Cold Quarry, by Andy Straka**

coldquarry

This is 1.5 stars rounded up. No, no, and no.

I received this DRC free from Brash Books in exchange for an honest review.

I was attracted to this mystery, which is set in West Virginia, because it has the novel element of hunters that use falcons, in addition to white Supremacist bad guys known as the Stonewall Ranger Brigade. And it started out as a promising read, with detective Frank Pavlicek and his former Navy Seal partner, Jake Toronto, looking to find out who shot Chester Carew in the back, leaving him dead on his own land. The birds of prey stand as metaphors for Pavlicek and Toronto, who will now hunt the killers as “cold quarry” in order to exact justice.

Who was to expect, then, that the entire novel would be riddled with blantant sexism, with only one positive depiction of a female? It is this one redemptive moment that saved this mystery from a one star rating, a rating I save for the illiterate and the blatantly offensive.

Before I explain further about the stereotyping of women in this work, I should also mention that the N word is used twice–once by a bad guy, once by a more complex figure–and our hero is known to have shot and killed a young African-American man when he was a cop. We are told this was a righteous shooting that gives our hero terrible nightmares nevertheless.

What timing.

But back to the women. Because I wanted to enjoy this book–who picks up a murder mystery without wanting some escapist enjoyment?–I withheld judgment until the 75 percent mark, and even then I read the whole thing to see whether there would be some sly move in which the sexist behaviors of the main characters were called out, or in which the protagonist found himself reflecting that he’d misjudged some women and situations. But the entire narrative was loaded with it, not just the main character’s dialogue and behaviors, so I didn’t think it was likely, and in the end, there was only one good moment for a female character, and the rest were endless cliches.

We have Betty in her apron (“It’s all right, I’ll just be in the kitchen”); nutcase bar owner Roswell Parker; seductive reporter Kara Grayson, who goes to pieces during a violent scene in which she is not injured.

“You stay here with the woman…” Frank tells Jake.Kara tends to an injured animal, and when the dust has settled the two menfolk rush out to save the world while “A female sergeant had also arrived and seen to it that Kara Grayson and the German Shepherd were taken care of.”

We often hear of women that occupy professional positions; we just never see them do their jobs, or if they do, they mess it up. Federal agent Colleen Briggs is one such character, and everyone feels great when she is openly dissed by the deputy sheriff, since she is “a robotic clone of a federal agent”.

Pavlicek has a grown daughter who’s out of state doing some work for him online, but when he gets her on the phone she “pouts”, and he tells her, “You let me worry about that, honey.”

Chester Carew’s son Jason is just old enough to read The Cat in the Hat, but he is old enough to protect his mother, who is helpless, apparently.(Remember Betty? In the kitchen?) Pavlicek gets her permission to speak to her son alone, but he doesn’t tell her what the kid knows or what the kid has seen. And the kid doesn’t want her to know.

We meet Jake Toronto’s girlfriend, who is an attorney, but when we run into her at home, she is cradling a baby. Frank’s daughter Nicole, who has arrived in town, takes time for “the appropriate oohing and ahhing over the baby”, and then follows her father and Priscilla into…where else? The kitchen. At this point–and I don’t want to give a spoiler, so I’ll use broad strokes–Frank needs to take care of something for Jake that Jake isn’t available to do, and this includes getting confidential material out of the house. Priscilla is concerned because Jake keeps that door locked; of course she wouldn’t have a key, right? But Frank does. When his daughter asks what is in there, he says, “It’s just Jake’s little office.”

Priscilla does help, though, by getting “‘Just, um, some personal stuff I already knew about in the bedroom’…she looked at Nicole and the two of them giggled.”

Oh, but it isn’t over yet. Not by a far sight. “Priscilla’s hands were dwarfed” by Jake’s shotgun, so of course, Frank took it from her.

It occurs to me during all this that since Priscilla is–we are told–an attorney, perhaps Frank is protecting her professional credibility by having her not know some things, or else maybe Jake was, but the word “attorney” is mentioned just once and never comes into play again.

We have a number of promiscuous women, all of whom are morally compromised. We have lazy nurses. And in a confrontation with bad guys, the uglies hurl the ultimate insult and Frank and Jake by calling them “little girls”.

