Ghost Hero by S. J. Rozan

Ghost HeroGhost Hero

by SJ Rozan
Series: Lydia Chin & Bill Smith, #11

Hardcover, 325 pg.
Minotaur Books, 2011

Read: October 13 – 16, 2017


So, Lydia Chin is approached by a potential client who is clearly lying about his identity about some paintings that are rumored to be in New York, and potentially on sale soon. This client really wants to establish a name for himself in Contemporary Chinese Art, and owning these paintings — preferably before they go on sale — will go a long way toward that. Here’s the trick, no one knows if they really do exist, or where they might be. Still the rumors persist, and in the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” kind of thinking, they’ve got to exist. The trick is that the artist was killed in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The client wants her to find them, prove they’re real (ideally), and help him get the leg up on the competition.

Like I said, Lydia doesn’t trust the man, and doesn’t understand why he picked her, but his cash is good and she’s curious (about him, the paintings, why he might want the paintings). So she takes the case, but doesn’t know where to start. Luckily, her partner, Bill Smith knows just the guy to talk to — another Chinese PI. Second generation ABC, from the Midwest, Jack Lee has an art degree and mostly looks into stolen and questionable art. Really, he’s the ideal PI to look for these paintings — and it turns out that someone else thought so, too and already hired him to do that. The three decide to work together on this, each playing to their own strengths.

From there, they dive deep into the New York Art Scene — at least those that brush up against Chinese Art — there are people who care about art, people who care about influence and money, and those who really, really care about art. Some care so much that Jack Lee gets shot at more than once. There are other threats as well — the idea that Chau might still be alive is a pretty hot political topic, and various governmental entities seem interested in what Lydia is up to.

The case is pretty interesting — and the various people that the trio interacts with are so interesting, so colorful, occasionally so despicable. The solution that Lydia cooks up is worthy of Blackadder’s Baldrick, but I kind of liked it. It works as a solution in a novel (I hope nothing like this would happen in real life). The ultimate reveal was a bit too obvious, but I still enjoyed it — and the rest of the mystery made up for it.

I’ve said time and time again, I love reading the back-and-forth between Lydia and Bill — adding Jack to that seems like a gamble. Thankfully, it worked wonderfully, he fits in with the two of them so wonderfully well that you wish he’d been around for a couple of novels previously to this. It almost doesn’t matter if the plot behind the book was entertaining, just get the three of these guys around a beverage or two and it’s worth it.

On the one hand, I’m kind of with Lydia in not understanding why someone would come to her to look for this — art isn’t her thing. On the other hand, she dealt with art dealers in China Trade, Chinese heirlooms in Reflecting the Sky, missing jewels in The Shanghai Moon (which yeah, is sort of precious minerals, but the art aspect of the Moon seems as/more important than the gems). So it’s not like she’s an utter novice. Sure, going to Bill Smith or Matt Scudder would seem like a bad move — but Lydia’s a good choice for this case (not as obvious a choice as Jack Lee, I grant you). And how could I not think of another PI in New York?

There was one thing I was disappointed in: I was truly hoping/expecting that this book would contain a clue (if not more) about why this was the last book to be published in the series — and given the 6 years that have passed since then, it seems pretty likely that this was it for the series. I’m assuming that it wasn’t planned, but can’t find any information about it (which means that someone’s going to come along in half an hour with a link to 15,000 words about the reason for this.) Update: A few hours after posting this, Rozan assured me that the series is not over, which is great to hear

A fun, fast-paced read that is enjoyable, engaging and all around entertaining — which is pretty much a great way to describe any novel from Lydia Chin’s point of view. Give this one a shot and then pick up the others (or pick up the others, and then this one — either way).

