Category: Mystery Review (page 1 of 4)

#BookBeginnings If I Die Tonight: A Novel by Alison Gaylin

The 2019 Edgar award winners were announced this week and I’m featuring the best paperback original If I Die Tonight: A Novel by Alison Gaylin for  Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

If I Die Tonight: A Novel by Alison Gaylin

 

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:   Aging pop star Aimee En tells the police that a teenager stole her car and used it to run down a local high school football player named Liam Miller. As Miller’s life hangs in the balance, social media portrays Liam as a hero and the suspected car thief Wade Reed as a deranged killer. But are things that simple?

Beginning:

Five days earlier

In bed late at night with her laptop, Jackie Reed sometimes forgot there were others in the house. That’s how quiet it was here, with these hushed boys of hers, always with their heads down, with their shuffling footsteps and their padded sneakers, their muttered greetings, their doors closing behind them.

Discussion:

According to the blurb, the story’s told from multiple points of view. That may explain why the beginning is from Wade Reed’s mother’s point of view.

I think some of you may have already reviewed this. Did you like it?

Have you read anything by Alison Gaylin? Would you like to read this one?

 

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny Review

Time to share thoughts about Louise Penny’s newest novel, Kingdom of the Blind.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary: How do you summarize a complex novel like this one? Here’s the gist:

A stranger has named Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be one of the executors of her will, Still suspended because of an investigation in a case that went wrong months before, Gamache agrees to accept the task as a way to keep occupied. What would seem to be a straightforward duty becomes troublesome, however, when he sees the bizarre terms of the will.

As if that weren’t enough, the case that got him suspended rears its ugly head again and he must track down missing drugs and work to clear his name while at the same time figuring out who murdered one of the heirs.

Read the Acknowledgements For Kingdom of the Blind First

I really wish I had read the acknowledgments before starting the book — they are at the end– because they inform the reading so much. It turns out Louise Penny based her main character Armand Gamache on her husband Michael. In a few sad, wry, warm, stunning paragraphs she reveals how she thought the series was over when her husband passed away. He had been her muse and he was gone.

What happened next is an inspiration to writers. She discovered it is possible to keep writing and even find joy in it. You need to read it in her words, though. Truly a message for the ages.

Throw Out The Rules (Or At Least Loosen Them)

As I mentioned previously, Louise Penny has almost an entire shelf in the mystery section at our local bookstore and her books are very popular. To say she is a successful writer is an understatement. Yet, like another mega-bestselling writer Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling), she completely ignores tight/limited third person point of view and blithely “head hops” from character to character, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. From my understanding, the narrator doesn’t feel far enough away from the characters to be truly omniscient, either, so probably would be called third person multiple?

In any case, it appears that third person limited POV is good for beginning writers who have trouble moving from character to character without confusing readers, but masterful writers can loosen up third person point of view successfully and readers seem to prefer it.

Setting, Characters, and Plot

Another reason it is apparent she is a masterful author is that Louise Penny has a wonderful knack with setting (especially her descriptions of snow), is fantastic at developing realistic characters who drive the story, and she knows how to build a complex and believable plot. Many authors can are good at one or two of those. Kudos to Penny for being able to conquer all three.

winter-kingdom-of-the-blind

Public domain image by Larisa Koshkina from Publicdomainpictures.net

#BookBeginnings Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

Today I’m reading Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-Penny

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  How do you summarize a complex novel like this one? Here’s the gist:

A stranger has named Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be one of the executors of her will, along with a bookseller named Myrna Landers and a young builder. Still suspended because of an investigation in a case that went wrong months before, Gamache agrees to accept the task as a way to keep occupied. What would seem to be a straightforward duty becomes troublesome, however, when they read the bizarre terms of the will, which before long leads to murder.

As if that weren’t enough, the case that got him suspended rears its ugly head again and he must track down missing drugs and work to clear his name.

First Sentences of Kingdom of the Blind:

Armand Gamache slowed his car to a crawl, then stopped on the snow-covered secondary road.

This was it, he supposed. Pulling in, he drove between the tall pine trees until he reached the clearing.