Excuse me now. I am going back to my DRC of Gloria Steinem’s memoir. I need something to read that will remind me that women are worthy of dignity and respect.

If your ideas about gender are lodged in the 1950’s, by all means, get this book, and have a real good time.

As for me: no more Andy Straka!

The Miser’s Dream, by John Gaspard*****

themisersdreamThe Miser’s Dream is the third in a series featuring magician Eli Marks. Once I got into it, I did a forehead slap because I could also have read the first two in the series free and reviewed them, had I been paying attention. Thank you to Net Galley and Henery Press for hooking me up with this enormously entertaining novel. It’s billed as a cozy mystery, but were the humor placed around the killer rather than the sleuth, it could have been a comic caper. The title will be for sale October 27.

Marks runs a magic shop and works as a magician locally. He lives over the shop, and the quirky placement of its windows permits him to see into the projection booth of the adjoining theater. Imagine his surprise one fine day when he looks out his window to see a corpse—the projectionist—on the floor of the projection room. It is a locked room mystery, since the man could not have killed himself; the weapon is there in the room; and the door is locked from outside, showing no sign of forced entry.

Just like magic.

Gaspard occupies common country with Grand Master James Lee Burke in his cleverness at choosing engaging, oddball names for his characters. In addition to Detective Sutton-Hutton, we also have the sinister Mr. Lime and his assistant Harpo. The latter two seem to have some inside information. Whereas the character descriptions for these two were a trifle overdrawn, putting me in mind of a Tim Burton animation, the dialogue was sometimes quite splendid, and their role in the story is interesting and well played.

For the first half of the book, I didn’t care at all who the killer was. I was having such a good time with the double features, which I highlighted in my DRC and added to at length, but you’ll have to get the book because I’m not going to post a spoiler. There were other odd bits of hilarious detail in unexpected places, perhaps the best, in my view, being the scene with the flower pot. I had begun to wonder whether there was so much extraneous hilarity here that the murder was becoming obscured, but then it all came into focus just when it needed to, and I didn’t have to retrace the thread to figure things out. The plot is mostly linear and Gaspard has used just the right number of characters, not enough to confuse or clutter.

If you need a good laugh, get this book when it comes out. If you like a good cozy mystery, I likewise recommend it. And for those that have precocious pre-teens and adolescents that sometimes read adult-reading-level material, this one has no explicit sex and relatively clean language, and so it is safe to pass on to your budding bibliophile.

To sum up: this is hands-down the funniest thing I have read in a long time, expertly paced and hilariously detailed. Do it.

The Missing and the Dead, by Jack Lynch *****

themissingandthedeadJerry Lind is missing, which is especially strange, given that he knows he is about to inherit a small fortune. It seems unlikely that he would take off for a long time without letting someone know about it. He ought to be back by now. Moreover, the next people in line to inherit his share are also wondering if he is okay. Not that they hope he isn’t. Of course not! And at this point I have to break my narrative to let you know that I was fortunate enough to get this DRC free, courtesy of Net Galley and Brash Books. It was previously published in the 1980’s and is just now being released digitally.

Back to Jerry. No, never mind, forget him for a minute. Let’s talk about our assassin.

Our assassin is not getting any younger, and his wife is exhausted from all the moves. Every time he carries out a contract, they have to either abandon their stuff or get a truck, and over years and years of professional killing, it wears a woman down. She wants a garden. From now on, he needs to either make do with the significant amount he’s squirreled away from his successful if messy business, or he’s going to have to goddamn hide the bodies.

It’s the least he can do for her.

Peter Bragg is our man. Jerry’s sister hires him to go to Barracks Cove, where Jerry was supposed to be running a professional errand, and see if he can’t track him down. And Bragg goes in prepared. If you are sick of reading wussy narratives that give flimsy reasons for the intrepid sleuth not to carry a gun and make sure he has bullets, this is your guy, and this is your story. Has he ever fired that thing? Oh yes. But not just for practice…in the line of duty? Again, oh hell yes.

And it’s a good thing, as it turns out.

