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

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Calling (hardcover, $24.00), by Inger Ash Wolfe

Colonel Kilgore loves the smell of napalm in the morning. I love the smell of a good book, with a great character and an interesting story that moves at a steady pace. I think I have the better deal, smellwise. And this smells like a good book.

Hazel Micallef is a 61-year-old temporary -- with no replacement in sight -- commanding officer of a police detachment in a small community north of Toronto. Her back hurts, she takes too many pain pills, and she likes her whiskey a little too much. She is divorced from a man to whom she was wed for thirty-something years when he finally got tired of waiting for her to straighten out her life. Her daughters are a mystery to her, one being newly married and the other newly abandoned. In turnabout roles, Hazel suspects it is her ex-husband who supplies what should be the maternal succor to their daughters, while she stands at a distance, failing to find the empathy they need.

To replace these losses, Hazel has moved her mother out of her retirement community to live with her. Oil and water come to mind. Emily Micallef is the former mayor of their community. She is full of piss and vinegar and delights in it. Their relationship sparkles under Wolfe's touch. The whole of Hazel's life sparkles under Wolfe's touch. Hazel is crusty, ornery, touchy, funny, tough and vulnerable, and I defy you not to like her.

Into their rural little world, in which most everybody knows everybody else, comes the death of one of their own in circumstances so strange that this provoked a little "X-Files" thrill running down my back. An elderly woman is found dead in her immaculate house, dressed in her Sunday best. She has been poisoned, her throat has been cut, and the murderer has removed her blood. In case exsanguination is not bizarre enough, there are other strange findings that come to light later. In her typical bull-headed way, Hazel plows ahead to determine if there is a serial killer on the loose and, if so, who could be the next victim.

The plot does not race forward because Wolfe gradually develops the reader's understanding of both the killer and the ensemble police force. All the other characters Wolfe brings in are interesting. Some may not share the stage for any length of time, but in a sentence or a paragraph, the reader will know them. It's a small town picture that is outgrowing its frame, and Wolfe describes it with wit and care.

Apparently Wolfe is a pseudonym. Apparently the writer is a man. The www is available to all who choose to pursue this thread. I do think it is difficult for a male to write a resonant three-dimensional female character, as is the reverse. In this case I say, point-of-view, schmoint-of-view, Wolfe has done an exceedingly excellent job of creating both a fine story and a fine set of characters.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Cleaner ($6.99), by Brett Battles

What it is not: It is not related to the A&E TV show; it is not The Faithful Spy, by Alex Berenson. The former is about someone helping to clean up addicts. The latter is an astonishing and thought-provoking modern day spy thriller.

Now for what it is. It is very visual. I think Hollywood is just a couple steps behind with a movie contract. There are car chases, explosions, and gunshots galore. There are all the modern spy threats: high tech, terrorist, and biological. There's a stalwart pro, a true love, and a tag-along "intern." And, of course, everyone's loyalty is questioned.

"Jonathan Quinn" is a "cleaner" for "The Office." If there were a picture of me accompanying this review, I'd be doing a Monty Python nudge, nudge, wink, wink. The freelance operative known as "Quinn" hires out to clean up after assignments. He doesn't normally kill anyone; he just figures out what to do with the bodies. He can also manage operations and skulk and shadow with the best of them. Speaking of shadows, The Office is a shadowy operation that may or may not be government related. Quinn likes to believe it is a deep level operation that helps the good guys.

One day everything goes wrong and Quinn and many other similar operatives are themselves targeted for disposal. Gathering together the aforementioned true love and intern, Quinn sets out to find out what the hell is going on. Car chases, explosions, gunshots, high tech threats, terrorist threats, and biological threats ensue. The end.

The final what it is: It is a movie script that is entertaining without being deep or demanding.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Heartsick ($7.99), by Chelsea Cain


Although the author writes a humorous, personal, quirky, and charming column for The Oregonian newspaper, this is no polite, girly chitchat kind of novel. Her book is over the edge -- and it’s a hard edge -- and graphically gory. However, Cain’s trademark humor is present in the character of Susan Ward, tough-but-vulnerable girl reporter.

First, let me say it is creepy in extremis to live in the city (Portland) that Cain details without much disguise as the setting for her gore-fest. She names actual high schools, drives down actual streets, and plants her bodies where I’ve heretofore happily walked. The only element safely pseudonym-ed is The Oregonian, as “The Herald.”

Punky Susan, with her pink pigtails, ratty jeans, and grab-‘em-by-the-fleshy-parts style of journalism launches into a story about a police detective, Archie Sheridan, who is returning from an extended medical leave to catch the serial killer of teenage girls.

