a tangled web indeed. But, with such great crime stories contained in the Ruth Galloway series, isn’t the romantic storyline just a minor part. NO! Well, I may be a little over involved with these fictional characters.

The storyline in this thrilling new book take us to Italy’s Liri Valley when Ruth is asked by a fellow archeologist Angelo Morelli to come to Italy and help him identify some bones he has uncovered. He is hoping that Ruth’s expertise will help lure back a television filming of the event. For Ruth, who is still reeling from the news of Michelle’s pregnancy, it is an opportunity to take a much-needed vacation while still working. So, she and her six-year-old daughter Kate, Ruth’s friend Shonna, and Shonna’s four-year-old son Louis take off for a couple of weeks of relaxation and fun. But, all is not fun and games for Ruth as she discovers that the small hill towns of Italy have long memories that affect their attitudes toward everything, including archeological digs. 

Castello degli Angeli is a town that is particularly sensitive concerning WWII memories and stories, when the Nazis occupied their area and the Resistance fought valiantly against the enemy. Even the apartment where Ruth and company are staying, an apartment that had belonged to Angelo’s grandfather, seems to hold dark secrets from that war. When someone is murdered in the town, Ruth’s work vacation becomes a little too reminiscent of her crime solving involvement back in Norfolk. The unexpected appearance of Harry Nelson in this Italian setting really brings home, well, home. 

Nelson has left a worrisome situation back in Norfolk, although it’s one he thinks he has under control. Mickey Webb, a criminal convicted of murdering his wife and children, has been released from prison. Mickey threatened to get even with Nelson, who arrested Mickey, and before Nelson’s spur-of-the-moment trip to Italy, he spies the ex-convict walking in his neighborhood. But, a talk to Webb convinces Nelson that the man has gotten the message to stay away. There, of course, is more to deal with here in a subplot of unexpected danger.

In the previous novel, The Chalk Pit, there is a move towards Ruth and Nelson facing their feelings for one another. Michelle’s pregnancy throws a real monkey wrench into that. But, The Dark Angel continues the examination of feelings and commitments. The issue of whether the baby Michelle is carrying is Nelson’s or Tim’s and just what Michelle’s feelings are for Tim gives some room to still hope for a Ruth and Nelson pairing. But don’t expect any easy or final solutions to feelings in this book. You can expect a major shock at the end though. 

The Dark Angel doesn’t come out in the U.S. until May 15th, but it is already out in the UK. I was fortunate to receive an ARC from the publisher and thus read it before its U.S. arrival. I’m publishing the review now and again right before the May publication date. There will be plenty of time for fans of this consistently thrilling series to pre-order Ruth Galloway #10. Fans will be rewarded with a tenth anniversary firecracker of a read.  

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A Well-Timed Murder by Tracee de Hahn: Reading Room Review

In her debut novel, Swiss Vendetta, Tracee de Hahn introduced readers to a wonderfully unique new crime series character, Swiss-American police officer Agnes Luthi.  Luthi is 38 years old, a recent widow, mother of two sons, lives with her parents-in-law (because of her job hours), and a fairly new member of the Violent Crimes unit.  Although raised in Switzerland, Agnes Luthi was born to American parents, and so by the strict observances of the Swiss, she will never be considered quite one of them.  But that doesn't prevent Agnes becoming an integral part of serving and protecting in the Swiss police.  Tracee de Hahn has created a character that is an admirable one, a complex one and placed her in one of the world's most beautiful settings, Switzerland.  It's a fresh look at crime, as this setting is definitely an underutilized font of rich storytelling.

It is just three weeks after Agnes Luthi's case at the Vallotton estate in the first book, Swiss Vendetta.  Agnes is three days away from returning to work after recuperating from her injuries suffered in that case when her former boss, Marcel Aubrey of the Financial Crimes division, asks her to witness the capture of a criminal she had pursued before her transfer to Violent Crimes.  The scene is at the Messe Basel Exhibition Halles or Baselworld and leads to her encounter with Julien Vallotton from her previous case.  A friend of his has died, and the friend's daughter doesn't think it was an accident, so Julien asks Agnes to investigate.  The friend, Guy Chavanon, was a well-known Swiss watchmaker, and Baselworld happened to be opening its yearly trade show for the revered art of watch making.  Those involved in the Swiss specialty of Swiss-made are most proud and take the business of it most seriously, making it difficult for Agnes to infiltrate their barriers of secrecy and mistrust of outsiders.  

