Southern Fried, by Tonya Kappes***

southernfriedThis fetching little cozy mystery is the second in a series, but I didn’t read the first one, and I was able to keep up with it finer than frog hair. You might could, too. I am grateful to Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC, which I received absolutely free of charge in exchange for this review. But don’t you worry none, cause you can buy it now.

Our protagonist is Sheriff Kendrick Lowry, and she tells us the whole story in the first person. The problem starts when Myrna finds Owen in the greenhouse on top of her prize tomatoes. Why did he have to go and die there? She says it took her months to get them that plump, and if you’ve ever grown great tomatoes—an impossible feat in Seattle, I am sorry to admit—you know it’s true.

Sheriff Kendrick, locally known as “Kenni”, is assisted in her law enforcement activities by Poppa. Poppa was the sheriff around these parts, but he’s dead now, and his ghost can only appear when she has a case to crack, so in a strange sort of way, this murder is a blessing in disguise. The local stigma against a woman as sheriff in this small Kentucky town is offset by the venerable family tradition Poppa cultivated before he departed.

I believe my favorite part is the day following the discovery of the body, when Lowry arrives to find the crime scene tape destroyed and Myrna moseying around the greenhouse like nothing ever happened. You know this happens in real life, but you never see it in fiction, except here. I also love the part when someone suggests the sheriff call for backup, and she notes that her deputy is out of town, and so exactly who is she supposed to call? Again, fictional cops always seem to have unlimited resources in even the most unlikely situations, and Kappes leaned hard on my funny bone. What a hoot.

A lot of this book doesn’t make much sense, but then it doesn’t have to. It’s a romp. However, if a couple of inconsistencies had been cleared up and a hot-stove issue hadn’t been grazed, it would be better still.

Would anyone kill for an okra recipe, for example?  (I was told as a child that okra tastes like a bowl of warm snot.) Because there’s so much camp in this very funny story, I can’t tell whether I should be suspicious of this as motive or not; in the real world I don’t see it, but in this story, I feel as if anything goes.  And while I love the feminist spirit in the sheriff’s assertion that she doesn’t cook anything, period, later she goes to try out the secret recipe and I find myself wondering how she knows how to glaze a cast iron pan. This woman doesn’t even know how to boil water, and yet a fairly obvious cooking skill that nobody puts into a recipe seems to present no problem at all.

But these are just li’l thangs.

Despite the occasional feminist overtones, there are some tired devices and stereotypes that are harder to disregard. Why does half the story obsess with her crush on her deputy? It’s kept light, but the notion that a woman is nothing without a man, while not openly asserted, seems to float in the air. I would have liked to see more women, especially older women, depicted in a positive light. It seems as if every story that features a heroic young woman has to also feature an impossible mother, and so I moaned when she introduced her momma. And there’s the “cat fight”, which while there’s no denying that the narrative is straight-up hilarious, is also a stereotype that suggests women can’t get along once you put us in a room together.

The thing that knocked a star off what would have been a four star review is the place where her Poppa’s ghost notes that when he saw Deputy Finn carry Kenni’s drunken, unconscious body to her bedroom and put her in her bed, he had feared the deputy was about to “take advantage” of her.  The word is rape, and it’s never funny. The deputy didn’t, but the suggestion, accompanied by the euphemism, left an after-taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite get rid of.

If you can get past these brief but clear obstacles, you will get a lot of laughs out of the main thread here. Kappes has a raucous sense of humor, and I had immersed myself in too many dark stories. I was ready for a good laugh, and this title provided several.  But unless your pockets are deep or your interest great, I recommend you get this one cheaply when you can, or at your local library if available.

A Killer’s Guide to Good Works, by Shelley Costa*****

Happy release day to one of my favorite mystery authors! This book is available today, and if you haven’t ordered it yet, now’s the time to do it.

Seattle Book Mama

akillersguidetogoodShelley Costa is a writer to remember. Her dazzlingly dark humor and her ability to spin a tight original story that builds irresistibly caught my eye with her first Val Cameron mystery, Practical Sins for Cold Climates. I began checking in with Henery Press regularly when I logged onto Net Galley, and my stalking paid off big time. Thanks go to Henery and also to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for an honest review.

