Bluebird, Bluebird, by Attica Locke*****

Attica Locke’s mysteries are consistently excellent, so when I found a review copy for this first entry in her Highway 59 series, I felt as if I had struck gold. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Mulholland books. This book is for sale now.

Darren Matthews is a Black Texas Ranger, and he’s in big trouble. He’s suspended from the force, and his wife Lisa has thrown him out of the house until he cleans up his act. She doesn’t want to be married to a man that is so careless of his own health and safety; if he takes a desk job and quits drinking, he can come home to his family. But right now he’s on his own, and right now he’s still drinking, and it is in the process of moving from one drink to another that he meets Randie, the recent widow of Michael Wright. The official story the local sheriff tells is that Michael killed Missy Dale, a Caucasian woman whose body was dragged from the swamp behind Geneva’s bar, and then himself. The only problem with that theory, Darren discovers, is that Michael died before Missy. Darren thinks they were both murdered.

As Darren goes deeper into the case, after receiving short-term, conditional support from his boss, he finds more elements that suggest a murder and subsequent cover-up. He’s closer to the truth; the sheriff and another local big-shot are closer to apoplexy; and he’s less likely to go home to Lisa.

Attica Locke is one of a handful of consistency brilliant mystery writers in the US. Her capacity to carry me to the murky rural South and create taut suspension that makes me lean forward physically as I follow the story is matchless. I’ve read more than a hundred other books between her earlier work and this one, yet I still remember the characters, the setting, and above all, that brooding, simmering dark highway. This is what sets her apart from other authors in an otherwise crowded field.

I also like the way she addresses racism, and here Darren investigates the role of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas; I ache as I read of the continuous injustice that Darren, Michael, and so many others face both within this story and in real life. And I want to cheer when Darren says that he will never leave, because the ABT and other White Supremacy groups don’t get to decide what Texas is. It is as much his story as it is theirs, and he will fight for it.

“Darren had always wanted to believe that theirs was the last generation to have to live that way, that change might trickle down from the White House. When, in fact, the opposite had proven true. In the wake of Obama, America had told on itself.”

Darren risks his life once again in his determination to dig up the rotten hidden truth and lay it out in the sun where everyone can see it. The ruling scions of Lark are equally determined to prevent him from doing it. The intensity of this thing is off the charts, but fortunately I know this author’s work well enough not to start reading it close to bedtime, because once I am into the book’s second half, I will have to finish it before I can do anything else, including sleep.

The good news for me and for other Locke fans is that this is the beginning of a series. I received this galley after publication, and now the second of the Highway 59 series, Heaven, My Home, is slated for release in September. (Watch this blog!)

Highly recommended.

Foundryside, by Robert Jackson Bennett***-****

Foundryside RD4 clean flat3.5 rounded up. This title is the first in a new series. Those that love fantasy, and especially those that already enjoy this writer’s work will want to check it out. My thanks go to Crown and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. Bennett comes to this project with a list of awards as long as your arm, so I was excited to read him. I probably would have been more impressed by this book if there hadn’t been so much build up. Still, it has a lot going for it. It will be released August 21, 2018.

The fictional city of Tevanne in which this story takes place is even more polarized than the developed world of today; there is a walled city in which the haves get everything and live in tremendous luxury, and then we have The Commons, where not only is there no law enforcement or legally held private property; in fact there are no laws at all. This is where the dispossessed try to stay alive. Our protagonist is Sancia, a thief that has been commissioned to steal a valuable artifact. Buildings speak to Sancia through her hands, so when she doesn’t want to be distracted or drained, she must wear gloves. The technology of the time is scriving, a magical method similar to artificial intelligence on steroids, and this dominates the plot. Sancia discovers Clef, a key that is scrived, and Clef becomes her sidekick.

The story starts out with a lot of noise, but not much of substance takes place; we have scriving, and we have a lot of chasing, running, hiding, climbing, jumping, running, fighting, running some more and…well, you get the idea. I generally prefer a more complex plot along the lines of Stephen Donaldson or Tolkien, but I was glad I stayed with it when I saw where it ended up.

I am pumped to have a series that has a strong female protagonist, and here we also have a female villain. I would be even more pumped if rape were never even mentioned. I read an interview years ago with movie director Jodie Foster, who said that working with male writers, directors and producers was frustrating, because so few of them were able to imagine motivation for a female character without landing there. Why would this character do [whatever]? Why, she must have been raped. It was rape. She’s afraid of rape.

Still, after all of the scriving, running, chasing, hiding, fighting and fleeing, we come to an ethical quandary that makes it worth the wait. And of course, the series is still in its infancy, so it’s fun to get in on the ground floor.

Bennett’s fans will be delighted, and those that love fantasy should consider adding this book to their queue.

The Pearl Sister, by Lucinda Riley**

ThePearlSisterI was invited to read and review this title, and I thank Net Galley and Atria for thinking of me. Sadly, though I tried more than once, I just couldn’t engage with the story. I couldn’t put my finger on it; whereas the character development could do with a little boost, generally a series mystery can inspire at minimum a 3 or 4 star review from me. What is it that stands in the way now?

Had I not been distracted by a major household disaster, I would have realized it sooner. The premise itself is a disturbing one to me. The sisters are all adopted children that were sought out by a now-deceased, very wealthy man, who wanted a child for each continent. No, wait. A daughter from each continent.