Guy Chavanon's death had been ruled an accident due to anaphylactic shock from exposure to peanuts, a deathly allergy for him.  It happened at his son's exclusive boarding school where a roomful of parents, students, and teachers witnessed him collapse.  Julien Vallotton is godfather to Guy Chavanon's son, as well as being on the board of directors at the school, so he is anxious for Agnes to uncover whether or not there is any basis to the daughter's suspicions.  The starting point is, of course, the scene of the death, or crime, as it may be, and that is Moutier Institut de Jeunes Gens, a boarding school for boys only.  It seems there are some questionable things going on at the school outside of the recent death, and soon Agnes is investigating a death and the peculiar events at the school.  Her investigation of Chavanon's death takes her back and forth between the Baselworld trade show and the school.  

Swiss watchmaking is a high stakes, competitive industry, and Guy Chavanon had possibly been on the verge of an industry changing invention.  There are those who would give anything to have such a invention, and there are also those who might want to prevent its inception.  Helping to smooth the way for some of Agnes' interviews with these prickly professionals is Julien, who has a personal interest in Agnes, as well as his friend's death. The closeness Julien and Agnes experienced when she was investigating the death at his family estate, Chateau Vallotton is heating up for both of them.  De Hahn's use of Julien in the investigation is not at all forced or contrived, but flows naturally into the course of events. 

Tracee de Hahn has a gift for writing a well-paced, thrilling, captivating story.  Her style presents a smooth narrative through a deftness at handling language and sentence structuring to ensure a steady flow from page to page, chapter to chapter.  The story is rather exclusive, a treat to something different in the crime/mystery world, as the setting so aptly provides access to this.  The precise artistry of Swiss watchmaking proved a fascinating subject matter in which to place a murder.  I'm particularly enjoying the setting of Switzerland because de Hahn brings in so much of the Swiss culture and history to the stories.  Having lived in Switzerland for a time herself and married to a Swiss citizen lends much authenticity to this series.  Who hasn't heard of Swiss chocolate and watches and banking, but to read about these icons of Swiss culture in a thrilling mystery/crime story truly presents a delightful learning experience as well as an amazing reading one.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley: Reading Room Review

Flavia de Luce is one of the best characters to come along in mystery fiction. I've been hooked on this precocious eleven, now twelve-year-old, since the first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Flavia's brilliant mind in chemistry and solving murders has filled each book with a magical presence. The setting, largely at her rundown family estate Buckshaw outside of the bucolic English hamlet of Bishop’s Lacey in the 1950s adds charm to the quirky stories of murder and deceit in which Flavia seems to find herself. And, then the last book, Thrice the Branded Cat Hath Mew'd, placed the series in a seemingly darker than usual place where readers were looking to the current book, The Grave's a Fine and Private Place, to answer questions of what was to become of Flavia and her two tormenting sisters, Feely and Daffy, and the rest of the endearing household. Of course, no reader expects all her questions to be answered, but I very much needed a sense of direction from The Grave's a Fine and Private Place. I can't say that this was a favorite book in the series for me, but I do think Flavia grew up a lot in this book and is in a good place to take control of her destiny back into her own hands. It felt like a necessary book, to advance the direction of those characters we've come to love who reside at Buckshaw. 

As so many of Flavia's adventures do, this one starts with a dead body, when Flavia makes quite a catch from the river on which she, her sisters, and Dogger are boating while on vacation. The oddly dressed man who is the victim appears to have drowned, or at least to the unpracticed eye of murder and mayhem, but Flavia, along with Dogger, immediately begin to have suspicions and gather evidence to disabuse the coroner's pronouncement of accidental drowning. Of course, rarely does the case rest on the murder of one victim and one set of secrets. Their discovery has landed the group in St.-Mildred's-in-the-Marsh and almost at the door of the church where two years earlier the presiding priest poisoned three elderly women attending communion. And, the victim Flavia brings to shore on their landing turns out to be the adult son of that "Poisoning Parson." 

As Flavia, Feely, Daffy, and Dogger are all witnesses to the discovery of the dead man, they are required to stay in St. Mildred's-in-the-Marsh while the constable tidies up his report, but also for Flavia's own purposes of investigating what she and Dogger are labeling murder. The characters of this sleepy little hamlet have much to reveal about themselves and the events of the past two years. In the course of their stay and scrutinizing the facts, Flavia makes a new friend in the undertaker's son, and Dogger reconnects with a lady friend, who seems aware of his history and troubles. Flavia will come as close to a killer and being a victim herself as she ever has in this latest quest for truth and justice. Her rescuer will surprise all.

