Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Blue Heaven, by C. J. Box ($7.99)

C. J. Box is better known for his series about Joe Pickett, a game warden in Wyoming. Blue Heaven is a standalone but shares many qualities with his Pickett series.

Annie and William, a 12-year-old sister and 10-year-old brother, witness the murder of one stranger by several other strangers. On the run, they soon learn that the people they thought they could trust are their enemies. Roaming rural Idaho, they look for someone to help them, and luckily for them (and us) they stumble across Jess Rawlins.

Think Gary Cooper. Strong and silent. Not one to gossip or gander. Jess is very similar to Joe Pickett in that regard, but Jess is an older, maybe not so much wiser version of Joe. It takes almost until the end of the book to learn about Jess, his isolation, and his grief. Jess shows himself to be a man of integrity and grit as he meets each challenge to help the children survive.

Add to the cast a retired police detective, Eduardo Villatoro, from a town near L.A., who has flown into Jess, Annie, and William's small town in Idaho to follow a lead on his one unsolved case as a detective, a robbery of immense proportions at the local race track.

Box works hard to make his characters three-dimensional. Even some of the bad guys have their moments of illumination. One of the aspects of the Pickett books I find endearing is the way Box depicts children. Some authors either tend to make children too precocious or they are nothing more than stage props. Annie and William are real children. Jess is someone you might have as your neighbor -- if you raised cattle in Idaho. Villatoro is defined in small and large ways: He is disgusted that people cannot pronounce his last name correctly, he loves his wife, he is excited as a schoolboy when the trail heats up.

Box is great at creating the sympathetic, but not melodramatic, situation. Jess is on the verge of losing the ranch that has been in his family for generations because of issues facing real cattle ranchers. Villatoro is an L.A. fish out of Idaho water and flounders a little before he gets his bearings. In a beautiful passage, Villatoro asks about a mountain in the distance. Jess goes on about the history of the mountain and events he remembers taking place there, putting the mountain in perspective to the community. Villatoro says that's his problem in Idaho: When he looks at the mountain, all he sees is the mountain; Jess sees a part of his life.

It is because of those big and small touches that I love C. J. Box's books. I am a bigger fan of the Pickett books, but Blue Heaven was a nice change of pace.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hush My Mouth, by Cathy Pickens ($6.99)

I have been waiting for a charming, well-written, well-paced book with a contemporary female character who is intelligent, funny, and lives in a small town in South Carolina. I think I found it.

Avery Andrews stars in this fourth book in Pickens's series. Avery is an attorney who has given up life in the big city with a big law office for the familiar terra firma of her childhood. She is struggling to establish a general practice with what she fears are the dregs that other lawyers in town refuse to handle. To extend what little money she has, she has taken to renting both home and office in a former mortuary. As part of her rental agreement, she is also the handy(wo)man for the rambling ex-mortuary/mansion.

The main story may be about a woman trying to locate her missing foster sister, but the really interesting stuff is about Avery's new secretary, her imperturbable investigator, her debonair older landlord (a la Kinsey Millhone), and the fix-it tips related to her home repair. As a bonus, Pickens interprets the South for us non-southerners without creating a parody.

Friday, December 5, 2008

12 Best for 2008 -- The rest of them . . .

The rest of the titles picked were reviewed previously in this blog. They are: Big City, Bad Blood, by Sean Chercover; The Chicago Way, by Michael Harvey; The Night Ferry, by Michael Robotham; Calumet City, by Charlie Newton; The Spellman Files, by Lisa Lutz; In the Woods, by Tana French; and Heartsick, by Chelsea Cain.

12 Best for 2008 - The Song Is You, by Megan Abbott (trade, $14)

[This is Nick's second pick.]

Two years ago, Hollywood starlet Jean Spangler disappeared, leaving only her purse and a mysterious note addressed to "Kirk" as evidence. Two years ago, Gil "Hop" Hopkins helped cover up the trails stemming from Jean Spangler's disappearance, including the hint that "Kirk" was none other than leading man Kirk Douglas, and turned Jean Spangler into a sexy, jaded young woman who sought out danger and found more than she could handle that night. For his efforts Hopkins was promoted. End of story? Not on your life.

Hop was there that night and knows more than most about what could have happened to Jean Spangler. And so was Iolene -- beautiful, black, and acutely aware of how vulnerable a combination that is in 1940s Hollywood. Iolene had asked Hop to stick around that night, sensing the danger she and Jean were in. And now she's asking questions, which force Hop to uncover old trails he himself had covered up and he doesn't even know why. Is he trying to solve a murder he's not certain was committed? Or is he trying to keep a murder hidden in order to satisfy his job description? And when Hop confesses in a drunken pity party to pretty, petite, freshman reporter Frannie Adair, he realizes he's not the only one who's going to be digging in the past. With Frannie Adair sniffing around, how can Hopkins learn the truth while keeping her in the dark, and more importantly, what will it mean if he succeeds?