In this second Val Cameron mystery, our protagonist is back in the big city where she belongs. She is looking forward to lunch with her best friend Adrian, who promises to show her something rare and wonderful, but when she reaches Adrian’s office, her friend has been murdered and the artifact is gone. Val’s loss is our gain, as Costa unfurls another outstanding mystery. This title is available to the…

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Two Miles of Darkness, by Earl Emerson****

twomilesofdarkness Fans of Emerson’s Thomas Black mysteries will be as pleased as I was to see this, the 14th in the series. Black took a very long nap and seemed to have all but disappeared for awhile, but then he was back with Monica’s Sister, followed by this title. There was no DRC for this one, so I picked it up free using my Amazon Prime digital credits. It was a good way to spend them. The book was released in 2015, so of course you can get it also.

We start out with one of my three most tired devices for a mystery novelist: Black and his sidekick, Snake are hogtied in the trunk of a car. I rolled my eyes in the way that made my second grade teacher caution me might make them stick that way forever—an outstanding science lesson that remained with me long after the legitimate curriculum had drifted away—but because I like this series so much, I kept reading anyway. And it was worth it.

Eventually of course Black stops discussing being stuck inside the trunk, and he remembers back, back, back to how all this came about. And that’s the story that is great fun and also well written.

Black grew up in the working class here in Seattle, but his father did errands and handyman work for a wealthy widow that went by the nickname Doda. Dad is long gone, but Doda is still there, and she hires Black to find Pickles, a dog she gave to Mick and Alex Kraft. The Krafts, by peculiar coincidence, had also tried to hire Black recently in order to find out who was harassing them; Mick had experienced a string of terrible luck that he believed was too sudden to be a coincidence. Black told him that sometimes bad luck really is just bad luck, but the next thing you know, they’re both dead. Police are calling it a murder and suicide; Doda just wants the dog back. She’ll pay a pretty penny if Black can find Pickles and bring him safely home.

In this matter, Black’s friend Snake, usually the irresponsible party where the two friends are involved, is the sensible one that points out the truth, a very good reason to turn the dog job down:

“You hate rich people. Think about these guys. The rest of the world works for a living, but these guys have nothing to do all day but drink Mai Tais and sit around the pool waiting for their dividend checks to arrive in the mail. It burns you up. I know it does.”

 

Snake is right. Black hates the rich, and I have a sneaking hunch that Emerson does too.  So in this tale, we have a couple of spoiled men—no longer young enough to be called brats—known as Chad and Binky. One is Doda’s son, and the other is the son’s best buddy. Their massive resources coupled with a life of leisure and surfeit of free time give them the capacity to play elaborate pranks, and both show a solipsistic disregard for the effect their games have upon the lives of others. They fit Snake’s description to a tee.

Nevertheless, Black takes the doggy job, and so we have two mysteries, the official dog-finding mystery, and the unofficial mystery Black’s conscience requires him to tackle regarding the Krafts.

One small fact-checking blooper hit my I-don’t-think-so-button, and that was the widely-believed myth that all juvenile records are sealed once the doer of the crime turns 18. In reality, after a number of years, a hefty filing fee, and a ton of complicated paperwork, the person in question can have the particulars of their crime locked away, but if it was a relatively small offense, that may make matters worse, because anyone running the background check will see that the person did something in their youth that they want concealed. Most juvenile offenders never want to see a courtroom again when they are older, and most don’t have the extra money to throw at a court procedure anyway, so the misdeed stays on the record until they grow old and die. It never vanishes from the record, as some folks, sadly some of them juveniles looking for trouble, believe. At least, that’s the truth in Washington State, and that’s where Emerson lives and where his story is set.

Now back to our story. Emerson is a champ when it comes to pacing, and he’s one of the best there is when it comes to bouncing a straight man off a colorful sidekick like Elmer “Snake” Sleazak. The story would be no fun at all without Snake, but with him, it’s immensely entertaining. The sly banter and the unexpected, off-the-chain behaviors will put a smile on your face; if you don’t find him funny, check your pulse to make sure you aren’t dead.  Add another side character, a neighbor kid named Charlie that was friends with Pickles the dog, and there’s charm all over the place. People often underestimate kids, who are often our best observers: “Charlie knew the neighborhood like a cheating husband knew every creaky stair on his front porch.”

