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

Friday, September 14, 2012

Fortune's Last Descent, by Audrey Braun ($14.95)

Audrey Braun takes great care with her descriptions. Most of the book takes place in Zurich and a small village in France. Her scenes are evocatively drawn; food, chatter, and light build a sensory base. We are lost when Celia Hagen is lost. We mourn the missing child when Celia does. We jump to our feet, too, when Celia can no longer stand another authority figure doing nothing. But Celia faces her terror alone.

One would have thought that Celia had lived a lifetime's worth of sorrow in A Small Fortune. But, no. Now her eight-year-old son, Benny, has disappeared from the train in which they were traveling. She slowly comes to believe that the authorities think she had something to do with it. She thinks her companion, Benecio, is deceiving her. Only her 24-year-old son, Oliver, is steadfast in his support. This is the same son that in the first book was so dismissive of her in all his teenage wisdom.

We know from the first book that Celia can do what needs doing. She finds her strength once again, shakes off the people who want to contain her, and stubbornly begins the search for her son.

A dilly of a thriller.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Trinity Game, by Sean Chercover ($14.95)

When last seen, Sean Chercover was the author of a tremendous, award-winning, two-book private eye series set in Chicago (Big City, Bad Blood and Trigger City). His latest is a thriller, with the Catholic church, bogus evangelical preachers, possible miracles, and assassins.

Danny Byrne is a priest who works on investigating miracles on behalf of the Vatican. He is also the nephew of hellfire-and-damnation preacher, Tim Trinity. When Danny was old enough to realize Trinity was a fraud, he ran away and joined the Catholic church. He left behind not just his life in New Orleans, but the love of his life, Julia Rothman, currently a reporter.

After working a nettlesome case in which a miracle turns out to be fradulent, Danny's perspicacity is "rewarded" by the equivalent of a paper-pushing job in the darkest and most boring place that the church can find. Sometimes, certain people maintain, a miracle should be certified for the general good of the cause. 

Danny is rescued by his mentor to work one particular case, which might put Danny back in everyone's good graces. This time there's no mistaking his instruction: find out how the fraud is being committed. The perpetrator: Danny's uncle Tim.

After Hurricane Katrina, Tim moved to Atlanta, and the tenor of his sermons changed. He began speaking in tongues in a way that was different than he had before. Upon analysis (by people with nothing better to do?), it is discovered that if you run the tongues speeches backwards and speed it up by a third, it sounds like Tim Trinity speaking in a normal voice, a trick that, linguistically speaking, is impossible, according to this book. Furthermore, what he is saying turns out to be predictions -- with a smattering of helpful cooking advice -- on weather, horse races, disasters. Is Tim God, the Messiah, Satan, a human fissure in space? Danny is determined to find out how Tim is ginning his believers.

Danny is back in the South, back in touch with the lovely and conveniently single Julia, and face-to-face with the man he once adored and now despises, the Reverend Tim Trinity. The bottom line is something's got to give, and Chercover's book is about what turns and turns in the widening gyre.

Chercover is a good storyteller, and I was entertained by this book, but I REALLY liked the Ray Dudgeon books. (I gave "Trigger City" a star.) Ray and Daniel are a lot alike. They are honorable and independent thinkers, always the first steps on the road to castigation by the powers-that-be, but Ray's darkness makes him the more compelling character.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch ($7.99)

This is the third book in the Constable Peter Grant series. Normally, an author makes at least a stab at bringing new readers into the fold with a précis of the action so far. Aaronovitch just shoots away with the story, not even bothering to tell us his narrator's name for a bit. So, because I enjoyed this very entertaining book and want you to read it, too, here's what it's all about, courtesy of the information provided for the first book, Midnight Riot:

"My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England. Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden . . . and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair. The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying."

POTENTIAL SPOILERS: Here are some other tips: Peter is bi-racial, but bi-racial what, I don't know. There's a reference to "Kambia," so perhaps there's a link to Sierra Leone? Leslie May's face fell off -- :( -- in a prior book in a magic encounter gone awry.

Ah, magic.

About a year ago Peter discovered that magic existed. He was a plod in the police who suddenly found himself Harry-Potterized as an apprentice wizard. He quietly investigates supernatural happenings: ghosts, goblins, faeries, magic spells. His expertise is called upon when a body is discovered in a London subway tunnel. There's something goofy afoot, and when Peter examines the body, he gets a tingle that signifies a magical interference. The victim, an American, had been stabbed with a shard of magical pottery.