By the time the thing is over, a great deal of action has taken place, and though I am a six-to-eight book-at-a-time reader, the urgent, taut narrative (reminiscent somewhat of the Richard Stark detective novels from about the same period) grabbed me by the front of my shirt and held me there until the last page was turned.

It was nominated for an Edgar, and the clever juggling of setting and character development, along with a plot line that is unbelievably lean and compelling, will probably leave you wondering, as it did me, why he was denied and just who exactly did get it.

The consolation? If you have a kindle, you can read this book right now. Change the window on your screen and order it up. You’ll have an excellent weekend…if you can wait that long!

The Refuge, by Sue Henry ***-****

therefugeSue Henry has two series. One is about Iditarod participant Jessie Arnold. The other is about Maxie McNabb, a widow who travels during Alaska’s coldest season and sometimes at other times also, usually in her Winnebago, and usually in the company of her miniature dachshund, Stretch. As she makes her way around the USA, the reader picks up all sorts of minutiae about the culture, history, flora and fauna of various places in the United States. For those of us who are curious yet sedentary, it’s an added benefit to reading the story, and she works her discoveries in as a natural part of what her character learns, so it doesn’t have the false, abrupt quality of (my pet peeve among cozy mysteries) dropping recipes into stories. *Shudder!* The Refuge, which I obtained free of cost at the local library to lighten up an otherwise heavy-duty reading load, is a Maxie and Stretch book, the third in the series.

I was disappointed to see that Stretch was left out of this book, except for a brief bit at the end. Maxie goes to Hawaii to assist a friend-of-a-friend who is attempting to move herself and her belongings back to Alaska, her original home, from Hawaii. She is laid up with injuries and has two weeks to get out of her rented home. Since Maxie didn’t especially want to go to Hawaii, it seemed odd she would do this for someone that wasn’t a close friend, but she does so, and then finds herself stalked by a strange man, who becomes more menacing as time goes by.

The good thing about this story is that the tone is congenial and the pacing is about right for bedtime. It is interesting yet not so heart-stopping, as some thrillers are, as to affect one’s dreams or ability to go to sleep once the book is set aside.

Once her obligation to this irritating, helpless-behaving woman is dispatched, Maxie has a few days remaining before she can return to Alaska. (Once again, one cannot help wondering, since she yearns to return to her own home and hound, why she doesn’t simply go to the airport and inquire about an earlier flight, but whatever.) She decides to rent a camper and see more of the Big Island, and her sight-seeing adventures include a place known as The Refuge. Historically this was a place built behind a wall of “lava rock” and was considered a sacred place which, if a criminal guilty of a capital crime could reach it without being apprehended, he was considered safe and permitted to live out his days. So it was rather a clever place to have the criminals follow Maxie and her travel guide and companion, and for the showdown to unfold.

As you can probably tell, I would not pay full price for one of these books, and I won’t read the other series after having tried it once and been bored in the extreme by Iditarod details. (If you think this might be interesting try the books, but I have to say that I read one with the same notion and came away glazed.)

Nevertheless, when a low key interlude is needed, Maxie and Stretch (when he is included) fit the bill, at least for me.

Recommended for cozy mystery fans that are ready to buy the premise in return for a soothing bedtime story.

Live Free or Die, by Jessie Crockett *****

livefreeordieA good book leaves me in a great mood, and a lousy one makes me grumpy. Today was a good day, and so were the hours, carefully stretched out, over the last week or so, when I was reading this wonderful little e-book. It was not a bundle book, it was one I paid for, and it was worth buying and then some. I will admit that I have a soft spot for promising newbie writers whose careers have not yet taken off; on the other hand, I have never suffered fools gladly.

If you want to see my snarky reviews, go to Goodreads or amazon; I save this location for the favorable reviews, unless a publisher straight-up insists that I post my review of their ARC regardless of outcome, which does not happen that often.

A mystery reader needs to feel comfortable with the characters and buy the premise before anything else is believable. Although I live in a major urban center and generally prefer mysteries set in big cities, Ms. Crocker managed to make me right at home in a tiny New Hampshire village, though I have never been to New England. She did this by forging common bonds–the target audience here is the female boomer, and I related to it well for that reason–and also by making the characters real enough, through narrative, dialogue, and above all consistency, that I could visualize them. I also related well to the thread woven into the story that champions the rights of immigrants. Like Ms. Crockett, I am married to a man who comes from another country, has darker skin than Caucasians, and has an accent. When her ignorant but otherwise mostly likable villagers started assuming that anything that went wrong should be chalked up to “those people”, my dander went up exactly the way hers did.

