Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The King's Justice by Susan Elia MacNeal: Reading Room Review

The King's Justice is the ninth book in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal, and I feel like I should pinch myself to ensure that I'm not dreaming that.  Can readers have already had nine of these thrilling books in which to immerse their reading pleasures?   I guess time really does fly when you have great reading.  From the first story in this series, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, author Susan Elia MacNeal has made the WWII London setting come alive from her carefully researched details of what living in London during this time was actually like.  Readers feel Maggie's steps and see through her eyes the streets during the London Blitz, the living with rationing, the taking refuge in the subways during air raids, the aftermath of a bombed London, the make-do efforts of entertainment, and the war effort by so many to survive and endure.  Of course, not all the action of the series has taken place in London, as Maggie becomes a member of the SOE (Special Operations  Executive) espionage unit.  Readers have followed Maggie to Germany, to Paris, and to Scotland in her role as an SOE agent, and, everywhere we go, readers can feel the authenticity of the setting.  As a woman reading this series, it's been an amazing experience to be able to put myself in the shoes of a young woman living the WWII story.  However, these are not "women" stories.  They are WWII stories, and with murder mystery added to the mix, they are gripping reads for all, one of the best historical fiction mystery series there is.

It's 1943, and Maggie is back in London for The King's Justice, but it is a battered, betrayed Maggie who is drinking and smoking a bit too much to try and forget her recent, horrific tribulations on a Scottish island.  To cap off a hard core drive to forget and engage in something other than SOE work, Maggie is now a member of the 107th Tunneling Company of the Royal Engineers and is knee-deep in diffusing the many unexploded German bombs left over from the Blitz of 1940.  Maybe not a death wish for Maggie, but she does seem to be living on the edge, as even her mode of transportation, a motorcycle, seems a walk on the wild side.  Her unit has a large number of COs, conscientious objectors, including the Britalian factor, those Italians who were born in Britain but whose Italian parents are just a breath away from their Italian relatives.  I wasn't aware of this part of the British population during WWII, and they suffered from mistrust and some internment, just as the Japanese did in the United States.  Also back in London and living at Maggie's house is Sarah, who served in the SOE with Maggie during their Paris undercover operation.  Sarah has left the SOE and returned to the ballet, after suffering the loss of the man she loved.  And, Chuck and her son Griffin are living with Maggie while Chuck's husband is serving in the war.  

What has Maggie's immediate attention is the upcoming execution of Nicholas Reitter, the Blackout Beast, whom Maggie and DCI James Durgin captured in a previous book, The Queen's Accomplice.  Targeting SOE female operatives, the Blackout Beast murdered five women in a sick reprisal of Jack the Ripper viciousness.  With hope that Reitter's execution will lay some of her demons to rest, Maggie is counting down the days, the hours, minutes, the seconds to the time when the savage mass murderer, or sequential murderer, is gone from the world. While the days count down, Maggie's boyfriend DCI Durgin brings a couple of cases to her attention, trying to entice her to help solve them.  The one that she might be persuaded to become involved in is the disappearance of a Stradivarius violin belonging to Giacomo Genovese, first chair violinist of the London Philharmonic and a Britalian, and when Durgin introduces Maggie to Giacomo after a concert, she's pretty well hooked.  

The other case involves another sequential murderer, a murderer who is targeting conscientious objectors, as is evidenced by the presence of a white feather, meant for cowardice, included with their remains.  The remains though are of a different sort, just the bones of young men, each victim's bones enclosed in a suitcase thrown into the Thames River and washing ashore.   Maggie has vowed to stay away from murder, but when Nicholas Reitter professes to know who the new sequential killer is and states he will only talk to Maggie, she feels she has no choice but to visit him in his cell and listen to what he has to say.  Of course, Reitter is full of the cat and mouse game, and Maggie finds herself once more involved in a race to save young lives, this time young men instead of young women. 

As Maggie applies her dogged determination and brilliance to the two cases, she is working through her own torments, the effects of her war experiences, or PTSD, as it is called today.  She's also struggling with her relationship with James Durgin, who, although he asked for her help, seems dismissive of her theories.  Durgin admires Maggie's skills, but he's not exactly enlightened where women's equality is concerned.  There is a myriad of issues that are addressed in this book, all intricately woven into the story.  The PTSD, the woman's place in the world, the death penalty, and the internment and mistreatment of Italians in England during WWII.  It's a wonderful mesh of issues, history, murder, and mystery.  The characters are fascinating, those for good and those of evil, and through Maggie's research on the criminal mind, we are given questions to ponder about nature and nurture in the people who become killers.   To say The King's Justice holds the reader's interest is a gross understatement.  As Maggie concludes her business and quells her demons, there's the added bonus of having a rather clear idea of where her next adventure will be.  It's going to be hard to wait for the next installment of this exceptional series.