I didn't think I was going to like this book at first, which was a huge disappointment to me as a Flavia super fan. And, as I said, while it might not be my favorite in the series, I ended up appreciating it on many levels. People grow up and so are the characters in this series, and Alan Bradley gives us a maturation that is most satisfying in the characters of Flavia, Feely, and Daffy. And, how pleased I was to have the spotlight shine on Dogger and in turn on his and Flavia's relationship. Life is moving on, and everyone must choose their paths. And, that was the most satisfying part of the book, that Flavia finally starts coming into her own and realizing that she does have a say. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

For the Love of February: New February Reads

February certainly lives up to its name as the month of love for book lovers this year.  I'm still trying to catch up with the outstanding new publications from January, and now February arrives with its treasure trove of new reads.  There are authors whom I've come to rely on for a great read, including Sara Blaedel, Charles Todd, Elly Griffiths, Kristi Belcamino, Rhys Bowen, Laura Lippman, Vicki Delany, M.C. Beaton, and Charles Finch.  There are authors who are leaving the debut circle and coming out with their second novel, including Jane Harper and Tracee de Hahn.  And, for me, there are a few authors' works that I need to dive into, including, J.D. Allen, Frances Brody, and Yrsa Sigurdardottir.  Also included are a new-to-me author, Catherine Ryan Howard, and an author I haven't read for ages, Robert McCammon.  Quite the impressive lot.  I hope this list helps other readers get their ducks in a row for their February reading.  Of course, it isn't an all-inclusive list.  I will probably have to add a few titles in the next couple of weeks.  But, this list should certainly get everyone started on reading and ordering their new reads for February. 

February 2018

The Undertaker’s Daughter (Ilka Jensen #1) by Sara Blaedel (Feb. 6th)

Force of Nature: A Novel (Aaron Falk #2) by Jane Harper (Feb. 6th)

A Well-Timed Murder: An Agnes Luthi Mystery by Tracee de Hahn  (Feb. 6th)

The Gatekeeper (Ian Rutledge #20) by Charles Todd (Feb. 6th)

19 Souls (A Sin City Investigation) by J.D. Allen (Feb. 8th)

UK edition of The Dark Angel (Ruth Galloway Mysteries #10) by Elly Griffiths (Feb. 8th)

Death in the Stars: A Kate Shackleton Mystery (#9) by Frances Brody (Feb. 13th)

The Legacy: A Thriller (Children’s House) by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Feb. 13th)

The Cat of the Baskervilles: A Sherlock Holmes Bookshop Mystery by Vicki Delany (Feb. 13th)

The Woman in the Water (Charles Lenox Mysteries) by Charles Finch (Feb. 20th)

Shadow Man by Kristi Belcamino (Feb. 20th)

Sunburn: A Novel by Laura Lippman (Feb. 20th)

The Tuscan Child by Rhys Bowen (Feb. 20th)

Death of an Honest Man (A Hamish Macbeth Mystery, #34) by M.C. Beaton (Feb. 20th)

The Liar’s Girl by Catherine Ryan Howard (Feb. 27th)

The Listener by Robert McCammon (Feb. 27th)

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Vanishing Box (Stephens and Mephisto Mystery #4) by Elly Griffiths: Reading Room Review

(The Vanishing Box doesn't come out in the United States until early next September 2018.  It is already out in the UK though, and since quite a few readers I know buy the UK copy from Book Depository and other available UK sources, I'm posting my review early.  I will re-post it in conjunction with the U.S. publication date.  Plenty of time to pre-order for that date.)

The early 1950s in England was an interesting time. WWII was just barely behind them, and the country was rebuilding itself and people reassessing their purposes in life. With survival of such a great tragedy comes guilt and determination that one's life count for something. Some went the direction of work that would serve others and some went the way of pursuing their dreams with abandon. DI Edgar Stephens, who had served in the war, now dedicated his life to pursuing criminals and making the world, or at least his world of Brighton, England, a safer place. Max Mephisto, Edgar's friend and fellow comrade in a special WWII unit called the Magic Men, chose to go back to his pre-war career of being a magician on stages across England and reaching for even grander spotlights than before. The world of variety entertainment has a fascinating history, and in the Stephens & Mephisto mysteries, the reader gets a front row seat to its changing times. The Hippodrome in Brighton serves as the venue where Max is currently performing in December of 1953, and that venue has a long, star-studded history, as well as an architectural one. Max calls his friend Edgar "a rarity, a completely honest man." So, we have two men who are friends and allies in spite of the different paths they take after the war, and who both end up helping to make the world a safer place with their parts in solving murders. Brighton is a comforting setting amidst the violence of murder, the sea and the history of the place providing a respite to the business of catching a killer.