This is not an adrenaline-rushing type of book, it is a cozy mystery. Not everyone in the story is a rocket scientist. At one point an out-of-town official asks her if she could imagine anyone stupid enough to kill someone as the victim is killed; she looks around at her hilariously drawn fellow citizens and says honestly, “Yes.”

It’s a crowded genre; nevertheless, I found myself chortling over the brand-new witticisms and turns of speech she brought into the story. Examples: “bacon fog”, a “clinically depressed” couch, and a very funny scene featuring a disaster on a lawn festooned with lit-up plastic Christmas statues. (My husband shifted restlessly as the bed quietly quaked under my suppressed laughter.)

How does someone who is not a cop solve mysteries, particularly those related to murder? Those who have noted in other books that most are solved by police of some ilk (i.e., also fire chiefs, coast guard, forest rangers) are absolutely right. Hers works, though probably not for a series. As a single novel, the setting of a very small town where many of the second-in-command jobs are parceled out to hard-working volunteers, having this postmistress, who is forced to hear everyone’s private business because she is a captive audience, worked really well. She is on the scene and volunteering in a hundred different ways because she has no personal life; her spouse is dead, her kids have flown.

She sets up a different premise by the story’s end that could conceivably offer her a back-door route to further adventures if she decides to go there and do that..

The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe, by Alexander McCall Smith *****

thehandsomemansWithin the genre of the cozy mystery, this long-running series by Alexander McCall Smith reigns supreme. The magic is as much due to the cast of engaging secondary characters as it is to Precious Ramotswe herself. The Handsome Man’s DeLuxe Cafe is no exception. It comes out October 28; thanks to the publisher and edelweiss books for the chance to read and review it.

On the very first page, Mr. JLB Matekoni entered and I smiled. I don’t mean inwardly; I mean my face broadened into the kind of contented crease that lowers our blood pressure and would, were we cats and not people, cause us to purr. I snuggled deeper into my blankets and got ready for a splendid evening. And another. And another.

Smith creates each new entry in his series by either adding a new setting to Gabarone, where our protagonist lives and works, or by bringing in new people, and often, as here, he does both. And often he sets up two different problems, one a professional challenge for the #1 Ladies Detective Agency, and another a personal crisis for someone among the regular cast of characters. Sometimes the two dovetail neatly at the end, but he doesn’t do this all the time, lest the result become formulaic and lose its magic. And in this instance, having become momentarily guarded by a silly story that was a little over the top rather than charming (the lion story), I was therefore watching to see whether the problem regarding Mma Makutsi’s cafe would be resolved within the amnesia-client’s family.

But our writer didn’t do that. And this is why the series is so successful.

One more skillful and enjoyable protocol of Smith’s is that he introduces recurring characters very briefly, and it never jars the faithful reader who has gone through the entire series into wanting to say, “Oh, come on, come on, I know this already.” Rather, he injects it naturally into the narrative so that the familiar reader will nod happily and think, ‘Oh yes, I do remember. So dear Mma Potokwane is still at it, isn’t she? And it’s true. She does have a remarkable work ethic.’

Violet is in danger of becoming too great a stereotypic anti-hero, but it hasn’t happened yet. The author could just choose to drop her, but his habit is to continually point to the common humanity of all, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Violet were to have perhaps just one decent moment before being returned to her regular place as the exception-to-basic-goodness-among-us-all. But that is conjecture.

I read 6 to 8 books at a go, and yet, having quickly absorbed this delightful mystery, I am already anticipating the next in the series. This, ultimately, is the mark of entertaining literature.

My thanks to edelweiss review copies for the opportunity to advance-read and review this delightful story.

Serpents Rising, by David A. Poulsen ****

serpents risingWhat fun to get in on the first mystery novel of a planned series! Poulsen is an experienced writer, and he knows how to set the hook to reel readers in. I was immediately engaged as I read the initial chapters.