There he parked the car and sat in the warm vehicle looking out at the cold day. Snow flurries were hitting the windshield and dissolving.

Discussion:

The Chief Inspector Gamache series are set in Canada, around Québec and Montreal. I love the way she describes the snow and the cold.

Although this copy is from the library, I noticed that Louise Penny has almost an entire shelf to herself at our local bookstore. Her books are very popular.

Do you think it is surprising that the title is Kingdom of the Blind rather that The Kingdom of the Blind?

Have you read any of this series? What do you think?

Celine by Peter Heller Review

Time to jot down a few notes after reading Celine* by Peter Heller.

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:

Private investigator Celine is renowned for her ability to track down missing persons. When a young woman’s father goes missing in Yellowstone Park, Celine leaves the comfort of her apartment in New York City to track him down.

Notes:

Although Celine is older (late 60s) and has emphysema, she still can shoot, drive, and attach tracking devices to suspect’s vehicles with the best of them. Some reviewers say his main character is unrealistic. According to the blurb at Amazon, however, Heller based the main character on his mother, who was actually a private investigator.

How Heller handles the opening set up for the novel is unusual. He reveals the details of the client’s missing father in chapters two through four as a series of conversations between the woman and Celine. Sometimes the dialogue goes back and forth in big blocks of text with a bare minimum of tags. To break things up, he has the young woman leave and send Celine a letter containing some of the facts before they talk again. Even though these chapters are essentially an information dump, the author withholds at times and reveals bits of backstory of characters at times, and thus keeps the reader interested enough to continue reading.  I’m not sure the extended conversation without much action would have been my first choice with a mystery, especially since it duplicates some of the prologue, but overall it worked.

The author’s word selection and descriptions are lovely and you can tell he has an MFA. At times the novel seems to wander into the literary rather than mystery and there is a bit of road trip trope thrown in as well. In fact, the plot/tone feels like a car trip along a long, flat stretch of road with a few stops at cafes or roadside attractions to add surprises along the way.

Best Quote:

Here’s an example of one of the stops, when Celine spots a girl who is crying in front of an art gallery:

Celine reached for the girl’s wet hand, held it. “You, know I have lost three great loves. Loves that could knock the earth off its axis. Truly. Each time I thought my life was over.” The girl as very still, she was listening. “I have finally found the one I’m meant to die with. It’s a love so deep I cannot attempt to fathom it, and I don’t want to. I wish I could have told that to my younger heart-broken self. That everything would work out, more than work out, it would be glorious, So I am telling it to you, One day you will be grateful for this new chapter.”

 

Conclusion:

The fact the traumas occurred in a past (distance), the lack of realistic conflict (Celine confronts some bikers in a bar in a scene that went beyond contrived), and the main characters who rarely make mistakes, it all adds up to make the plot seem flatter than it should have been. A disappointment, given the premise.

 

Public domain photograph by Ken Kistler at PublicDomainPictures.net

#BookBeginnings Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly

Let’s take a look at Michael Connelly’s Dark Sacred Night for Book Beginnings on Fridays.

Book Beginnings is a fun meme hosted by Rose City Reader blog. To participate, share the first sentence or so of a novel you are reading and your thoughts about it. When you are finished, add your URL to the Book Beginnings page linked above. Hope to see you there!

 

book-beginnings-Gershkowitz

Dark Sacred Night* by Michael Connelly

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

Summary:  When Detective Renée Ballard, who works the night shift in Hollywood, runs into retired detective Harry Bosch rummaging through department case files she tells him to leave. Curious, she opens the files and discovers he was digging into in an unsolved murder of a teenage runaway.  What she reads about the case hooks her and soon she reluctantly joins Bosch in  the investigation

First Sentence of Dark Sacred Night:

The patrol officers had left the front door open. They thought they were doing her a favor, airing the place out. But that was a violation of crime scheme protocol regarding evidence containment.

Discussion:

Connelly introduced Renée Ballard as a stand alone character in the novel The Late Show last year.  Now he’s teamed her up with the character of his longest running series, Harry Bosch. I have a feeling sparks are going to fly between the two detectives, but not the romantic kind.