This is a page-turner that will make your own troubles seem oh so small, and for those that find themselves with a long weekend at hand, this book will provide the excuse you may need to just chill for awhile. One way or the other, this is a well written story, deftly handle with just the right balance of mirth and suspense. My records tell me I have read over 700 mysteries since 2012, and that doesn’t even take into account most of what I read during the previous decades of adulthood, and so I am picky. I see a device that I’ve grown tired of, and a star falls of my rating. But as for you, if you lean leftward and love a good private eye story, this could well be a five star read.

Recommended to those that lean left and enjoy detective fiction and comic capers.

 

Salvation Lake, by G.M. Ford*****

salvationlakeFord is the rightful heir to the late great Donald Westlake, a writer of monstrously amusing mysteries full of quirky sidekicks and kick-ass, zesty dialogue. There’s nobody like him in Seattle or anywhere else. I gobbled up the DRC when it became available via Net Galley and publishers Thomas and Mercer,  so I read this free in exchange for an honest review. But I’ll tell you a secret: if I’d had to, I’d have paid for this one had it been necessary. And so should you. It’s for sale today, and you can get it digitally at a bargain rate.

But back to our story.  We open at a bar called the Eastlake Zoo. The band of misfits to which detective Leo Waterman is tied through bonds of family history and quixotic affection are rocking the house in “well-lubricated amiability”. In fact, there’s a story being told right as we begin, and if it doesn’t hook you, check your pulse, because you’re probably dead. Here:

“Red Lopez was a spitter. When Red told a story, it was best to get yourself alee of

something waterproof, lest you end up looking like you’d been run through the

Elephant Car Wash.

‘So we was comin’ down Yesler,’ Red gushed. “Me and George and Ralphie.’

Everyone had found cover, except the guy they called Frenchie, who was so tanked

he  probably  thought it was raining inside the Eastlake Zoo…”

 

Right?

As it happens, Waterman, who’s inherited his old man’s ill-gotten wealth, has been lying low and enjoying the good life, but now his late father’s hideously distinctive overcoat has been found on a corpse, and  Timothy Eagen of the Seattle Police Department want to talk to Leo. Now.  There’s bad blood between them:

“…he hated my big ass the way Ahab hated that whale…Eagen was a skinny little turd with a salt-and-pepper comb-over pasted across his pate like a sleeping hamster.”

Since SPD has been under the eye of the Feds lately, Eagen can’t give full rein to his attack-Chihuahua impulses. SPD needs to provide “the kind [of law enforcement] that doesn’t look like Ferguson, Missouri or Staten Island, New York.” So Waterman doesn’t get shaken down or tossed into a cell, but his curiosity is piqued, and since he has no paying job and time on his hands, he finds himself checking into a few things. One thing leads to another.

What relationship does the victim, known as the Preacher, have to Mount Zion Industries, whose pamphlet is found among his effects? Before we know it, Leo is off and running, checking out Salvation Lake, located at the end of Redemption Road. Events tumble one upon the next, and I found that instead of reading in my bed that evening, as is my usual bedtime custom, I was reading on it, bolt upright and clicking the kindle to go a little faster please.

Waterman may have come into money midway through life, but his perspective is a working class perspective. His take on the city’s thousands of homeless denizens and the relationship that cops have to those in need strike a sure clear note that must surely resonate with anyone that’s been paying any attention at all.

Meanwhile, Salvation Lake is written with warp speed pacing, sharp insight, authority, and the kind of wit that can only come from a writer that has tremendous heart.

Don’t miss it. Get it now.

Storme Warning, by WL Ripley****

stormewarningStorme Warning is the fourth and thus far final installment in a terrific series. I have read three, and will read the fourth if I can find it. The snappy patter and nonstop action and suspense make it hard to put down once you’ve begun. I rate it 4.49 stars, and thank Brash Books Priority Readers Circle for providing me with this DRC in exchange for an honest review. The book is available for purchase right now.

Wyatt Storme is retired from football. He divides his time between his cabin in Missouri and another cabin in Colorado; this story takes place in Missouri. He owns a considerable piece of land because after having the press follow him hither and yon for the duration of his NFL career, he craves simplicity and solitude. “Reclusive”, as his best friend Chick explains to an outsider.