It is a snowy, cold December in Brighton as Christmas draws near in 1953. DI Edgar Stephens is looking forward to attending the variety show at the Hippodrome, where his friend Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are the headline act as Magician and Daughter. As Edgar is engaged to Ruby, it's especially a treat to see. But, duty comes first for Edgar, and he is called to the scene of an unusual murder. A young flower seller, Lily Burtenshaw, has been killed in her room at a local boardinghouse and the scene is quite odd, as the young woman appears to be posed in a scene of some sort. The bright, enthusiastic sergeant Emma Watson uncovers, after a bit of research, that the scene depicted by the murder victim is a famous painting of the death of Lady Jane Grey. 

The investigation of this gruesome murder by Edgar, Emma, and the other sergeant Bob Willis takes them once again into Max Mephisto's theatre world. As well as Max's and Ruby's headlining act and some smaller acts, there is a risque act called the Living Tableaux, in which scantily clad women portray scenes from history, not unlike the murder scene set-up. The coincidence doesn't escape Edgar, and two of the performers are also borders at the house where Lily Burtenshaw resided, and they might be the last two people to have seen Lily alive, besides the murderer. When there is a second murder that is directly connected to the Living Tableaux act, Edgar spends more time at the theatre investigating and talking to Max about events. Max's involvement with one of the Tableaux performers complicates matters and comes to have a great impact on the case. The conclusion to the case will have you on the edge of your seat and reading as fast as you can so that you can arrive at the moment of revelation and safety at last.

The Vanishing Box is the complete package. It is a paradise of great characters, both major and minor. Elly Griffiths will have you interested in every character you come across in this book. She's that good. There are so many characters and relationships evolving in this book, as even Bob Willis takes on more life and promise in this story, no longer in the shadow of Emma Holmes of the sharp mind and great instincts. Emma herself is deeply involved in every aspect of tracking down the ruthless serial killer, working closely with DI Stephens, with whom she is in love, despite his engagement to Ruby. Edgar's and Ruby's relationship gets some close scrutiny, too, and Ruby is given growth that I didn't expect. Nicely done. Max's role as Ruby's father is under the microscope a bit, too. Of course, one would expect the major characters to be so fully developed and evolving. But, the minor characters, from the showgirl Betty to the landlords Edna and Norris to Max's and Ruby's agent Joe Passilini to the manager of the Living Tableaux, Vic Cutler, to the old border Mr. Entwhistle, there is a definition to their development that brings them alive as much as the main characters. Character development is one of Elly Griffith's strokes of genius. With a mesmerizing, thrilling story and a setting that is historically accurate and intriguing, The Vanishing Box can't miss being a smashing hit.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey: Reading Room Review

Several years ago, when I read The Sleeping Dictionary by Sujata Massey, I discovered an India of beauty, historical importance, depth, tragedy, redemption, and diversity. That book, set over a period of seventeen years, 1930 to 1947 mostly in Calcutta, stunned me with its impact on my reading life, as India became a source of interest and intrigue to me. It’s quite difficult for me to choose just one favorite book or even ten favorite books, but The Sleeping Dictionary is forever in my top ten. So, when I learned that Sujata had a new book coming out set in India, I was excited and anticipated another spectacular read. Expectations were met entirely. The Widows of Malabar Hill is another journey into India and its culture and people, this time in 1921 in Bombay. The author doesn't rest on her laurels of Calcutta. She takes us a thousand miles across India to a whole new area of intrigue. Both novels have a strong, independent female lead character, and that's not a small accomplishment in the first half of 20th century India. The struggle for women to have any control over their lives in this period of Indian history was a task of gargantuan proportions, and it is a timely entry as our country is dealing with a resurgence of women fighting to retain the progress they’ve historically made, a progress to equality. The Widows of Malabar Hill mirrors the white supremacy battle we are fighting in this country in its British white supremacy over the peoples of India, people of color.