Archie was on medical leave because he was tortured by the last serial killer he tried to catch. In that case the beautiful Gretchen Lowell defeated the police task force’s attempts to define and capture her. Instead she caught one of the catchers. She claimed to have killed 200 people, and Archie was to be her pièce de resistance: the filet mignon in her gourmet spread, the electric jolt that sent Frankenstein’s monster reeling into the night, her Oprah “aha” moment, the … oh, you get the idea.

The how of Archie’s survival, if I may use that word, slowly unfolds. What Archie learned during his ordeal about the dark side of human nature he applies to his present hunt. Someone is stealing young girls from the streets of Portland, raping and murdering them, then carelessly tossing them back.

With the permission of Archie and the police department, Susan is interviewing people to tell the story of Archie’s torture and weaving it into his hunt for the new serial killer. She brings her own baggage to the assignment, and Cain excels in creating this feisty, eccentric, and very human character.

The payoff for the reader is that there are twists and there are TWISTS in the plot. There is even a twist on the title. It is excruciating to wait for each revelation and surprise. Even when the plot finally takes a vaguely conventional turn, Cain torques it up even then.

Not surprisingly, Heartsick has earned Carolyn’s gold star. It is heartrendingly good.

Be forearmed and forewarned: If you come into the store and exclaim, “Oh, a novel by that cute and funny Chelsea Cain,” don’t be surprised if I give you the graphic warning alert before I “allow you” to buy it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Night Ferry ($7.99), by Michael Robotham

This is the third book in a loosely connected series written by Robotham. This time the point of view is that of Alisha Barba, a police detective in London. She is Sikh, a female, unmarried -- much to her mother's consternation -- and recovering from severe injuries incurred in Lost, Robotham's last book.

Ali's best friend from her teenage years, Cate, contacts her after years of estrangement. Unfortunately, soon after their reunion, Cate is killed. Ali suspects that her death is not accidental. Although Ali is still recovering from her injuries and is in limbo at the police department, she doesn't hesitate to become involved in figuring out why Cate has asked her for help. We gradually learn the reason for the estrangement and it is part of the personal mix that drives Ali.

This is the second book I've read within the last week dealing with human trafficking. The first one was Siren of the Waters by Michael Genelin, set in Slovakia. The Night Ferry is set in England and Amsterdam. Both deal with people, especially young women, from countries under siege whose limited options in their own countries force them to take chances to better their lives. Sometimes it is not even a choice that they make, sometimes they are just stolen away from right under the noses of a careless, uncaring, or corrupt government.

Ali eventually meets a young woman from Afghanistan, Samira, who holds the key to why Cate is dead. Ali is assisted by "New Boy" Dave, her earnest non-Sikh boyfriend, and Ruiz, her former mentor. The very serious, and sometimes brutal, story gains shape and velocity. The occasional humorous and warm glimpse into Sikh family life adds to the tale without slowing it down. Robotham creates a thrilling and surprising story with this international mish-mash of characters.

Robotham does especially well in creating the character of Ali Barba. She is tough because a police detective has to be and because an Indian Sikh growing up in a British public school must be. She is vulnerable to her family and to the possibility of a solid, lasting relationship with the importunate Dave. She is a stubborn, abrupt, loyal, intriguing character whom you would want on your side in a fight.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Another Man's Moccasins (hardcover, $24.95), by Craig Johnson

Johnson is a teaser. He drops tantalizing little bits into his narrative and doesn’t explain them until way later. What’s an FBI? What is Virgil White Buffalo’s story? What is the rest of Virgil White Buffalo’s story? Thankfully, he doesn’t forget to reel in all the strings of thought he drops.

Walt Longmire is sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming. I’d vote for him. He’s the kind of sheriff who could track a killer on the one hand and rescue a cat on the other. His sidekick is artist/Cheyenne/lifelong friend/fellow Vietnam vet Henry Standing Bear, aka “Cheyenne Nation,” “Bear,” “the big guy.” His daughter Cady suffered a serious injury in the last book, Kindness Goes Unpunished, and has come home temporarily from Philadelphia to recuperate. Vic, Longmire’s unrepentant and foul-mouthed deputy, challenges Walt to face squarely a continuation of the interesting romantic relationship that began in Philadelphia. Or not.