—–

4 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

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Tilt-a-Whirl (Audiobook) by Chris Grabenstein, Jeff Woodman

Tilt-a-Whirl (Audiobook)Tilt-a-Whirl

by Chris Grabenstein, Jeff Woodman (Narrator)
Series: John Ceepak Mystery, #1
Unabridged Audiobook, 8 hrs., 18 min.
Audible Studios, 2007

Read: July 18 – 20, 2007


Danny Boyle grew up in Sea Haven, NJ — a tourist trap of a town on the Jersey Shore. He likes the life — hanging out with the friends he’s had since high school, goofing around, eating and drinking more than he should. He’s got a nice Summer gig — working as a Part-Time police officer. The downside is his partner — John Ceepak, an Iraq War vet and former MP. He’s so by the book, he might as well have written it. The Sea Haven chief served with Ceepak and offered him a job when he was done with the Army. After an incident (IED-related), Ceepak can’t drive anymore — which is where Danny comes in.

It’s not an ideal working relationship, but Danny can put up with Ceepak’s eccentricities well enough. Until one day their pre-shift breakfast is interrupted by a girl covered in blood, standing in the middle of the street screaming. Ceepak jumps into action, and Danny tries to keep up. The girl takes them to the local amusement park, to the Tilt-a-Whirl ride, where her father lies shot dead. They’d snuck in before the place opened and had been held up by some junkie hiding near the ride. Or so she reports later. Her father owns half the real-estate in NY and NJ (or so it seems), sort of a would-be Trump, so his murder is big, big news.

Ceepak and Danny have to deal with media attention, annoying lawyers, gang members possibly trying to go straight, local politics, a Crime Scene Investigator that’s more of a hindrance than a help, and Danny’s inexperience if they’re going to solve this murder and let Sea Haven get back to what it does best in the summer — taking in every tourist dollar that it can.

The book is told with a light touch — Danny’s a smart-aleck and is (truthfully) too immature for his job; which is bad for the populace of Sea Haven, good for the reader/listener. But the lightness never gets in the way of the seriousness of the initial murder, and the crimes that follow.

Woodman is exactly the narrator that this book needed — he’s able to sound the right age for Danny, the right attitude, everything (apparently, he does a lot of YA Audiobook work, that makes sense to me). Until I heard Woodman, I hadn’t thought what a challenge it might be to get just the right narrator for this. Thankfully, I noted that with a strong sense of relief, because man…he was so good.

The Ceepak books were one of those series I fully enjoyed, and had forgotten how much I had liked them since I (apparently) finished the series. This audiobook helped me remember how much I missed reading them. If you haven’t gotten around to them, you should — either as an audiobook or text — Ceepak and Boyle are some of the most entertaining police officers around.

—–

3.5 Stars

Open and Shut (Audiobook) by David Rosenfelt, Grover Gardner

Open and ShutOpen and Shut

by David Rosenfelt, Grover Gardner (Narrator)
Series: Andy Carpenter, #1
Unabridged Audiobook, 6 hrs, 50 min.
Listen & Live Audio, Inc., 2008

Read: August 21 – 22, 2017


I honestly can’t believe I’ve talked to little about Andy Carpenter and David Rosenfelt here — it works out, when you look at timelines and whatnot, I’ve been reading him a long time before I started blogging. Still, it’s hard to believe since it’s one of my favorite series, and has been going for so long. Yeah, maybe the series is getting too long in the tooth, but for something to get to book 16+, it’s got to have a pretty solid foundation, right? That foundation is Open and Shut, where Rosenfelt introduces the world to Andy Carpenter, dog lover extraordinaire and pretty decent defense attorney.

Carpenter is a hard-working lawyer, taking on many cases that don’t pay much, but do some good. He’s obsessed with New York sports and his golden retriever. He’s going through a divorce — and has started dating his investigator. He’s got a great sense of humor, is known for a hijink or two in court, and seems like the kind of guy you want in your corner. His father is a big-time D. A., the kind of Prosecutor that people hope/assume theirs is — honest, hard-working, tough on crime. So it shocks Andy when his dad asks him to take on a client for a retrial on a murder case — a murderer his dad put away and his currently on Death Row.

Andy goes ahead with the case, not sure that he should. But it doesn’t take long before he starts to believe in his client’s innocence. About that time, things get interesting and maybe even a little dangerous.