I was given an advanced reader's copy of The King's Justice, and my review is my honest, objective assessment of it.  

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens: Reading Room Review

Sometimes a book comes along that gets it so right and says it so well you know you have to share that book with anyone and everyone.  Nothing More Dangerous by Allen Eskens is such a book.  That it took Eskens over twenty years from the time he first started this story to the time he was ready to give it to the world speaks of the desire to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth in the best possible way.  There is one of my favorite authors who only wrote and published one book in her lifetime, and that book also addressed racism and blind hate and coming of age amongst it.  Nothing More Dangerous is in that league of important books about this subject, and I have placed it next to my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my bookshelf where that revered book sits.  Set in 1976, Nothing More Dangerous is also a timeless story that should also become a staple in classrooms and homes across the country.  It's a reminder that the fight against racism is a never-ending one that requires our constant vigilance.  Forty-three years since the time setting of the book and its relevance is as immediate as ever.

Boady Sanden has lived his whole fifteen years on Frog Hollow Road in Jessup, Missouri in the Ozark Mountain area.  He barely remembers the father who died when he was five-years-old, but his mother has been in a state of sorrow since his dad's passing, which serves as a constant reminder that his father is gone.  Luckily, their neighbor, Hoke Gardner  has been around to teach Boady fishing and other skills a father might have done, and Hoke has been a source of listening and dispensing wisdom, as Boady's mother seems so isolated in her grief.  With no friends and a few bullies at his high school, it's Frog Hollow Road that gives Boady a life where he can be himself and enjoy his surroundings.  However, it's a restless satisfaction with where he lives, as Boady is saving up money from his job at the sheetrock business, down the road from where he lives and where his mother is office manager, to leave it all behind for the big city.  He just needs to turn sixteen and be able to afford an old vehicle he can drive to get away.  He has it planned out and won't be deterred, until he is.

The big old Victorian house across the road from Boady's small house had been empty for several years, but a sudden sprucing up of its interior foretells new neighbors.  Those neighbors are Charles and Emma Elgin and their son Thomas, and their arrival changes everything in Boady's life.  The Elgins are a black family, and not everyone is as welcoming as the residents of Frog Hollow Road.  Charles Elgin is there to take over management of Ryke Plastics, the main employer in the county, due to an embezzlement of funds and a missing female employee suspected of absconding with the money.  The man Charles Elgin is replacing is Cecil Halcomb, and Cecil and his cousins belong to the CORPS, Crusaders of Racial Purity and Strength, so the replacement by a black man is an offense to Halcomb that is not taken lightly.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed to end racial discrimination and hate, but twelve years later in Jessup, Missouri in 1976, Hoke Gardner tells Boady a hard truth, that "you'll never change what a person thinks in their head or what they feel in their heart by passing a law."  Frog Hollow Road, in the summer of 1976 becomes a microcosm of the best and the worst of humanity, as friendship between Boady and Thomas grows into their families being close, and the CORPS-minded people of Jessup make their hate known.  Boady must decide if he should or can take a stand against those whose minds and hearts are poisoned by hate. 

Although this narrative is clearly a coming-of-age story for a white teenager named Boady Sanden, and we closely follow the changes in him through the first person POV, it is a story of change and coming to terms with one's identity for several of the other characters in the book, too.  Layers.  It's the layers that make the story even richer.  Boady's mother Emma; Emma's employer, Wally Schenicker;  Hoke Gardner; and Thomas Elgin all have a summer that will forever affect their lives.  And, there's the mystery of Lida Poe's disappearance and how it ties into the events of that fateful summer.  The title of the book, Nothing More Dangerous, is part of a Martin Luther King quote and states the essence of the book perfectly.  "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  Boady Sanden and his friend Thomas Elgin come face to face with that danger, and the world as Boady knew it is forever changed.  