Thank you, Net Galley and Dundurn Press, for the advance peek!

I’d classify this as a cozy mystery, and it’s the first such book I’ve read that was written by a man. I enjoy a limited number of this sub-genre. I dislike seeing everyday people (housewives, caterers, hoteliers) “outsmart” the professionals, and I avoid like the plague any cozy mystery with (*shudder!*) recipes! For those, I use a cookbook. And Poulsen doesn’t do either of those annoying things listed above; so far so good.

His reason for wanting to get to the bottom of his wife’s death by arson is a strong one, not all that new, (the cops suspected him for a long time, and he misses his wife), but old devices like these can still work if the writer is skillful enough to make them seem new. In the beginning, it worked for me.

Equally if not even more engaging is the help he provides his friend Cobb, a private detective being paid to search for a missing teenager with a history of drug abuse. The characters of Jay and Zoe were almost tangible. I used to teach kids of this age, and Poulsen made them so believable that I felt as if I knew them.

That said, the first half of the book is better than the second half. Some of the details in the resolution strained credibility, and the second half also saw a couple of seen-it-many-times plot devices that didn’t look new; they made me groan and mutter, “Oh come on, not that again!”

But you’ll note there are four stars there. It’s a good book, despite the occasional momentary mutter on my part. When the second Cullen and Cobb mystery comes out, it will be on my to-read list.

I was pleased that the author did not add a sickening amount of gore, or add elements that would leave me with a leaden gut for the next two days. Some authors feel that in order to gain the attention of an increasingly easily distracted audience, they have to dig up every horrible possibility and traumatize us. Not so here (or in anything I would label “cozy”). If your “ick” factor keeps you away from Stephen King, you can read this one.

For a fun, relatively quick read to curl up with over the weekend or take to the beach, get a copy of this book. If you are a mystery fan, I think you’ll like it!

Dead Little Dolly, by Elizabeth Kane Buzelli ****

  This is the first title I’ve read of this engaging cozy mystery series created around Dolly, the local sheriff of a tiny mid-western town. The setting, located in Northwestern Michigan, is original and well conceived; the pacing and transitions are deft and clearly the work of an experienced writer. Best of all are the characterizations, which are colorful and distinctive without being so wildly eccentric as to become caricatures or stereotypes.

I will admit that when it comes to cozy mysteries, I am a hard sell. I want working class protagonists, first off; no wealthy people on cruises or in drawing rooms for me (Dame Agatha Christie as the legendary, sole exception to my rule). I don’t like to see improbable individuals solving crimes that go right over the heads of the police, and I will not read a cozy mystery I even suspect may contain a recipe somewhere. If a novel needs recipes to sell, it’s not much of a novel.

Dead Little Dolly meets all of my snooty criteria. The title character, Dolly, is the sheriff of her tiny town, and has all sorts of family baggage that comes into play. Her mother abandoned her as an infant to join some religious cult in France, and now that she is a single mother, she sternly rejects her grandmother’s wish to contact said long-gone mother. I loved what Dolly had to say about her mother’s lack of responsibility and what might have happened because of it: “How’d she know I’d turn out so good?” This really cracked me up.

There are a couple of somewhat weak spots: the notion that Emily, the journalist, must keep news of our crime prominent in the local press “to keep the pressure on” is nonsense. When this is done, on whom is the pressure supposed to be placed? On THE POLICE. In this case, the police–a force of one–is the victim, and already highly motivated to solve the crime. Are we seeking the assistance of the FBI? No. There is no basis for it, and it is not mentioned. So this particular chunk of motivation is weak.

However, the story is so riveting and such great fun that I was ready to overlook that bit, and indeed kept reading well past my bedtime.

A particularly delicious secondary plot was the coming nuptials of an 80-year-old bride. Her mother had been against the match, and they had waited till her death to wed. The old bird lived to be 101 years old, and now a certain amount of haste was required to give the newlyweds a maximum period of wedded bliss. (I confess this made me think a bit of my favorite aunt, who was widowed at 30 and remarried at 70.)

Dead Little Dolly is a good fun romp, exactly what the doctor ordered when you need a beach read or a little something to take your mind off of your own worries. If you enjoy a good cozy mystery, this one is highly recommended.