Because all of a sudden, Wyatt’s land is chock full of outsiders. Hollywood director Geoffrey Salinger wants to shoot his hot new movie on location; his star has received death threats, and Chick has been tapped as bodyguard. Wyatt doesn’t like it much, but Chick wants the work, so he agrees to tolerate the intrusion, but he sets terms in a way that provide him with an unusual amount of control over industry hotshots that aren’t accustomed to leaving the driver’s seat. Combine this scenario with the smart, snappy patter between Wyatt and Chick; throw some 70’s song lyrics into the narrative as if they are merely part of the story; add some mobsters from out of town; and you have a really fun, fast-paced story.

The final .51 star is denied because of the way the author deals with race. He means well to be sure. But racist terms that are sprinkled in an almost nonstop stream throughout the book are going to make this a prohibitively painful book for most African-American readers. It’s true that Ripley uses the “n” word and other slurs (against other races also, but mostly Black folk) to determine who is a bad guy, but when one is close enough to the heat those terms create, all the fun stops as soon as the word appears. It’s like finding a rattlesnake in the cookie jar; you’re having a good time, expecting good things to continue happening, and then, bam, there it is.

Depending on who you are, it’s enough to take your breath away.

To be sure, I don’t know what it is like to be a person of color; I am not one. But for many years I have been the only Caucasian person in my house, with others here being either Asian, Black, or mixed, and I do know what it is to be the wife and mother of people that don’t enjoy white privilege. The “n” word and others like it are serious, serious things. And insult is added to injury by having the African-American character unable to enter a scene without race issues being the first to fall from his lips. Most Black people don’t really want to engage white people in discussions of race unless it’s in a formal political setting, and even then, it’s more comfortable to talk to another person of color, or a room that is mostly people of color. But LeBeau is clearly in this story for no purpose other than to be the Black character. He isn’t developed, and what is worse, he isn’t capable of much that is positive. As with the Black girl in the brief restaurant scene, a white guy has to come to the rescue. To depict all characters of color as victims and set them up to be saved every stinking time by Caucasian characters is inexcusable. (LeBeau tries to carry off a rescue once, but it doesn’t work out, and Chick emerges the hero once more.)

Should the writer continue the series, I recommend that he simply use white folks, if that’s his comfort zone, or include multiple people of color and develop them. Give them characteristics beyond coming into the room and making readers aware they aren’t white. And don’t diminish them by making them unable to stand up for themselves or others. I further recommend not using that word, ever again. It’s cheap and easy, but it costs some readers dearly. I would not give this book to my son to read. The pain would outweigh the enjoyment; in fact, I guarantee he wouldn’t finish it. There are more subtle yet unmistakable ways to demonstrate that a character is racist, if that is a key goal. There are other ways just to show that a character is a bad guy, too.

Hollywood and television have learned how to create actual characters of color, as opposed to casting someone to “be the Black guy”. Ripley has skill enough to do the same.

I’ve given the downside of this novel more space than the 90 percent that I enjoyed, but I have done so because no other reviewer I’ve seen so far has addressed it, and someone has to do it.

With the single clear caveat provided here, this fast-paced, mostly-funny detective story is recommended .

Storme Front: A Wyatt Storme Thriller, by WL Ripley*****

storme frontStorme Front, the second mystery in the series featuring former NFL player Wyatt Storme and his buddy, Chick Easton, is smart and sassy. Ripley proves that an action-packed thriller with a he-man protagonist is stronger, not weaker when it treats women respectfully, as equals to men. Thank you twice, first to Net Galley, and second to Brash Books. I received this DRC from them in exchange for an honest review. This title was released August 4, so you can get it right away.

When someone offers one a thousand dollars to make a single, simple delivery, it’s natural to be suspicious. But when it appears to also involve pulling a good friend’s cojones out of the fire, an experienced badass will sometimes agree, however cautiously, to tag along. So it is here. Drugs, guns, and bodies pile up, and all through it runs some kick-ass banter that made me laugh out loud a number of times. The exchanges are typically between Wyatt and Chick, but there’s some pretty strong humor, at times, in the interactions between Wyatt and his fiancée, Sandra Collingsworth, as well. As well as respect. I like the respect even better.

“No one likes smart, self-assured women, you know.”
“Except you,” she said. “And I’m glad.”

Complicating the picture without making it into a soap opera is the involvement, however peripherally, of an old flame of Wyatt’s. They split up a long time ago, and she married the man whose afore-mentioned cojones Wyatt is trying to salvage.