Nothing More Dangerous is a giant of a book in only 291 pages.  It will stay with you, not only in thinking about your best reads, but in thinking about how you should live.  Books of this magnitude should be read, shared, and discussed across the classrooms of America, in the book clubs of every sort, and at the table of family dinners.  Words matter, and Allen Eskens' words in this book can serve to caution us and to guide us, to spur us on to be better people and make a better world. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Lucky One by Lori Rader-Day: Reading Room Review

Lori Rader-Day writes original stories.  In fact, she is one of my favorite Masters of originality, along with a select group of authors who are masters at writing stand-alone stories that readers will never have read the likes of before.  A few of her contemporaries in this group that I also love are Catriona McPherson, Lou Berney. and Jane Harper.  Lori Rader-Day has made her mark in just five years and five books, and although I realize that she has been involved in writing longer than that with shorter fiction, she has become a major force in mystery/crime fiction in pretty short order, and that's quite an accomplishment.  I know when I open a book by Lori, I am entering a place I never expected to be, right along with some of her characters.  And, those characters bring a uniqueness to the stories, not in a loud, showy way, but they are the extraordinary ordinary of life.  The twists and turns of making sense of their existence reveal how complex the seeming ordinary can be.  The layers of what brought the characters to their defining moments are rich with the unexpected.  The Lucky One is this author's fifth book, and it will no doubt receive awards and award nominations like her others.  Readers respond with much deserved adulation when a book is special, and The Lucky One is perhaps Lori Rader-Day's most special book yet, with its deep twisting plot and the layered revelations its characters experience.

Alice Fine works for her father in the construction business he co-owns in Chicago, and she doesn't have much of a life otherwise.  No friends, an ex-fiancĂ©e, and a lone hobby that doesn't require interaction with others.  That hobby is an odd choice for a hobby, but it's one that has a personal connection for Alice.  She belongs to an online group called the Doe Pages, people who post about those who have vanished, from missing persons being posted to unidentified remains being found somewhere.  The "Does" try to find information on the missing and sometimes to match up the remains to the missing .  It's not the most cheerful way to spend time, but for Alice, it's a mission.  She was kidnapped as a child and rescued by her father, who was a cop at the time.  She wants everyone who's missing a loved one to have a happy ending, but if they can't, she wants them to have resolution.  Although she herself never had the resolution of knowing who her kidnapper was or knowing he had been caught, she feels lucky that she was that rare victim who was rescued in a matter of hours.  Of course, she knows even the lucky ones suffer from fall-out, as her family had to move from their small town in Indiana to Chicago, her father changed careers, and her mother was never whole again before she died. 

Alice's uneventful world is turned upside down when she sees a picture she recognizes as her kidnapper on the Doe site.  Someone has listed him as missing, and Alice realizes she has a need to find him, to fill in blanks that have surrounded her kidnapping all her life and to bring him to justice for his crime.  As it happens, Alice has agreed to meet some of the Does for lunch at a diner, and she ends up confiding in the other two who show up, Juby and Lillian, about her kidnapped past and the discovery of the missing man, Richard Miller, who she remembers as her kidnapper.  With Lillian being a researcher of some success for the Doe Pages and Juby being an enthusiastic force, as well as Lillian's friend, Alice enlists their aid in finding Richard Miller.  She says nothing to her father because she wants to be sure of what she's doing before getting his hopes up.    

Lillian's research gets them started in Milwaukee, where they go and find their first clues.  But, their search will take them back to several towns in Indiana, including the town where Alice lived when she was kidnapped, Victorville.  They also meet another person in their searching, Merrily Cruz, and Merrily is looking for Richard or Rick, as she calls him, too.  But, Merrily has a different reason than Alice to find Rick.  He had been a father figure of sorts to Merrily and involved with her mother, so she's worried about his safety, and she has questions about why he disappeared from their lives so long ago.  It seems both Alice and Merrily are looking to close gaps in their lives so that they can move forward.  Merrily becomes involved in the group's search, with her memories adding to the growing information about Rick.  Merrily's story is as relevant and important as Alice's, and Lori Rader-Day divides the narrative into alternating chapters from both women, although the narrative might lean a bit more on the side of Alice's telling.  What becomes apparent to both women is that they have lived lives full of secrets and lies, and the dominant parent in each life, Alice's father and Merrily's mother, have answers that they keep locked inside.  Fortunately, both women, along with Juby and Lillian, are resourceful.  Of course, with answers there will come new danger, and the players in the shadows are ruthless in their dedication to keeping sleeping dogs asleep.

The Lucky One is a cold case with a burning fervor.  The secrets of thirty years, the covered tracks and intricate manipulations are all wonderfully peeled away by the author to reveal a story of deep deception.  Lori Rader-Day is an author who can build the sturdiest of structures and take it apart piece by piece with the smoothest of motion to show the darkness that lies within.  It's a dissembling of the fraud behind the truth, and in The Lucky One, readers will be gobsmacked by the best.

I received an advanced copy of The Lucky One from the publisher, and my review reflects only my own words of praise for an amazing, thrilling read.