Saturday, November 30, 2019

No Man's Land by Sara Driscoll: Reading Room Review

No Man’s Land by Sara Driscoll is the 4th book in the F.B.I. K-9 series, and once again the subject matter covered is a step into unchartered territory for me. I love how this series expands my knowledge. In the first book, Lone Wolf, the theme addresses bombings, a homegrown terrorist, and how rescue with dogs works in a bombed building or site. In the second book, Before It’s Too Late, there was the cryptanalysis and Civil War sites. In the third book, Storm Rising, readers saw what went on during search and rescue efforts after a hurricane and the horrific issue of human trafficking. And, now, in book #4, readers learn about the world of exploring abandoned, dilapidated buildings to observe their rate of decay, an activity called urbexing. As with each of the books, there is a term defined at the beginning of each chapter helping to explain the subject matter, just a short sentence that aids in understanding the jargon used by those involved. At the heart of all these books is the theme of rescue, both physical and mental. The pairing of the main character Meg and her dog Hawk came about as a rescue of one another, she from a job where she had lost a beloved dog and Hawk from being homeless. Their rescue of one another makes for a firm bond that helps them succeed in the F.B.I.'s Human Scent Evidence Team and is a part of the appeal of this series.

No Man’s Land starts out with a day trip to an abandoned psychiatric hospital for Meg, her dog Hawk, Meg’s firefighter and paramedic boyfriend Todd Webb, and Todd’s firefighter friend and urbexer Chuck Smaill. It’s a chance for Hawk to get in some training and exercising, and it’s an interesting forage for the humans into some amazing old architecture and a world long forgotten. But, Hawk seems to be on alert from the beginning, indicating that perhaps other humans have tread the grounds and buildings recently. Meg finally realizes that Hawk might be onto something and takes him off leash to do his thing. The result is the discovery of a body, an elderly woman who has been dead for at least several days. Whether she was dead before ending up at this site or died on site is uncertain, but one thing is for certain and that is she couldn’t have gotten to the area she was found by herself. Foul play was at some point involved. A tragedy, but one for local authorities to deal with, until in talking about their day at the home of Meg and her sister Cara, Cara’s journalist boyfriend Clay McCord mentions a similar case six months earlier where an elderly person was found dead at an urbex site. Meg doesn’t like the coincidence and brings the matter up to her boss Craig at the F.B.I.’s Human Scent Evidence Team, who discovers more deaths of the elderly at abandoned urban sites. When another senior goes missing in the area, the team starts an active investigation into trying to find the victims before they die and trying to find a murderer who is preying on those too old and infirm to defend themselves. The rescue efforts take the team into places that are dangerously unstable structures, and the murderer seems to pick some of the most precarious perches in the buildings to leave the helpless, dying elders. It is as time sensitive as rescues can get, and Meg must deal with her aversion to heights in situations where the highest point is a favorite disposal location for the murderer being chased. With the crimes being particularly cruel in the fear factor to the elderly victims, first kidnapped and then left to die alone in a decaying and scary structure, the team and their outlying sources of Todd Webb, Clay McCord, and Chuck Smaill are on a 24-7 schedule to stop the madness. 

This F.B.I. K-9 series checks so many boxes for me. As a fan of the television show Criminal Minds (an F.B.I. team unit show), as a dog lover, as a puzzle enthusiast, I get lots of interests addressed. The dogs and their handlers are always racing against the clock, building suspense on every page. These stories are just plain exciting. It’s truly like Criminal Minds with dogs. This series, like all series, builds on each book, especially in the character and relationship areas, but what is rather unique about this series is that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this last book or any of them as a stand-alone read. Of course, I have wanted to and have read them all and consider each book an amazing story, but if someone were particularly interested in one of the subjects addressed, like urbexing in No Man’s Land, I would green light it as a single read. However, that brings us to the character development that Sara Driscoll (Jen J. Danna and Ann Vanderlaan) is so adept at.  Each book brings more insight into these strong, confident characters that work together so well on unmasking danger and murder. Meg and Hawk, while the stars of the show, benefit and need the help of her boyfriend Todd Webb, who is a D.C. firefighter and paramedic, her sister Cara, who is a dog trainer and yoga instructor, and Cara’s boyfriend Clay McCord, who is a journalist with connections and super human research skills. Then there are the rest of the dogs—Blink, Saki, Coy, and Lacey. All the dogs, those that are rescue and those not, will help readers see dogs as important anchors in life. The rescue dogs, Hawk and Lacey, are fascinating in their abilities as part of the F.B.I.’s Human Scent Evidence Team. And, the storylines and subject matter are endlessly captivating, a constant source of learning for me.

