Practical Sins for Cold Climates, by Shelley Costa*****

practicalsinsWhat a terrific surprise! Shelley Costa is a contender. This is the first of her books that I have read, although she has won the Agatha Award with her first novel, You Cannoli Die Once, which I have to find and read now. For those that love a snarky, spirited female investigator, Practical Sins for Cold Climates is a must-read. Thank you to both Net Galley and Henery Press for the DRC. The title is available for purchase January 26.

Val Cameron has been sent out to Lake Wendaban, which is out in the middle of nowhere way too far from Toronto. Worse, she has been directed by her boss to find Bob’s Bait Shop in order to be directed to the home of a reclusive writer with a hot new book that her publishing house covets. She figures it will take two days to achieve, since the train just goes once each way per day. Get off; take a day to get to the writer and get the signature; and then the next day, she can be back in her own Manhattan apartment, away from the bears, the mud, the snakes, the invertebrates. Done deal. Because the fact is, “She wasn’t a bait-buying kind of gal.”

Of course, it doesn’t go as quickly as she had hoped. What kind of story would that provide us? For starters,

“There had to be some mistake. Where was the town?
“When Peter Hathaway, her boss, first told her she had to get to the town of Wendaban, Ontario, she figured on awnings and sidewalk café seating. Some charming cross between Fire Island and Bedford Falls…Barbershops and garden clubs. …Had the train let her off pre-maturely, say, at a whistle stop? Some little pre-station station where you just had to wait while the moose crossed the tracks?…The town looked like the outskirts of itself.”

By the time Val successfully navigates the terrain—think of a cross between Mirkwood Forest and Venice, where the only way through all those hostile damn trees is by all-too-rare boat ride—she has learned of a murder that took place awhile back, but has never been solved. Once she is stuck out there in mosquito paradise, it occurs to her that it would really be a journalistic coup to sign the author AND solve the murder! Her career would take off like a rocket. No more doomed adventures in the hinterland, thanks. She can’t believe people actually paid money to come sit in the middle of the wilderness!

Stuck waiting for a ride out to the author’s almost-inaccessible cabin, “Val spent the night at the Hathaway cottage, listening for noises that portend god-awful death. Snuffling, growling, clawing, heavy footfalls, buzzing chainsaws, that sort of thing. When nothing materialized, she realized she’d been condemned to a day in somebody else’s paradise.”

This book made me laugh out loud all the damn time! I started considering it my reward for slogging through a few pages of a less desirable galley. But at the three-quarters mark, the casual city girl snobbery recedes as one discovery leads to another, and the tension is thick, tight, and unmistakable.

I fell for two red herrings Costa casually dangled, but she did cheat the reader a trifle by introducing late, new plot elements necessary to the solution; we really can’t figure it out without the information provided around the 90% mark. So for this, I should probably lop off half a star, but I’m laughing too hard to change my rating. Sorrr—eee.

When the last page was turned, I wanted more, and I realized that although there was no “Val Cameron #1” below the title, this could indeed become a series; in fact, it could become another Edgar winner. Oh, yes please! And I was gratified to discover while reading the notes that more Val Cameron mysteries are planned. Hell yes! I will be avidly prowling the Henery Press section of Net Galley looking for new opportunities to read and review this series as it unfurls.

In a nutshell: fan-damn-tastic. This is a terrific book in which to bury oneself on a holiday break or even a long, cold weekend. Not a bad beach read, either for that matter. Just buy it. Just read it!

Mrs. John Doe, by Tom Savage *****

mrsjohndoeTom Savage is master of the high octane, full-speed-ahead espionage thriller. Last year he gave us Penny for the Hangman, which kept me up late at night, and this year if anything he has improved upon it with Mrs. John Doe. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House-Alibi for the DRC. Now that’s I’ve finished it, I can breathe again!

Nora Baron is a widow. Her husband Jeff has been killed in the line of duty as a CIA operative in Britain. She goes to claim his corpse, get him cremated and take him home…and then all hell breaks loose, because nothing, nothing, nothing is as it seems.

Savage’s thriller style is both fast-paced and psychological. We never know who Nora can trust, and so we are constantly on edge. Sometimes it irritates me when a writer messes with my head, but the way Savage does it just makes me want to sit up and howl for more. From one friend-who-can-help (or is it a foe-who-will-turn-on-her?) to another, we are constantly cheering for Nora, advising her (good gravy, NO, don’t get in that car!), and every time we feel we have a pretty good grip on what ‘s going on and what’s going to happen next, it turns out we couldn’t be more mistaken. Savage accomplishes all this without resorting to trickily withheld information or any of the other shabby cheats and foils that lesser authors deliver. The story arc that would, in another thriller, start to pick up past the halfway mark and really accelerate at 85%, instead picks up almost from the get-go and keeps us furiously turning the pages until after the climax, when we finally wind down just enough to know what happens to our protagonist after the ride is over.

Those that read my reviews know that I can’t so much as tie my own shoelaces without looking for political content, so I also want to mention that the anti-Pakistani slurs and assumptions that all characters from the Middle East are terrorists get taken care of tidily.

Ultimately, having the woman depicted in such a positive, capable fashion is a touch that boomer-feminists like me, as well as the younger, newer wave of feminists, will appreciate. And while once in awhile something implausible slides into the text, we have to buy the premise anyway, because Savage isn’t going to pause long enough to talk about it, and we have to know what happens next. So as usual, an excellent writer can make us believe almost anything, whereas an indifferent one can’t make us bond with the everyday and the ordinary.

When this thriller comes out October 6, get a copy and hold on tight. It’s going to be one frenzied, wild ride!