You have to have guessed that there's a sense of humor at work here. At one point Peter is talking to an FBI agent, who sarcastically asks if he finds the murder of an American citizen funny. Peter says, "I was tempted to tell her it was because we were British and actually had a sense of humor." Ooo, snap.

Although Lesley's magical affliction sounds gruesome and debilitating, this is not a gruesome book and she remains an important part of the book. I was charmed by this adult-themed wizardy wonderfulness. Obviously, though, it's better if you read  the first book first.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig ($7.99)

Note: This is a review by Chuck Caruso of MBTB:

Chuck Wendig's Blackbirds stands out as one of my favorite novels so far this year. To be fair, it's probably not everybody's cup of hot arterial blood, but if you like your novels down-and-dirty, pedal-to-the-metal, and still thought-provoking, you can't miss with this novel.

The Premise -- Wrestling with the question of fate versus freewill is as ancient as the Greeks and as timeless as Shakespeare, but you'll notice that we've never actually solved this particular problem. Add in a protagonist who can foresee the future, and you've got all the working materials of classic myth. Wendig makes these old conundrums fresh with his lively prose and his knack for contemporary grit.

The Prose -- This author can flat out write. There's nary a wasted word in the novel. The nouns sing brightly and the athletic verbs leap from the page. Ray Bradbury would have loved Wendig's effervescent prose style. You will too.

The Protagonist -- Miriam Black is the most troubled, sexiest, spookiest clarivoyant you'd ever hope to meet in a novel. Her struggles with her gift-curse and the problems it causes her in relation to others makes Miriam a girl you'd never want to meet in real life, but vicariously through a book, her character is as compellilng as they come.

Rampant, Greeful Mayhem -- From midnight strolls along the interstate, to bar room brawls, to visits from thuggish people carrying FBI badges, you never know what's going to happen from one page to the next. This ups the ante in the fate versus freewill contest because Miriam has already seen the deaths of anyone she's touched. And fate always wins, right?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Shake Off, by Micha Hiller (hardcover, $24.99)

Stunning and moving.

We never learn the real name of the protagonist of this spy novel, mostly set in 1989 England. He is variously Michel Anton, Roberto Levi, Michel Khoury, but mostly just Michel. And it doesn't matter what his name is, because that is not what defines him when the story begins.

When Michel was very young, his family was destroyed in a raid and massacre on his Palestinian camp in Lebanon. He escaped, was sheltered by a foster family, and began training to be a spy, recruited by a mysterious -- but apparently prominent man -- he knew only as Abu Leila.

Cultivated by Abu Leila, a distant surrogate father, Michel has learned many languages, to pick locks, defend himself, shoot a gun, pick out surveillance, and perform other classic spy moves we've learned about in novels about the Cold War. Michel never questions what he is asked to do on behalf of the Palestinian cause. He mostly pretends to be a student in England, although he has had other identities. Now he mostly transfers documents from a courier to Abu Leila in Germany.

Then he is asked to hunt up a property in which representatives of the Palestinians and the Israelis can meet to discuss creating one country in which all factions can live. This is his most significant task to date.

For most of the years since Michel was rescued from the burning camp, he has lived a disciplined and lonely life. He needs codeine to sleep and keep away the waking nightmares. Meticulously executing his spycraft, he only dreams of one day establishing some normal relationships. Then he meets Helen.

Helen gives him a different perspective on life. Although their relationship is not without difficulties, Michel finds himself wanting more out of life than what he has had so far. Of course, this is when things start to go wonky. Suddenly, Michel becomes the focus of both Mossad and PLO agents. He doesn't know whom he should trust. Even Helen could be an agent.

Hiller does an excellent job describing the build-up and break-down of a spy, the political world in 1989, and the confusing covert world in which Michel finds himself.

By the way, Hiller never actually states the time period. He gives hints: Gorbachev and glasnost, the first democratic elections in the Soviet Union, the imminent demise of the Berlin Wall, and the fact that it's getting harder to smoke in public.

I've given Shake Off an MBTB star.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Three-Day Affair, by Michael Kardos (hardcover, $24)

This is a college boy's story, all grown up. As a matter of fact, college friends reunite periodically. Three of the four are successful financially; one -- Will -- is happy but struggling. Eight years after graduating from Princeton, they reunite again in Will's small town to play golf and reminisce. Then one of them kidnaps a cashier from a convenience store, confesses he's broke and his wife is cheating, and has a gigantic meltdown. One of the others is a candidate for the U.S. House and can't afford scandal. Instead of returning the girl immediately, they hesitate in order to "think" things over.

Twists and turns ensue. This is a short story with good padding. The basic story is clever, the writing is solid, and if the actors are worth their salt, it will make a good movie.