“His wife?” said Billy, smiling. “Ain’t she a sweet piece of—“
“Her name’s Kelly,” I said, interrupting. “But you can call her Mrs. Jenkins.”

The action is linear in format, so the fairly sizeable number of characters doesn’t create confusion. Then too, Ripley’s memorable character sketches certainly help:

“Snakeskins came around the truck. He had a big face, crooked nose. About thirty. A little overweight. Too many Coors in cowboy bars. Blond mustache, untrimmed, and a diamond stud in one ear. His hands were immense.”

Oh, there are so many more memorable passages, and I highlighted 78 of them, just for giggles. But the fact is, I would just hate to ruin it all for you. All told, the flavor is a bit like Sue Grafton’s, but with male protagonists in Colorado.

The examples I’ve provided show up early on, but the pace never slows till the last page is turned. In the end, I just wanted to read the next book in the series. And so will you.

Highly recommended for mystery and thriller lovers, or for anyone that needs a snappy, amusing beach read.

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff ****

19thwifeEbershoff is a strong story teller. In The 19th Wife, he weaves the stories of polygamy in and out of one another, often to hilarious result, and at other times thought provoking.

Ann Eliza Young was the 19th wife, at least according to some accounts, of Brigham Young, famous pioneer leader of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, referred to by members as LDS, and to most others as Mormons. Ann Eliza was a rebel, and she left Young, refusing to be stuck in a polygamous marriage. Ebershoff has used this real-life bit of history to create a fictional journal for her and other historical figures that played a role in her life, some of whom were real, and others who weren’t.

The formal prose that he uses in spinning her first person narrative, and that of others in her story, creates a startling juxtaposition with his present-day characters, chief among them Jordan Scott, one of the so-called lost boys who have been booted out of a current day polygamous sect in order to scale down the competition for young, nubile brides so that the old farts can have a greater supply of women. But the geezers didn’t really have to worry about Jordan taking their ladies, since he is gay. So honey, go from the formal speech of religious people in the 19th century, to that of a gay Californian in the year Y2K, and well there you go. The leaps that Habershoff depicts between their speech mannerisms almost have to make you laugh out loud.

I accidentally read this book twice, once around the time it came out, and then, having forgotten I’d already read it and given it away, I got another copy from the library and was almost done by the time deja vu struck.

Both times I read it (oh yes, I remember now) the story and dialogue were drop-dead funny at first, but by the end I just wanted to be done. Since I have a greater than average attention span and am generally fine with a really long book, I took a day to think about why the joy went out of this juicy novel toward the end.

There are two reasons, I think (though it is still a really good tale) that it loses steam. One is that Ebershoff goes from building situations for their hilarity, to trying to solve his character’s problems in a way that makes sense. My own opinion is that if he was starting with chaos–and the set-up is that Jordan’s mother has been framed for murdering his father, and he sets out to Utah in order to rescue her–then he should have stuck with chaos. It’s all outrageous in the beginning, but toward the end we seem to be veering toward a reasonable ending, at least in many ways, and a moral to the story that isn’t needed and is almost out of place.

The other reason is that the toxic waste that is polygamy isn’t something I want to steep in for very long. It’s a little like a trashy tabloid that momentarily excites our curiosity but leaves us feeling a little soiled if we flip through it for too long. For me, then, had this been wrapped up more quickly, the pacing would not have been lost and I could have emerged laughing as hard at the end as I was at the get-go.

All told: a fun romp that could have been even better.

Top-Secret Twenty-One, by Janet Evanovich *****

topsecrettwentyone“Hold on here,” Lula said. “Are we talking a rocket like ZOOM BANG! and everything’s blown all to hell?”

“It was more like BANG WHOOSH!” Briggs said…”And at great personal risk to myself I rescued the hamster.”


“No shit?” Lula said. “Is that true?”


Oh, great literature is good for the mind, but once in awhile we just need a little mind candy to perk up our day, and at that, Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series excels. We’ve got the usual cast of crazies as well as a war of vengeance between Grandma Mazur and Joe Morelli’s Grandma Bella. We have attack chihuahuas, plenty of explosives, and a trip to Atlantic City. What more can we ask for?

For those reading in digital format, be aware that a teaser for one of Evanovich’s other series books takes up the last 11% of the book. I was crushed when it ended at 89%, because I had expected it to keep going.

Now I will have to read something else until #22 comes along!