Insert into this already busy mix of living people the dead body of a young Vietnamese woman, a prostitute and petty criminal, found along a long, lonesome stretch of Wyoming road, far from her life in Vietnam and Orange County, California. The ultimate teaser, of course, is what the heck is she doing in Wyoming with a picture of Walt, taken thirty years ago in Vietnam, in her purse. Part of Another Man’s Moccasins is the story of another murder Marine Inspector Walt Longmire dealt with a lifetime ago in Vietnam. The narrative goes back and forth between then and now. Johnson has said that the Vietnam story is one that has been bubbling in his head for a long time.

The element in Johnson’s writing that has us, his diehard fans, eagerly awaiting the next book is his ability to form an emotional connection between us and his characters. His heroes and heroines know sacrifice and honor and courage, and he lets us ride along vicariously as they consciously choose the difficult path. With each bittersweet ending, we are wrapped that much tighter to his world. Not to mention he’s funny.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard, as the saying goes. The humor in Johnson’s books is not slapstick, broad, satirical, or farcical, but benevolent. A bewildered Longmire often finds himself the subject of affectionate humor from his near and dear. In turn, Longmire sings selections from his repertoire of “Ruby” songs to his dispatcher, Ruby, over the police band. Longmire’s dog has been given the placeholder name of “Dog,” while Walt waits to be inspired with a better name. Unfortunately, Walt fears, the time for a real name has come and gone, as “Dog” now answers quite readily to his placeholder name. Oh, well.

The first book in this series, A Cold Dish, is on Murder by the Book’s list of favorite books of the last 25 years.

Thistle and Twigg ($6.99), by Mary Saums

I am a big fan of Mrs. Pollifax (Dorothy Gilman's wonderful creation -- an older woman who yearns for excitement and winds up working for the CIA) and have been sad that there hasn't been a Mrs. P book in a long time. To fill the void is, I hope, a new series by Mary Saums.

Mrs. Thistle is a 67-year-old widow with a surprising background which is slowly revealed to us. She retires to a little town in Alabama, where she meets Mrs. Twigg, a 65-year-old widow who is sassily southern.

A lazy author will say the protagonist is good at something, while a worthy author will show us why. Ms. Saums shows us why. Her characters surprised me more than once with their unexpected wit and wisdom.

Mix together southern sass, a cozy small-town atmosphere, two very different ladies of a certain age, ghosts, Native American spiritualism, big guns, a Molotov cocktail, and Thistle and Twigg makes a pretty entertaining and unpredictable read!

[Mighty Old Bones, the newest Thistle & Twigg mystery, is now available in hardcover ($23.95).]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Siren of the Waters (hardcover, $24), by Michael Genelin

Slovakia. Very few of us know anything about this country that emerged from the dissolution of the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Jana Matinova is a police officer who began her job under Communist rule and who has emerged with her job intact after the political change to a more overtly capitalist state. She is our tour guide and her story, both present and past, illuminates the difficulty of life in this part of the world. The capital city of Bratislava, still recovering from decades of a bleak and impoverished existence, is the host to the murder of a group of people suspected of being involved in human trafficking. According to this novel, Bratislava is at the crossroads for international illegal activity. As the bodies begin to pile up in several countries, Inspector Matinova must assiduously unravel the structure of the organizations struggling for dominance in the lucrative business of prostitutes and black market goods.

I assume from the dust jacket information that Genelin is an American and a native English speaker. I mention this because I think there is a difference in books about foreign cultures written by an English speaker versus a translated book written by someone born to that culture. Genelin writes for an audience that needs to be tutored in the impact Communism has had on ordinary lives. He points out things that a Slovakian wouldn't need to mention to his audience, but that an American would need to know. The bantering one-ups-manship between Matinova and her fellow investigator Levitin, a Russian, is humorous and made accessible to us.

Through the tale of a young Matinova, Genelin gives us the drama of what must be personally sacrificed in order to survive. Matinova's husband is an agitator against the Communists. Matinova, as a police officer, is a de jure representative of the state. Their young daughter Katka is caught in the situation her parents have regrettably created. Their tale, an out-of-control spiraling away from each other, is moving and powerful.

The present-day Matinova serendipitously runs into the man who has married her long-estranged daughter. There is a granddaughter and Matinova longs to see her. Thus, concurrent tales run about Matinova's murder cases and about what caused Matinova's estrangement from her daughter.

Jana Matinova is an attractive character. She is a passionate young wife, a devoted mother, an intelligent and hardworking police officer, and a person whose years of seeing the worst of her society has not undermined her ability to hope and care. Genelin has allowed his readers to understand an area of the world hidden from Western eyes for a long time.

Because I liked the book so much, I requested Michael Genelin for a signing. He will be at Murder by the Book (3210 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, 503-232-9995) on October 23, 2008, at 6:30 p.m.