For Perveen Mistry, a twenty-three old Parsi woman who is the first female lawyer in Bombay, life is indeed challenging. She partners with her father in their family law firm, but the courts do not allow her to represent clients before a judge. Perveen deals with the legal paperwork side of the business. It is in this capacity that she confronts the disposition of a client's will. The challenge of this particular task is that the beneficiaries are three widows who live sequestered (in purdah) from the rest of the world and who have no direct contact with men, other than what they had with their husband.

The first sticking point in Perveen’s attempt to do her duty is that the man appointed as household agent (person handling their money and affairs daily) for the widows isn't communicating with Perveen, except to send a letter indicating the women wish to give their inheritances to charity, in part to a charity he is establishing. Perveen insists that she must talk to each woman to ensure that their true wishes are being represented by this man, and so she visits their residence on Malabar Hill, a rather exclusive neighborhood, to do just that. The visit reveals some interesting information to and from the widows, and the decision to forfeit their inheritances is put on hold. The decision isn’t the only thing that changes. In the time that Perveen leaves the house after the interviews and returns to retrieve her forgotten briefcase, a murder occurs. With the women and their children secluded on one side of the residence, and the household agent and gate keeper on the other side, who has committed this crime? Someone gaining access from outside, or someone on the inside gaining access to the whole house? The answer lies deep in a quagmire of secrets and deceptions. 

The essence of this novel is two-fold. There is the murder mystery in which only Perveen has acccess to gaining all sides of information, and there is Perveen's story of her struggle as a woman in India, not just as a woman solicitor. The background story of the years leading up to Perveen's position in 1921 is a dramatic one. The author has chosen to tell this story in separate chapters labeled 1916 and 1917. The rest of the book, the majority of it, is designated by chapter titles and the date of 1921 with the month of that year. This arrangement works quite well, and we learn just how Perveen got to be the woman of strength and determination she is in pursuing the truth for her women clients in 1921. It also gives the reader insight into Perveen’s family and her best friend from Oxford, Alice, who deals with her own set of demands and struggles. I suspect that Alice’s life will be explored further in future books, too. 

Sujata Massey is a master at bringing both story and knowledge to readers. Learning the difference between Parsis/Parsee and Iranis and the Zoroastrian religion, difference in customs between these and Muslims, and how the British operated in Bombay during this time of British rule over India. And then, there is the description of Bombay and how it was established and built up. All this fascinating information is woven seamlessly into the narrative, making the reader better informed as well as a captivated reader. 

The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first in a new historical mystery series by Sujata Massey, so we will get to see more of Perveen Mistry and her fight for justice for her clients, her people, and herself. 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the author.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

A Reckoning in the Back Country by Terry Shames: Reading Room Review

Spending time with Samuel Craddock in Jarrett Creek, Texas is truly like visiting with an old friend. There are characters and settings that just find a way into your heart, and reading each book in the series becomes a conversation in getting to know that person and place better, like the evolution of any friendship. The supporting characters bring a satisfying familiarity, too, and I swear I can smell Loretta's cinnamon rolls (if I could only taste them). Even Samuel's cows are fondly followed. A Reckoning in the Back Country is #7 in the Samuel Craddock Mysteries, and one in which we see a couple of changes in Samuel's life, one sweet, one complicated. 

It is a few days before Thanksgiving in Jarrett Creek, and Police Chief Samuel Craddock is short-staffed due to personal time taken and unexpected illness. So, he takes the call about a missing man from one of the lakeside houses, where out-of-towners own and reside mostly on holidays and weekends, and he goes out to the residence to interview the wife reporting the disappearance. While talking to neighbors of the couple, two children run to their grandparents screaming and crying at what they stumbled across in the woods behind the houses. It is a gruesome discovery indeed. The missing Dr. Lewis Wilkins lies dead with his throat savaged by animals. The local vet is called to the scene, and he quickly determines that the bites and tearing were caused by dogs. With recent reports of dogs gone missing from their owners and rumors of dog fighting in the area, Samuel wonders if there is a connection to the death. Noting that Wilkins' hands showed signs of having been tied, it is apparent that a murder has occurred. Whatever the cause of death, it had a human hand in it.

Samuel soon learns that Dr. Lewis Wilkins has a troubled past and a multitude of secrets from his family. A recent malpractice case had placed the doctor in financial straits and an uncertain future, with his medical practice ruined. As the determined police chief digs deeper and deeper into the life of this man, gambling and other financial dealings start rearing their ugly heads. The man's family is as surprised as Samuel at the information that is unraveled. But, who wanted him dead enough to orchestrate such a horrific death? The return of Deputy Maria Trevino from personal leave gives Samuel Craddock the extra pair of hands and the partner he needs to help figure out this complex case that seems to go in so many directions. They do have their work cut out for them though.

