A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

Holding, by Graham Norton*****

holdingIrish novelists are rocking the publishing world this year, and Norton’s debut novel is among the best of them. My great thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books, who provided me a free and early read in exchange for this honest review. You should get it and read it. Atria will release it August 1, 2017.

Our protagonist is Sergeant PJ Collins; the setting is the tiny Irish town of Duneen. PJ is ecstatic when a corpse is uncovered at a local construction site. At last, something noteworthy has occurred in his sleepy village, and he can’t wait to tell everybody. He starts with his housekeeper, Mrs. Meany:

“I’m after finding a body.”
“You what?”
“A human body!”
He had waited his whole life to utter those words, and it felt as good as he had always imagined.
“God spare us!” Mrs. Meany gasped.

The villagers are convinced this is the body of Tommy Burke, a man loved ardently by two local women. Evelyn has never married; she and her two sisters still live in the family manse in which they were raised. Is Evelyn bat-shit crazy, as some people suggest, or is she merely frustrated and lonely?

Brid also loved Tommy. They were to be married, but he upped and disappeared just before the wedding. She is currently locked in a joyless union; she and her husband remain together for the sake of the children and the farm. It isn’t easy.

And then there’s our protagonist, PJ, who is graying at the temples, never having known love. He hasn’t even had a girlfriend. He went on a date, once, and the girl guffawed when he wasn’t able to situate his large self into a theater seat to view the movie. That was enough for him. He’s married to his work, and she’s a lonely mistress. At the end of the day there’s only Mrs. Meany, his aging housekeeper, and she will have to retire, sooner or later.

But things are about to change.

UK readers may have been drawn to this novel by its author, who is also a celebrity and has a television show, but I had never heard of him. I won’t forget him now.

One cautionary note: there’s some sharp, dark humor involving religion that will make this a poor fit for some readers. I loved it, but the devout may not. There’s also a fair bit of bawdy language.

For those that enjoy dark humor, this one is hard to beat. As an added bonus, it is ultimately uplifting, and reminds us that one is never too old to find love in this world.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Watching the Detectives, by Julie Mulhern*****

“’There’s been an incident…Mrs. White in the study with a revolver.”

watchingthedetectives
Mulhern is on a roll. This is the fifth book in the Country Club Murders series, but I plunged in without having seen the first four, and it was still a treat. Thank you, thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I snagged free and in advance in exchange for this honest review. It is now available to everyone.

The story is set among the Caucasian upper middle class of the 1970s, and Mulhern renders the period—when this reviewer was a mere, blushing wisp of a girl—so well that I checked twice to see whether it was an older title being re-released.

Ellison Russell is our protagonist, and people keep dying at her domicile. It’s become a nuisance, and there’s a cop that thinks it’s too great a coincidence. Ellison’s in a jam, and her thirteen-year-old daughter Grace isn’t helping. She sulks when they are told they must leave the house for a few days because it’s a crime scene, exclaiming that people have died at their house before and they didn’t have to leave. It’s just not fair!

Ellison is a widow, and a merry one at that; she has a flirtation going with a local cop whose name is Anarchy—a guy who believes in rules– but her main man is Mr. Coffee. He’s always there for her.

I moan when Ellison’s mother is introduced—yet one more overbearing mother, I thought, and authors always blame everything on mothers, just like everyone else does—but then I am surprised by where she takes it. I won’t say more lest I ruin it for you. But I will say this: every overused or overworked plot element is here for a reason, either to take it apart, or to make fun of it. Mulhern considers every word in this dandy novel carefully, and the result is splendid.

As the story unfolds there are other witty tidbits tucked in here and there, such as a character named Margaret Hamilton who is such a witch. But the frippery and snarky humor aren’t the whole package; while the mystery is a romp, serving up the snobbery of the petit bourgeoisie with a sharp skewer, this excellent novel is also a nicely turned feminist manifesto. While the mystery is a fine 4-star beach read, the author’s purpose is a strong one that’s delivered well. It is for this aspect that the fifth star is given.
Highly recommended for strong women and those that love them.

Unpunished, by Lisa Black**

unpunishedThis novel is the second in the Gardiner and Renner series. I was invited to read and review it by Kensington Press and Net Galley. I appreciate the invitation and have enjoyed other titles published by this house; unfortunately, this particular book didn’t work for me. It is now available for purchase.

