Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Under a Dark Sky by Lori Rader-Day: Reading Room Review

The phrase “off the chain” is a term often used to describe something fantastically good, and so it is in that sense that I say Under a Dark Sky is off the chain. However, the chain runs smooth with the structure and flow of Lori Rader-Day’s brilliant writing. She has everything under control, even the missteps the readers make in assigning guilt to the wrong characters. It’s a dark tale played out in a dark park, a locked room environment with a guest house full of troubled lives.  Oh, and the main character has a phobia about the dark. 

Life for thirty-something Eden Wallace has been a nightmare since the recent death of her husband, or it would be a nightmare if she could sleep and she didn’t spend the night with lights blazing all over her house. Afraid of the dark doesn’t quite cover the paralyzing phobia that Eden has, unable to step foot outdoors from nightfall until daybreak. Realizing that she is far too young to become a recluse, Eden makes a decision contradictory to her phobia. Upon finding paperwork in her husband’s desk where he had reserved a vacation at Straits Point International Dark Sky Park in Michigan, Eden steels herself to go to this place where lights are kept to a bare minimum and stars are the only lights of attraction. She feels she might actually find some solace and strength from a change of scenery in a retreat by herself, and her husband, Bix, did plan it to coincide with their 10th wedding anniversary. But, just about everything she thinks this trip will be is turned on its head from the moment she arrives at the reserved guest house. She has only a suite in the house and must share the rest of the house with a group of twenty-something strangers who are coming together for a college reunion of sorts. Not wanting to stay with arrangements as they are, but with night getting close to falling, Eden knows she is stuck for one night where she is. One night with all the lights in her room on and leaving the next day seems an option she will have to live with. 

And then there is someone dead on the kitchen floor with a screwdriver stuck in the throat. No one is going anywhere right away. Everyone is a suspect, including Eden, and the secret of her phobia and her marriage and her husband’s death make their way to the surface. But, she isn’t the only one with secrets. The six friends all seem to have different agendas for the reunion and different issues from the past to resolve. And, there is the ghost of a past friend the six share. This locked room is a Pandora’s box of ills, including jealousy, greed, lying, and revenge. No one is innocent and, thus, everyone is guilty, at least of some regrettable sin.  Who is the killer, what is her/his motive, and are the ensuing accidents that follow the murder really accidents?  The local law enforcement is ill equipped to solve a murder, and Eden feels compelled to do some investigating on her own, as the answers mean clearing her name and possibly saving lives, including her own.  It’s clear that the retreat Eden had hoped would revive her life will change it in ways she never saw coming.

Lori Rader-Day hit the ground running with her first book, the Anthony Award winning The Black Hour, and her next two books, Little Pretty Things and The Day I Died won awards and nominations and placement on “best” lists, too. Her storytelling and writing talents won me over at the beginning. Her stories are always uniquely interesting, no trace of having read this set-up before. But, I think that with Under a Dark Sky, she has achieved a stellar status that will catapult her into the highest stratosphere of fame. The 

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Death on the Menu by Lucy Burdette: Reading Room Review

Once a-glorious-gain I get to walk the streets of my favorite vacation place, Key West, Florida. Food critic Haley Snow is back in the eighth installment of the series, and I am deeply, hopelessly in love with Death on the Menu, as I have been with every book in this series. Forget Fodors or Frommer's or Lonely Planet to guide you on the perfect Key West trip. Author Lucy Burdette has given you the lowdown on places and food for this paradise with Haley Snow as your always entertaining, ever curious guide. Having been to Key West multiple times, I can assure you that you are walking the streets and meeting the people and eating the food with an authenticity second to none. 

So, at this point in the series, Haley has grown more confident in her place on the island and in life. She no longer second guesses her decision to make her home in this paradise, and she is getting a handle on all the multi-tasking she does. Of course, that doesn't mean that our dear Haley doesn't find herself in the middle of messes. That is, after all, one of her talents. But, she has a more secure support system, too, with her boatmate Miss Gloria on Houseboat Row, her catering mother and stepfather, her boyfriend Nathan Bransford of the Key West Police, her other Key West Police connection Lt. Steve Torrence, her Tarot co-conspirator Lorenzo, Bill and Eric of the cute conch-style house, and her co-workers at Key Zest online magazine. I have to mention these other characters because they have become so important to the success of this series and to Haley being able to, well, be Haley. Add to this supporting cast, the fascinating new characters in Death on the Menu, and you have a, yes, a smorgasbord of delicious bites.

Of course, there is crime, murder to be more specific, and each Key West Food Critic Mystery highlights a different part of the fabulous island for the setting of that murder. Death on the Menu takes on an international flavor in a highly anticipated event of a Cuban/Key West conference held at the Harry Truman Little White House in the Truman Annex section of Old Town in Key West. One of my favorite places to visit there, the history of the place embraces you and enchants you, taking one back to the style of the 1950s, especially appropriate for a delegation from Cuba to meet with a delegation from Key West about improving relations. Time stopped in the 50s for Cuba and the United States, and renewing it needs a special place to begin. Haley's mother, Janet, has been awarded the catering contract for the three-day event, and everything is riding on a successful show for Janet's business, and Haley jumps in to help her mother with working for her. In fact, there are multiple people who need the event to succeed for financial reasons, including Haley's friend Bill and his boss, who run the Truman Little White House. But, not everyone is in favor of the conference, especially some from the Cuban community of Key West who remember how cruel the Castro regime was to them and family members. And, there are some in attendance who are harboring deep secrets that could mean complete devastation or reclamation to their lives. 

The first day of the three-day conference turns out to set the tone for the event, and it's not a good one. A treasured possession that Cuba, or the Catholic church in Cuba where it was kept, loaned to the event, Hemingway's Nobel Prize gold medal for The Old Man and the Sea, is discovered missing even before the first dinner is served at the Truman Little White House. A tense dinner does ensue, but a further discovery of a dead man in the storage closet off from the kitchen sets the story off to a thrilling whodunnit and why. The murdered man, Gabriel, is the brother to one of the island's Cuban residents who Janet had hired as a sous-chef because of woman's famous secret flan recipe. Gabriel was on site to help with the reception and dinner, and his sordid end raises suspicions that he was involved with the stolen medal. When Gabriel's family asks Haley to help clear Gabriel's name, she becomes determined to find out why someone who seemed so unlikely a target of murder would become one and restore his good name. Trying to keep within the parameters of not interfering with the police investigation, something important to her romantic relationship, is a tricky challenge, and, of course, Haley stays squarely in the middle of it all, and we wouldn't have it any other way. 

Because this series revolves around food, I think the best way I can describe Death on the Menu is by using the author's own words when talking about the Cuban Mix Sandwich. "Pickles, yellow mustard, Swiss cheese, ham, and pork--the ingredients were simple but the end product, more than its parts." Translating this description to the book's, the ingredients, such as characters, plot, dialogue, setting, word choice/phrasing, may all seem the stuff of ordinary life, which they are, but put together (with the author's magic touch, of course), the result is a delight that you don't want to miss. Or, a shorter version might be, come for the food, but get a great story to boot.

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.