My stepfather introduced me to Michael Connelly. His books stand out as police procedurals because he obviously does his research to keep up with the latest crime fighting techniques.

What do you think? Have you ever read a mystery/police procedural by Michael Connelly?

#amwriting Studying Lethal White

The fourth novel in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, Lethal White, came out last month. The author (actually J.K. Rowling) has shaken up the typical mystery format in this novel. Does it work?

Lethal White* by Robert Galbraith

(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

The typical mystery reveals something about a crime in the prologue or first chapter, usually within the first few pages. In book one of the Cormoran Strike series, Cuckoo’s Calling, Rowling follows the formula when a model dies in essentially the first scene (link is to my review). For this novel, however, she shakes things up. In fact, a crime is not mentioned until after page 40. Let’s take a look at an analogy to explain what she’s done.

Analogy

In most series, the relationship between ongoing characters, that is, the characters who are present in all or most of the books, changes and evolves over time. This forms a story arc. Using an analogy, the ongoing story of the main characters is like a stream which flows through the novels. The main mystery is what readers came to see, so the stream drifts along in the background while the main mystery plays out on the stream bank in the forefront. The stream is important, however, because it motivates readers to move on to the next novel when the main mystery has wrapped up at the end of each book.

Let’s emphasize:  the ongoing story arc is a backdrop, part of the staging.

Public domain photograph by Karen Arnold at PublicDomainPictures.Net

In Lethal White, Rowling points the camera at the story line of the two main characters. In effect, she focuses on the stream.

The two detectives, Robin and Cormoran, have had a mutual attraction that they continue to ignore, which is called the “will they or won’t they?” trope. The prologue of Lethal White features Robin marrying her longtime boyfriend Matthew while pining openly for Cormoran. At her wedding! Nothing dysfunctional about that, is there? The prologue sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Does The Change of Focus Work?

Although I am all for shaking up writing formulas, in this case it hasn’t worked.

When the mystery finally shows up on page 40, it plays out mostly on the far shore. The reader begins to wonder if the series has turned into a poorly-plotted romance. Eventually Rowling brings the crime to front and center, but by then at least some readers have lost interest.

If the “stream” (romance) had turned out to be a gushing torrent with whitewater and waterfalls, then the shake up might have been successful. As it is, the “stream” is barely a drizzle.

Turns out, the main crime is how much I paid for a novel that doesn’t live up to its promise.

(Robert Galbraith novels summary page)

Author Post: Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is a prolific English author who has written four separate mystery series. Her first featured amateur sleuths and bird watchers,  George and Molly Palmer-Jones (started 1986). The second series featured Inspector Ramsay and was set in the English county of Northumberland (started 1990). The Vera Stanhope series (started in 1999) and The Shetland Island Mysteries (started in 2006) have been turned into television shows, Vera and Shetland on BBCFirst (see trailer below), respectively.

Vera Stanhope series by Ann Cleeves

Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope is not the typical heroine.  She is middle aged, she works all the time, and she doesn’t make friends easily. On the other hand, she is good at her job.

  • The Crow Trap (1999)
  • Telling Tales (2005)
  • Hidden Depths (2007)
  • Silent Voices (2011)
  • The Glass Room (2012)
  • Harbour Street (2014)
  • The Moth Catcher (2015)
  • The Seagull (2017)

Shetland Island Mysteries by Ann Cleeves

These novels feature Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.

Raven Black (2006) -reviewed here
White Nights (2008)
Red Bones (2009)
Blue Lightning (2010)
Dead Water (2013)
Thin Air (2014)
Too Good To Be True (2016, novella)
Cold Earth (2016)
Wild Fire (2018) -last in the series according to the author

Raven Black* by Ann Cleeves


(*Amazon Affiliate links)

The first in the Shetland Island Mysteries series, Raven Black won the coveted Dagger Award.

Although this novel says “A Thriller” on the cover, it really falls neatly into the mystery category (for reasons I can’t give away without spoilers).

Characters

One thing I really like about the book is how Cleeves builds her characters. She gives little in the way of physical description, but instead we get to know them in small increments through thoughts, actions, and even reactions from others. She reveals her characters as if by painting, by laying down a few strokes of color at a time. Using this technique, she builds the picture slowly and with a deft touch.