Almost all the elements that go into a typical Andy Carpenter novel are here — even if they’re just being introduced at this point. The jokes are fresh, the clichés have yet to be developed. It’s a good mystery with some good non-mystery story elements. And, best of all, some really fun courtroom moments — not just antics on Andy’s part, but some good depictions of legal/trial strategy and the like. I’ve been thinking lately that the latter Carpenter books have been giving the courtroom short shrift, and seeing what Rosenfelt does here just solidifies that thinking.

Gardner’s narration didn’t blow me away or anything, but it was good work. I can easily believe him as Andy’s voice and can see him really growing on me (not unlike George Guidall and Walt Longmire). He’ll keep you engaged in the story, and deliver a line or two in a way that will bring a smile to your face.

Give this one a whirl, folks — text or audio — you’ll enjoy yourself.

—–

3.5 Stars

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

BonfireBonfire

by Krysten Ritter

eARC, 288 pg.
Crown Archetype, 2017

Read: October 6 – 10, 2017


When you grow up in a place called Barrens, you want to get out — especially if it’s an area with limited job options, a struggling agricultural industry, and nothing else to commend it. Although, the name alone would probably justify wanting to get out even if the economy and culture were richer. But as is the case with too many small towns like this, few manage to get out. Abby Williams headed for Chicago two days after she graduated from high school, went to college and law school, becoming an associate at an environmental firm — and only sometime after that did she return.

She returns with her friend (a gay black man, who tends to stick out in the small, rural Illinois town), a first-year associate and a couple of students to investigate some claims about the water in the local reservoir. The town’s only major employer is called Optimal Plastics, which has been dogged by rumors of shoddy environmental practices and health problems for years — including before they came to Illinois — and the team is going to see if they can make these rumors and concerns stick this time.

As they dig into records, tests, regulatory reports and whatnot, Abby notices something. Optimal Plastics is clean. Absolutely clean — on paper, there’s never been a company so clean and responsible. Which just seems impossible, no one is this perfect. Abby smells blood in the water and goes on the attack.

At the same time, in a small town, you can’t help but run into people you don’t want to see again — which is pretty much everyone from High School. The girls who used to torment her, the guy she had a large crush on, the people she wasn’t so sure about. It takes mere moments for her to get embroiled (or re-embroiled) in the same relationships, problems, gossip that she’d escaped from. From “the old crowd” (that was never Abby’s crowd), she gets her insight into Optimal Plastics — all the good they’ve done for the town, the numbers of people they employ, the money they pour into the schools, and so on. So much good that no one wants to take a good look into them, the price is potentially too high.

This reminds her (not that she needed the reminder) of some problems potentially tied to the company back when she was in high school — girls that seemed inexplicably sick. What else could it be from? She’s told time and time again by her friend that what happened over a decade ago doesn’t matter,what matters is what the company is doing now. Abby’s not convinced, and keeps digging at this — even if she agrees with him, the ghosts that haunt her will not allow her to let it go. Abby becomes more and more focused on this aspect of the investigation — flirting with and maybe crossing the lines into obsession.

Oh, and did I mention her father? As you may have picked up from the fact I mentioned earlier that she hadn’t returned to Barrens since high school that she’s not that close to anyone there — including her father. The exploration of and changes to their relationship is one of the more emotionally satisfying storylines in the book.

I’m from a small town, I get the feeling of never actually escaping from it — returning to the same place you left. But I’m willing to bet that even readers from larger towns/cities can relate to this. You can take the girl out of High School, but you can never take High School out of the girl, I guess. Ritter deals with the emotional realities and hazards like a pro — there’s not a beat that seems false or forced. The manner in which Abby makes connections, interweaves her look into what happened years ago with what’s going on right now is great (for the reader). The secrets she uncovers are chilling and unthinkable — yet entirely believable.

Would I have liked to have seen more with her colleagues reacting to Barrens, helping her follow the leads she’s interested in, or just interacting with her at all? Absolutely — but I’m not sure how Ritter could’ve done that without more effort than it’s probably worth. Could she have done more with her Chicago-friend sticking out in Barrens? Yup, but it might have distracted from the overall plot (but if she’s going to remark on it as often as she does, she should do something on it — it comes across as urban snobbery). I think that’s almost something I could say about everything in the book. I don’t know that I needed a lot more of everything, but I think every bit of the story, the characters, the mystery, etc. could use a little bit more development, a little more space. Not much, just a little bit.