The premise is that a man has been found hanging at the office of the Cleveland Herald. Forensic investigator Maggie Gardiner is called to the scene. Ultimately, she will pair once again with Jack Renner, a vigilante killer that uses his homicide cop skills to enforce his own code.

This aspect of the story is not without appeal. As traditional relationships between the public and law enforcement become more fraught with injustice, it’s hard to relate to a traditional cop, though for the sake of a good yarn, I can pretend. While it is unthinkable, in real life, for anyone to make their own private hit list according to who’s good and who’s not—in the mind of the list maker—it does make for good fiction.

That’s about all the good I found here, though. Stereotypes, women referred to as “girls”, at-risk urban youth all lumped into the category of “gangbangers” and made disposable; these things all set my teeth on edge. There’s some over-long dialogue that is flat, and there’s more information about the production of newspapers than I ever needed to know.

The place I reacted the most strongly was at the beginning, where we get detailed information about neck ligatures that tell whether a body on a rope committed suicide or was strangled and left there to swing. For some readers, I think this will be fascinating. But for those that have been close to someone that died by his or her own hand, particularly in this manner, let this review serve as a neon trigger warning. There’s no scooting past it to get to the story; the forensic aspect plays heavily here.

For fans of Lisa Black’s other novels, of which there are several, this will likely be a welcome read. And perhaps I am a wee bit harsh simply because I have read so much strong fiction lately; every reviewer is susceptible to the urge to compare work. What else is on the table that I could be reading? How good is it? And right now, the answer is that the table is groaning under the weight of excellent literature, and those with limited time and resources can likely find a better book than this one.

Not this book; not this time.

Every Dead Thing, by John Connolly****

everydeadthing“Our ancestors were not wrong in their superstitions; there is reason to fear the dark.”

This is the first entry of the Charlie Parker series, and I recently read and reviewed the newest one, so it is interesting to go back and see how the series begins. Thank you to Net Galley and Atria Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for an honest review.

The story commences with flashbacks to the brutal murder and mutilation of Parker’s wife and daughter. I have to confess that it went over the top for me and at times was too grim to be an enjoyable read. This newly released edition begins with introductory notes by the author in which he acknowledges that many readers also felt this way, so I know I am not alone. Everyone has a threshold. But I went into the story knowing that I want to read this series and that although it will always remain gritty and violent, it won’t always be this harsh, so I moved on, and I am glad I did.

The fact is, Connolly is an outstanding writer.

Parker is a shipwreck of a human being, a former cop with a sorrowful heart and not much to lose. He is determined to find the psychopath that killed his wife and child, and it appears that the same killer has taken a woman named Catherine. Her phone records show numerous calls, shortly before her disappearance, to the tiny southern town where she was born and raised. He grabs his wallet and heads south with two terrifyingly competent assistants, Angel and Louis, guys that are shady but loyal, and strong as hell. They are also a couple, and this adds an interesting twist, not to mention crushing a stereotype. Actually, these two characters are my favorites in this story, and I especially enjoy the scene in the auto shop.

Another wonderful feature is the swamp witch in the bayou.

Some aspects of this novel seem a bit derivative, in particular the long cast of characters with unusual names seems a lot like James Lee Burke. Ed McBain, iconic author of the 87th Precinct series, has a prominent character named Fat Ollie, a name Connolly uses for one of his characters here.

But there’s no denying the lyrical quality to the work that is entirely Connolly’s own, and as I have already seen, it just gets better from here. The plotting is complex, tight, and intense. It’s a strong debut.

Those that love good mysteries that run on the gritty side will want to read this series. You can read them out of order; I started with the fourteenth and didn’t feel there were enough missing pieces to prevent my understanding the story line. On the other hand, there’s nobody out there that can write as fast as we can read, and so why not start at the top and run all the way through the series?

This re-released edition of Every Dead Thing is for sale now.

Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman*****

Happy release day! Fans of Kellerman’s are in luck; this one is for sale today.