For example, we meet Magnus first. We begin to suspect he is elderly because his feet are stiff and achy and because he dozes while waiting.  A short time later we learn more, that people laugh at him and call him slow. When two young girls arrive, we see from their mix of fear and giddiness that he’s  ostracized and lonely.

When we meet main character Inspector Perez, his physical description is distorted because the observer is in a vehicle.

She saw the face of a man, the impressionist image of a face, blurred by the mist and muck on the glass, wild black hair and a strong hooked nose, black eyebrows.

The dialogue is sparse, except the times when Perez interviews someone. Even then there are breaks in the conversation filled with descriptions and observations. The low key dialogue helps create an atmosphere of silence and adds to the austere feeling.

Setting

The setting is well done and it is interesting to learn about the people or the Shetland Islands and their culture. None of it seems extraneous. For example, Cleeves uses a community festival held every year in Lerwick, Shetland called Up Helly Aa to help move along the plot.

Conclusion

Raven Black is beautifully written. Because the author combines realistic characters with a novel setting and a compelling plot, the reader is riveted right to the end. I definitely want to read more of this series and more novels by Ann Cleeves.

Trailer for Shetland

 

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

Author Post: Dorothy Gilman

Dorothy Gilman (1923-2012) wrote children’s books under her married name, Dorothy Gilman Butters, for a number of years before starting the popular Mrs. Pollifax series.  Gilman traveled extensively and used her experiences to send her protagonist to exotic locations throughout the world.

The Mrs. Pollifax Series by Dorothy Gilman

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax of New Brunswick, New Jersey, is a widow with grown children and an unremarkable life. She is tired of attending her Garden Club meetings and frankly, is more than a little depressed. She wants to do something good for her country, so she begins to volunteer as a CIA agent.

(Red = Have read the book)

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966)
The Amazing Mrs. Pollifax (1970)
The Elusive Mrs. Pollifax (1971)
A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax (1973)
Mrs. Pollifax on Safari (1977)
Mrs. Pollifax on the China Station (1983)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Hong Kong Buddha (1985)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Golden Triangle (1988)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Whirling Dervish (1990)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Second Thief (1993)
Mrs. Pollifax Pursued (1995)
Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer (1996)
Mrs. Pollifax, Innocent Tourist (1997)
Mrs. Pollifax Unveiled (2000)

 

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax*by Dorothy Gilman

(*Amazon Affiliate link)

This is a delightful series with so much going for it:

  1. The protagonist, Mrs. Pollifax,  is smart and personable. You want to be friends with her or, better yet, have her as your grandmother.
  2. The mysteries are not predictable because Gilman has a talent for surprising the reader.
  3. The stories are still fresh and relevant, which is amazing given the first one was written over 50 years ago.
  4. Being a CIA agent allows Mrs. Pollifax to travel throughout the world and you get to travel with her.
  5. The novels are quick and easy to read (which is a bit of a negative because sometimes it might feel like you’ve finished too soon.)

Before I prepared the list, I thought I had read all the books in the series. Now I see I have missed two novels. Time to hunt them down!

A special thank you to Karen for introducing me to these books and supplying most of the copies.

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

Author Post: John Sandford

John Sandford (real name John Roswell Camp) started out as a journalist. After a distinguished career, including winning a Pulitzer, he decided that he could make more money writing novels. It turned out to be a good choice.

You can find out why he chose to write under a pseudonym for the Prey series and more at his website.

 

The Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport:

For the earlier novels, Lucas Davenport works for various law enforcement agencies in the city of Minneapolis. In the later novels, he goes to work for the U.S. Marshals Service and travels throughout the U.S.