How do children become tchotchkes? What gives any adult a right to treat orphans like collector’s items?

Props to Riley for her resonant settings and for developing a dedicated readership. The fact that the series has developed such high reviews tells me that there are a great many people that genuinely admire this series and look forward to the next before it’s available. But try though I might, I don’t see it that way, and I cannot provide a review based on what other readers think.

For those that are already among Riley’s readers, here it is, another one. But for me? Not so much.

Crime Scene, by Jonathan Kellerman and Jesse Kellerman***-****

crimesceneCrime Scene is the first in the Clay Edison series, written by a father and son team. Big thanks to Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. I rate this mystery 3.5 stars.

Edison is a coroner’s investigator, and he finds himself drawn into an ugly, complicated murder, seduced by the lovely Tatiana, who I found myself disliking much earlier than the protagonist does. There’s the psychological component here that’s similar to the movies, where the audience yells, “Don’t go through that door” as the main character strolls obliviously forward; however, where the Kellermans take the story once Edison has wised up is interesting, original, and well played.

I enjoy the snappy banter that I associate with the elder Kellerman’s other novels, and there’s a hugely entertaining side character named Afton that I’d love to see again. The setting of the down-and-out neighborhood is resonant enough that I am convinced at least one of these men has actually spent time in such a place.

That said, the first half of the story is better paced than the second, and there’s a racial component that appears well-intentioned but awkward.

This promising series is now available to the public, and is recommended to Kellerman’s fans.

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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Turbo Twenty-Three, by Janet Evanovich**-***

turbotwentytI’ve been a big fan of the Stephanie Plum series since Evanovich launched it over twenty years ago.Twenty? Whoa now, that hardly seems possible. But the first book in the series landed a host of great-first-book awards in 1995, the year before my youngest child was born.  I haven’t missed a single book nor even read any of them out of sequence.

There was a point somewhere along the way when the series started to lose its zip and some of the new fuel the writer injected turned sour. Does anyone recall the bit where Stephanie’s sister moves home from out of state, and one of the sister’s daughters thinks she’s a horse? It was beyond stupid to my way of thinking, but the point is that our author pulled it all back around within the next couple of books and it was funnier and fresher than ever. The last in the series, Tricky Twenty-Two, was an absolute scream, and so although I rarely purchase a book for myself anymore, I plunk #23 onto my Christmas wish list without a moment’s hesitation. And when Christmas is done, I scurry off with my four much-longed-for new books—three of them mysteries– and prepare to feast.

So this is a crushing disappointment. Sad, sad, sad. It isn’t funny enough to actually laugh at even once, and there are aspects of it that actually offend. I consider this sort of odd, given that since her movie deal, Evanovich has actually sanitized a lot of the spicier aspects of her work. The language isn’t nearly as blue as it was when she was new at this thing and had little to lose; the sex isn’t as steamy; and all told, it seems as if her imagination has an agent of its own whispering into its ear, asking just exactly how much revenue she’s willing to risk losing if she pursues this, that, the other creative but risqué notion.

How is it possible then that for the first time in a career of over twenty years and nearly two dozen published mysteries in this series alone, this author has been so politically tone deaf?

As I read one scene involving Stephanie and Lula, a pairing that’s almost always good for a laugh, my face was in a tentative smile, the expression one wears when expecting something funny to happen any minute. And that’s the moment when Lula claims to be extra lucky when seeking employment, because she can check off three boxes; she’s Black, she’s female, and she’s large in size. These should just about ensure that she’ll be hired. And then she tops it off by allowing that the only better thing that could happen would be if she were in an altercation with a cop and got beaten up and landed on YouTube.

Once I see this, I’m not laughing, and now I’m not smiling anymore either. It’s time to put the book away, read something else, and come back later when my blood pressure has settled.

The story continues; it isn’t funny, but it also isn’t dull. My attention is held, and I’m still somewhat convinced that it’s just about to get funny. And that’s when Lula says she is going to make money online by pretending to wake up one day “feeling like I’m a dude” and go use the men’s restroom. She’ll go in, “have my positive experience”, capture it on film and get rich. And of course, there are trans people all over America getting filthy rich just by identifying with a different gender than the one assigned them by nature and their parents…right?

Not so much.

I do find two amusing parts in this story. The first is some understated business with Stephanie’s parents. It’s the only subtle humor she employs, and maybe that’s why it works so well. I love seeing her mom and dad respond to uncomfortable situations.

The second is an entirely unexpected yet believable twist on the whole Morelli-or-Ranger thing, which had begun to go stale. I won’t spoil it for you, because you may still want to read this book.

One other obvious twist is that the writing, which has always been accessible to a reader that’s made it part way through high school, has been dumbed-down considerably. I find myself distracted by the number of four and five word sentences; where’s the fluency? I check the vocabulary and recognize that she’s dialed it down to a fourth grade level. I’ve administered vocabulary tests to fourth and fifth graders, and I find myself having flashbacks of the sort a retired teacher doesn’t really need. What the hell, Janet? Are we marketing to the functionally semi-literate now?

Nevertheless, I’ll be reading #24 when it comes down the pike; but not until I can get it used or free. My wish list is now reserved for other things.