In the vein of "The Black Dahlia" and "Hollywoodland," This Song Is You lays bare the 1940s Hollywood movie star machine as it grinds out its victims -- both physical and moral. And like the others, it is based on the true Hollywood scandal -- the disappearance of Jean Spangler. Written with impeccable style, The Song Is You is one of three noir masterpieces propelling Megan Abbott to the top of the heap. Fans of James Ellroy, James Cain, Jim Thompson -- but definitely not James Michener -- will adore Megan Abbott and her cast of Hollywood wannabe stars and cynical studio hatchetmen.

12 Best for 2008 - The Snitch Jacket, by Christopher Goffard (trade, $14.95)

[This is one of Nick's two picks for 2008.]

Benny Bunt is a low-life. He deals and uses drugs; he drives a Schwinn to work where he washes dishes ... or used to before the hairy Greek man who runs the high-end Mexican restaurant caught him slipping Ex-Lax into a customer's chorizo and fired him; he's a confidential informant (rat, fink, snitch) for a cop named Munoz who busted him trying to sell weed at a Little League game; and his eyes are set too close together. Benny rats on his friends because they are even lower than he is, and the one universal truth, according to Benny, is that everyone despises anyone who is lower than he is.

Enter Gus "Mad Dog" Miller -- ex-con, ex-black-ops, with the tattoos and lack of impulse control to prove it -- and his half-blind, psychic dog Jesse James. Mad Dog is now the bouncer at Benny's favorite hangout, the Greasy Tuesday, and Benny wants despeartely to be his friend. This professional low-life snitch wants to be trusted by a guy who has no problem sticking a guy with the jagged end of a broken pool cue simply for being disrespectful. What could possibly go wrong? Well, Mad Dog could ask Benny to help him with a contract killing ... for starters.

Written skillfully and humorously and with a fearless attitude toward the English language, Snitch Jacket will appeal to those who like their fiction to have that truthful stink, that unwashed, serrated edge that makes every line of every page cut that much deeper.

12 Best of 2008 - An Ice Cold Grave, by Charlaine Harris ($7.99)

[This is one of Jean's picks for the year. Here is her review.]

The prolific Charlaine Harris has long been a favorite. I started with her series about small town Southern librarian-turned-realtor Aurora Teagarden and enjoyed them all. I stuck a toe in the Lily Bard series (set in Shakespeare, Arkansas) and thought they were just fine. When she introduced Sookie Stackhouse, the mind-reading, vampire-loving heroine of her best known series (and the inspiration for the HBO series �True Blood), I was hesitant at first but they grew on me. In her latest series with Harper Connelly, she combines some of my favorite elements found in the other books (quirky main character, Southern setting and just enough of the supernatural thrown in to be intriguing) and gets the mix just right.

Harper Connelly -- first introduced in Grave Sight -- has what you might call a strange job: She finds dead people. Ever since she was struck by lightning as a child, she has been able to not only locate dead bodies but discover how they died. Hired to find a missing teenager in Doraville, North Carolina, Harper soon realizes that she has discovered the fate of not one boy, but of several who have disappeared over the course of five years. Harper is stunned by her discovery and is reluctantly drawn into investigating the most painful case she has encountered. I do recommend that readers start with the first book in the series, so you can get to know Harper right from the beginning.

12 Best for 2008 - What the Dead Know, by Laura Lippman ($7.99)

[This is the second of Carolyn's picks for the year. Here is her review.]

Lippman's stand-alone novels, for example, To the Power of Three, have often been more powerful than her always enjoyable Tess Monaghan series. This novel, however, is in a league all its own, a cagey impostor story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end of the book. Of course, when the revelation comes, it makes perfect sense and has been hiding all the time in plain sight.

When a woman involved in a highway accident is questioned, she eventually claims to be Heather Bethany, one of two teenage sisters last seen at a mall in 1975. OK, but where's she been and why did they disappear? Her story is layered and indistinct, told in several different time periods and always with exceptional detail. We find out what happened to their parents in their grief following the sisters� disappearance, what the girls� own history and relationship were like, how they spent their last known day together, and how furiously their case was investigated � all are seamlessly presented without a wasted word. All of the characters, from their mother to the retired policeman who tried heroically to find them, are fully formed and believable. This exceptional work also easily earned Carolyn's gold star. (For another book with similar qualities, try Carol O'Connells The Judas Child.)

12 Best of 2008 - The Black Path, by Asa Larsson (trade, $12)

[This is one of Carolyn's three picks for the year. Here is her review.]

This remarkable book, easily winning my gold star, is third in a projected series of six, the first of which was Sun Storm, all featuring Swedish police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and Attorney Rebecka Martinsson. Mella is a well-adjusted family woman, while Martinsson is rather alone in the world and is recovering from an attack on her life.

The story picks up with the discovery of a dead woman, eventually found to be a key employee in a mining company with interests world wide, on a frozen lake in northern Sweden. Who would want her dead? Her boss, set to expand operations in Africa? Her brother, always needing her affection and his employer�s money? And why has a brilliant artist packed away her oils to live in her magnate step-brother�s attic? As the book heads to a stunning conclusion, Larsson�s genius emerges while the reader grasps � of course! of course! � the implications of all that is by now known. Still not content, Larsson goes on, in a brief epilogue, to satisfy all those who both long for respite after such suspense and all those who hunger for a taste of the future.