I highly recommend No Man’s Land and the entire F.B.I. K-9 series. It’s an adventure you don’t want to miss. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from the publisher, and the thoughts and opinions above are absolutely my own assessment.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders by Tessa Arlen: Reading Room Review

When I first saw the title and cover of Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders several months before it was published, I was smitten with both. I was almost afraid to read it, unsure if Poppy could possibly be a character as great as her name or the story could possibly match that stunning cover. Well, she is, and it does. The history and the mystery are combined beautifully. The English village of Little Buffenden in 1942 is a charming setting, despite murder seeping into the dark of night. I’m a fan of stories that show the importance of women during WWII, and this book does that, showing the courage, commitment, and sacrifice required by the British women on the home front.

There has been an invasion in the village of Little Buffenden, but it’s a friendly one. American pilots and Airforce personnel have arrived to man the newly built air base adjacent to the village. There are mixed feelings towards the soldiers, a welcome for the much-needed help against the Germans they provide, but at the same time resentment that help is needed from them. Poppy Redfern and her grandparents have reason to resent the Americans, as it is the Redfern’s family home of Reaches and farmland that have been requisitioned and turned into the new airfield. But, they seem fine with their temporary lodging, as they are honor bound to do their duty and make the sacrifice in the war effort. Young and enthusiastic, Poppy has just returned from London and her training to be the air-raid warden for Little Buffenden, and she is eager to help keep her village safe. Making the rounds at night to ensure that all the villagers have properly secured their blackout curtains and that they understand the dangers of non-compliance, she is accompanied by her small dog Bess. But, when danger shows up, it’s not the Germans bombing them in the dark, it’s a murderer preying on the young women of Little Buffenden. 

Poppy has barely started her job as ARP Warden when Doreen Newcombe, a young woman whom Poppy had known since a child, is found strangled. Doreen had been dating an American serviceman, and the villagers immediately cast suspicion upon him as an outsider. When another young lady is found murdered, Poppy’s doubts about an American being responsible for the murders prods her into doing some of her own investigating. She’s encouraged and aided by handsome, charming American pilot Griff O’Neal, who is concerned about American servicemen being blamed and who also provides the romantic element of the book in connection to Poppy. The list of suspects in the murders are eliminated one by one as Poppy digs into alibis and motives, and the shorter the list, the closer Poppy is to becoming a victim herself. 

Poppy Redfern and the Midnight Murders is the first in A Woman of World War II Mystery series by Tessa Arlen, and I’m happy to say that it was a smashing success for me. In the beginning of the book, Arlen acknowledges her father and grandfather for the many stories of WWII that they shared with her. It’s quite obvious by the details of the story, from the bombings in London to the daily rationing in Little Buffenden, that the author listened carefully to her primary human sources and then did continuing research to give the reader not only an accurate depiction of the time, but a sense of being there. Bringing history alive in a narrative takes a special skill, and Tessa Arlen has that skill, the ability to make it personal and approachable.  There is even an appendage at the conclusion of the story explaining certain unique aspects of Britain’s home front during WWII. 

The characters for this new series have had a great start in development in this first book, with the main characters, especially Poppy, gaining a firm foothold in WWII England and her part in serving her country. I especially like that Arlen sets up expanding possibilities for Poppy’s role in doing her duty, and her personal life is wide open, too. No closed boxes here, lots of room to grow. Poppy will endear herself to readers as a plucky, fearless, compassionate young woman who takes her responsibilities seriously and doesn’t stop until justice prevails. Readers will be eager to see where those responsibilities lead her. 