Seattle Book Mama

heartbreakhotelThis is #32 in the Alex Delaware series, and Kellerman’s writing just seems to get better with every entry. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Alex Delaware is a semi-retired child psychologist who’s also an adrenaline junkie. His nest is already well padded, his wife still happy in her career, and so he spends most of his time assisting his best friend, an LA homicide detective named Milo Sturgis. The premise is the hardest thing to swallow, but Kellerman makes it easier by letting us know how affluent Delaware is, and recently there’s the added twist that because Sturgis is gay, nobody on the force really wants to be his partner. Thus it seems more natural—for the sake of a good yarn—for Delaware to slip into that position…

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The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith*****

thewomanwhowalkedThe first week or two after Christmas is a sumptuous period for me as a reader. Nearly every book I read these days, fiction or non-, is a DRC, or Direct Reader’s Copy sent to me digitally by publishers via Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.  However, each year there are invariably half a dozen titles, sometimes more, that I really want to read and haven’t been able to obtain free of charge. Sometimes I discover a book after it’s already been published some time ago, and sometimes it’s a book that I couldn’t get as a DRC. These books land on my wish list, and my family is faithful in purchasing them and placing them, clad in pretty paper and ribbon, beneath our Christmas tree. By Christmas night, I’m snuggled deep beneath a pile of fluffy covers, my spouse and hound dog snoring sonorously while I immerse myself in the books I am just about guaranteed to love, bathed in a soft yellow bedside light. This ritual is as significant to me as the more widespread traditions of feasting, wrapping gifts, and hanging stockings. I can’t recall a Christmas without it.

This year we had our gift exchange on Christmas Eve, and by bedtime I was snuggled up in flannel and reading this paperback book, the 16th in the series. The series, for those unfamiliar, is of the cozy variety rather than the pulse-pounding thrillers that absorb a good portion of my reading life. Precious Romotswe is the owner and founder of the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and a good portion of those that read this book will already be familiar, as I am, with the main characters and their stories. Mma (Ms.) Ramotswe is married to JLB Matekone, who owns and runs the automobile repair shop adjacent to the detective agency; Mma Makutsi , Mma Ramotswe’s eccentric but capable assistant, believes that it’s time for her mentor to take a vacation. And indeed, Precious has never gone on holiday before; it’s about time, isn’t it?

Mma Ramotswe is reluctant. She hates to leave her business in anyone else’s hands; then too, she’s disconcerted when she learns that her husband, his employees, and her own assistants have discussed her need for time off when she wasn’t present. Is it a conspiracy, or is it loving concern?

The mysteries to be solved include the problem on which the temporary assistant hired on for the duration of Mma Ramotswe’s holiday stumbles; an additional situation involving a child named Samuel, an orphan who’s been trained to shake down drivers for coins in exchange for not damaging their cars; and a new school bearing her signature “#1 Ladies” logo, which appears to be not only misappropriating her trademark, but shady in other ways as well. Yet much of the story is dedicated to character development and the personal lives of the main characters, and it’s this that keeps me coming back.

Ultimately, the story is about trust, kindness, and learning to let go sometimes.

It occurred to me for the first time that I don’t know how the majority of Botswana feels about this series. McCall is a native-born Botswanan with Scottish predecessors. Are these characters true to the way the people of color in Botswana see themselves and their people?

Yet another part of me recalls that we are in the land of fiction. Unless I see some sign that the series is objectionable or offensive to those it represents, it will continue to be a happy retreat for me.

Highly recommended to those that love a cozy mystery and an opportunity to drop their blood pressure; the mesmerizing cadence here is better for us than any bottle of pills, and far cheaper than therapy.

Best of 2016: Mystery

This category includes everything within the same zone: thrillers, suspense, detective fiction, crime fiction. If it’s related, I’m rating it here. I expected this to be my toughest call because I read so many books of this genre, but when I had a look at the original titles I’d seen this year, and then eliminated those crossover novels that had already been awarded as the best of some other genre on this site, it was down to three books. Unbelievable…but not at all mysterious.

MY TOP THREE:

 

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler*****

TheBigBookofXmasNote to the reader: I originally posted this when my blog was just a few months old, and I was still struggling with basic issues, such as how to insert the book cover into the text. Now the holiday season is here again, and I am running my review–with some basic technical adjustments–one more time, because in the past two years, I haven’t found a Christmas book I like better than this one. It’s the only book I’ve found since I’ve been writing reviews that I found worth actually buying not just one but two copies at full price to give as gifts. For those that love Christmas stories and mysteries, this one’s for you!

I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the Goodreads.com giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on Amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.