The crime, of course, will be solved, and it is all a brilliant, thrilling ride to the end, but I am always left wanting more of Samuel and his friends and neighbors and Jarrett Creek. That happens when an author writes such an authentic, appealing cast of characters and setting. The reader always wants more. Terry Shames writes amazing murder/crime stories, and she gives them the personal stamp of charm and humor and familiarity that makes them feel like coming home.  I can hardly wait until the next visit.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Throw Back Thursday: Second Looks at Books

For Throw-Back Thursday on this January 11th, 2018, I'm going to revisit a few of my favorite non-fiction books.  One of my reading regrets every year is that I don't seem to be able to fit in many, if any, non-fiction books, and I do enjoy them, too.  So, here are a few that make me wonder why I'm not making more room for these books.  

Ring around the rosies,
A pocketful of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

—"Ring Around the Rosies," a children's rhyme about the Black Death

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched in the minds of terrified schoolchildren—the hideous black welts, the high fever, and the awful end by respiratory failure—are more or less accurate. But what the Plague really was and how it made history remain shrouded in a haze of myths.

Now, Norman Cantor, the premier historian of the Middle Ages, draws together the most recent scientific discoveries and groundbreaking historical research to pierce the mist and tell the story of the Black Death as a gripping, intimate narrative.

(Reading Room Note: Norman Cantor is quite the expert on the plague and Medieval times.  His writing style makes reading facts a pleasurable experience.)

Many think of 1776 as the defining year of American history, when we became a nation devoted to the pursuit of happiness through self- government. In Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell argues that 1898 might be a year just as defining, when, in an orgy of imperialism, the United States annexed Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and invaded first Cuba, then the Philippines, becoming an international superpower practically overnight.

Among the developments in these outposts of 1898, Vowell considers the Americanization of Hawaii the most intriguing. From the arrival of New England missionaries in 1820, their goal to Christianize the local heathen, to the coup d'état of the missionaries' sons in 1893, which overthrew the Hawaiian queen, the events leading up to American annexation feature a cast of beguiling, and often appealing or tragic, characters: whalers who fired cannons at the Bible-thumpers denying them their God-given right to whores, an incestuous princess pulled between her new god and her brother-husband, sugar barons, lepers, con men, Theodore Roosevelt, and the last Hawaiian queen, a songwriter whose sentimental ode "Aloha 'Oe" serenaded the first Hawaiian president of the United States during his 2009 inaugural parade.

With her trademark smart-alecky insights and reporting, Vowell lights out to discover the off, emblematic, and exceptional history of the fiftieth state, and in so doing finds America, warts and all.

(Reading Room Note:  If you want to learn something and you want to have lots of fun doing so, then reading the non-fiction books by Sarah Vowell is a must.  Her witty, story style writing will make you realize how history should be taught.  The titles alone are wildly entertaining.  Some of her other books include Assassination Vacation, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, The Wordy Shipmates, and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.) 

Erik Larson's gifts as a storyteller are magnificently displayed in this rich narrative of the master builder, the killer, and the great fair that obsessed them both.

Two men, each handsome and unusually adept at his chosen work, embodied an element of the great dynamic that characterized America's rush toward the twentieth century. The architect was Daniel Hudson Burnham, the fair's brilliant director of works and the builder of many of the country's most important structures, including the Flatiron Building in New York and Union Station in Washington, D.C. The murderer was Henry H. Holmes, a young doctor who, in a malign parody of the White City, built his "World's Fair Hotel" just west of the fairgrounds—a torture palace complete with dissection table, gas chamber, and 3,000-degree crematorium. Burnham overcame tremendous obstacles and tragedies as he organized the talents of Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles McKim, Louis Sullivan, and others to transform swampy Jackson Park into the White City, while Holmes used the attraction of the great fair and his own satanic charms to lure scores of young women to their deaths. What makes the story all the more chilling is that Holmes really lived, walking the grounds of that dream city by the lake.

The Devil in the White City draws the reader into a time of magic and majesty, made all the more appealing by a supporting cast of real-life characters, including Buffalo Bill, Theodore Dreiser, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, and others. In this book the smoke, romance, and mystery of the Gilded Age come alive as never before.

(Reading Room Note:  Erik Larson has established himself as one of the best storytellers of non-fiction published today.  You will hang on every word and then realize when it's over, it was all true.)