1. Rules of Prey (1989)
2. Shadow Prey (1990)
3. Eyes of Prey (1991)
4. Silent Prey (1992)
5. Winter Prey (1993)
6. Night Prey (1994)
7. Mind Prey (1995)
8. Sudden Prey (1996)
9. Secret Prey (1998)
10. Certain Prey (1999)
11. Easy Prey (2000) –Reviewed
12. Chosen Prey (2001)
13. Mortal Prey (2002)
14. Naked Prey (2003)
15. Hidden Prey (2004)
16. Broken Prey (2005)
17. Invisible Prey (2007)
18. Phantom Prey (2008)
19. Wicked Prey (2009)
20. Storm Prey (2010)
21. Buried Prey (2011)
22. Stolen Prey (2012)
23. Silken Prey (2013) -reviewed below
24. Field of Prey (2014) -shelf
25. Gathering Prey (2015) -shelf
26. Extreme Prey (2016)
27. Golden Prey (April 25, 2017) – Reviewed
28. Twisted Prey (April 24, 2018)
29. Neon Prey (April 23, 2019)

He also has a series featuring Virgil Flowers (as John Sandford) and the Kidd series, originally published under the name John Camp (some more recent editions name John Sandford instead).

Silken Prey* by John Sandford


(*Amazon Affiliate Link)

Jacket Blurb:  Dirty politics hits a new low when one of the candidates of a close race, an incumbent U.S. senator, is caught with child porn. The governor entices Lucas Davenport to investigate whether the senator was framed and if so, by whom. When a political fixer disappears, the trail of dirty tricks points to the senator’s opponent, a smart and powerful young woman. Is she the one and will Lucas be able to stop her?

Characters

John Sandford is an absolute master at creating fully-rounded characters. He has a way of introducing each new person vividly and with memorable details, so that it is easy to keep them straight.

Lauren opened the door, a slender woman, not tall, with red hair and high cheekbones and a big smile.

Describing his friend Elle, the nun:

… now wore what Lucas called “the drabs:  brown or gray dresses and long stockings with a little brown coif stuck on top of her head like the vanilla twist on a Dairy Queen cone.

Can’t you see her?  Although, if the coif is brown, perhaps it should have been a chocolate twist?

His villains are also memorable and well-developed, something that isn’t always easy to do. According to his website, Sandford apparently researches criminals (true crime) so that his antagonists are fictionalized versions of real people or events.

Genre

The Lucas Davenport novels are firmly in the thriller camp. Readers learn quite soon who is behind the dirty tricks and also what happened to the guy who disappeared. The readers spends the rest of the time wondering if Davenport will also be able to figure out what is going on and stop the criminals in time. The cool thing is, with the Prey series it isn’t a given that everything will be wrapped up neatly in a bow at the end.  Knowing that ramps up the tension.

Conclusion

John Sandford is a frequent guest at Poisoned Pen Bookstore. You can get to know him better in this video of his book signing for Extreme Prey.

As Douglas Preston notes, John Sandford’s works seem prescient at times. He has a special talent to be able to keep his novels relevant years after they were first published.

An aspiring writer would do well to study John Sandford’s techniques.

 

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

Author Post: Lisa Lutz

Early in her career, Liza Lutz wanted to be a screenwriter. After selling one screenplay, things stalled. She first wrote The Spellman Files as a screenplay, but it was only able to publish it after turning it into a novel. After some success as a mystery author, Lisa now writes for the HBO series The Deuce.

 

Spellman Novels by Lisa Lutz:

The Spellmans are an unconventional family (read dysfunctional) of private investigators who often spend more time investigating each other than criminals.

The great thing about the series is that that you could feel comfortable recommending them to a young adult or even your mother because they are devoid of violent murders. Plus, they feature plenty of laughs.

  • The Spellman Files (reviewed) -signed copy
  • Curse of the Spellmans
  • Revenge of the Spellmans
  • The Spellmans Strike Again
  • Trail of the Spellmans
  • Spellman Six: The Next Generation / The Last Word

The Spellman’s Strike Again

Lisa Lutz also has a stand alone (so far) thriller, The Passenger (2016).

 

 

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About Author Posts:

Because I read a lot of mysteries, I’ve been trying to come up with a better system to keep track of which novels I’ve finished. I thought blogging would help, which it does, but I don’t always review everything I read. To get more organized, I’ve decided to create a series of author posts with lists of novels and links to my reviews. I plan to edit these pages as needed.

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