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Current by Tim Johnston: Reading Room Review

I'm so pleased that I used both audio and print to read The Currrent by Tim Johnston. I needed a book for several short road trips, and this book was a great audio choice, being a storyteller's story where pauses built suspense and prevented glancing ahead. But, I read the last half of the book in print, and this format allowed me to linger on the beauty of the language and reread parts I desired to do so with. The Current is simply a great story, a pulsing, living thing that does its title proud. The twists and turns mimic those of the river, too, and like the river, there is a history of beauty and heartache. Author Tim Johnston has an eye for detail and a talent for weaving those details into a tale of far-reaching effects. He has created a cast of compelling characters in this book, too, and readers will become emotionally invested in and touched by more than one of their struggles. 

Audrey Sutter and Caroline Price are traveling from a college in the South to Audrey's home in Minnesota, where Audrey's ailing father is running short on time, his lung cancer gaining on him daily. When the girls make a pit stop at an out-of-the-way gas station in the Iowa countryside, Audrey is attacked by one of two young men who mean her harm, and it is only by Caroline's quick thinking and mace spray that they get away. Driving fast to put distance between them, Caroline, who grew up in the South and isn't used to driving on icy northern roads, loses control of her car and the girls end up teetering on the edge of a bank over the Black Root River, frozen over on its top. As they teeter there, a vehicle's headlights come up behind them, but it's not there to help, as it taps their bumper and sends them plunging. One girl will live and one girl will die, and a ten-year-old case of another girl who lost her life under suspicious circumstances in the Black Root River in Audrey's hometown will be dredged up for further investigation. Two investigations, one river, and one town that has secrets waiting to surface. Who pushed Audrey and Caroline into the river? Who threw Holly Burke into the same wintery river ten years ago further along its path? If I said more, I would risk the chance that new readers wouldn't enjoy the discovery of those secrets and the characters who possess them for themselves. 

Told from a limited, multiple third-persons point of view, it was easy to become engaged in the characters' personal stories and heartaches. The sorrow of those affected by the ten-year-old death of Holly Burke and the new death is a palatable one. From law enforcement, including Audrey's retired sheriff father, to an old dog named Wyatt, grief and a weariness cloud the community. Futures once bright were forever darkened with the first river tragedy, and a desperation for answers and a demand for responsibility has reached its boiling point. And, yet, the characters don't strike one as defeated, just muted for a period, waiting for their world to be righted. Of course, muted may be an odd choice here, as one of Johnston's many writing strengths is dialogue. Never superfluous, but always on point, the dialogue is one of the currents that move the story. 

The book does begin rather slowly, with its build-up to the girls' car going into the frozen river, but hopefully readers will experience that measured part as I did and as Audrey and Caroline did, as the motion of falling, moving slowly toward their fate, but then with rapid chill, lives are changed from normal college girls in the world to the darkness and cold of a winter river. This excerpt brings you to the moment of the momentum change, although Johnston is not one to be hurried in the continued telling, and the reader will be happy for that. The following excerpt is an observance of the author's amazing command of language, as well as pace.
      “The nose of the car drops over the edge of the bank and the world pitches, and their own weight rolls forward through their bodies as at the top of a roller coaster just before the drop – the deep human fear of falling, the plunging heart, and there’s no stopping it and no getting out and nothing to do but hold on. And down they go, fast and easy in the snow, toboggan-smooth, hand in hand, their grips so tight, the grips of girls much younger, girls who will not be separated, their faces forward, watching the surface of the river, the black glistening ice as it rushes up toward them, larger and larger, until there’s nothing in the windshield but the ice, dark and wide as an ocean and they are going to it, they are going to strike it nose-first with the car and they can imagine that, the sudden ending of forward motion as the car meets the plane of the ice, but after that they cannot imagine, they have never been here before and there is no way to know what will happen next except to go through it…”

The Current is an exceptional novel, and Tim Johnston is an author I will be following from now on. His debut novel, Descent, an NPR Best Books of 2015 honoree, will be on my nightstand soon. Already on numerous "best" lists for 2019, including audio ones, The Current has landed on my Best Reads of 2019, too. I'm torn between advising readers to listen to the spellbinding audio read by Sarah Mollo-Christensen or pour over the print version to enjoy re-reading Johnston's smooth flowing prose. I feel that I had the best of both worlds by dividing it between audio and print. However readers choose to take in this amazing tale, it will be a memorable read that will make Tim Johnston one of your must-read authors.