I liked Abby almost immediately — from the fairly disturbing Prologue, on through to her struggles in town and questionable choices, you root for her and hope that she finds an element of peace. Her coworkers are great. It’s hard to decide what you think about some of her old high school friends right away, and probably best no to decide too much about anyone in town until The Reveal at the end.

The writing is crisp and compelling — Ritter has some really nice turns of phrase as well. There’s a couple of times that Abby is drunk and/or the influence of alcohol plus other things that were just excellent. Abby’s inability to keep her perceptions in line, to have a coherent recollection about everything she experiences through this time — that’s just excellently executed.

I won’t say that it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year — if there’s a plot point here that you haven’t seen, I’ll be surprised. If there’s a character, character arc, or anything like that you haven’t seen before, I’ll eat my hat. Does it matter? Nope. The way that Ritter tells the story, how she treats the characters and shows them to the reader — how she executes things, that’s the key. It all worked really well, I was thoroughly entertained, even held in suspense. Even if in retrospect I decided that I’d seen it all before, I didn’t see a lot of it coming — or I’d seen story elements X and Y a few dozen times, I hadn’t seen them combined the way Ritter did. This is a solid first novel, and I hope there’s at least a second on the way.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Crown Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

3 Stars

The Flying Frog and the Kidnappers by David Yair, ilana Graf, Natalie Jackson

The Flying Frog and the KidnappersThe Flying Frog and the Kidnappers

by David Yair, ilana Graf (Illustrator), Natalie Jackson (Illustrator)
Series: The Flying Frog, #4

Kindle Edition, 34 pg.
Simple Story, 2017

Read: October 3, 2017


I don’t like not liking books, but not liking a kid’s book (and putting that online!) makes me feel like I kicked a puppy.

But . . .

This was just a mess — the grammar was inconsistent (I think this says more about the translator), there wasn’t even a paragraph to help new readers to the series (like me) orient themselves into the nature of a talking frog (in a world that not every frog talks), why the frog is wrapped up in balloon strings when we first get to him, etc.

And then the story itself just made no sense — not in a good way, either. I really don’t want to say that the characters are flat, because they’re not really characters — they’re names and genders, and that’s about it. The kidnappers make Jasper and Horace seem like Ocean’s Eleven.

This is supposed to be for readers 9-14 years of age. I can’t imagine any self-respecting 6 year old liking this, much less a 14 year-old. Sure, I know we all read, and learn how to read, at our own pace. I don’t want to say that it’s bad for a 9 year-old to enjoy a book written at this level, but generally, at this age, readers should be reading about the Kings and Queens at Cair Paravel, the unlikely thief who went There and Back Again, or The Boy Who Lived, not this kind of thing.

If I came into this series at Book 1, would I like it better? Possibly. It could happen, it’s possible that with more context this’d work. But I have a hard time believing it. I didn’t dislike this book, I guess I pitied it, more than anything, really.

You and your kids can find better.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion, sorry it didn’t work out better for him.

—–

2 Stars

McCall & Company: Workman’s Complication by Rich Leder

Workman's ComplicationMcCall & Company: Workman’s Complication

by Rich Leder
Series: McCall & Company, #1

Kindle Edition, 390 pg.
Laugh Riot Press, 2014

Read: September 29 – October 2, 2017


Kate McCall is an actress struggling to make it — she’s had a few dozen jobs to support her acting (and her son while he was growing up), and is now a building manager, dog walker and off-off-off Broadway actress (I’m probably leaving off a couple of “off”s there). One recurring gig has been helping her father, a private investigator, from time to time.

When Jimmy McCall is murdered he leaves his agency to Kate — which she doesn’t want, she’s not a P.I. ,she’s an actress — just ask her. Nevertheless, she’s driven to see if she can’t figure out what led him to the building he was killed in. Before she knows it, she’s lying to the police about what he was working on that might have led to his murder, as well as getting pretty deep into the investigation herself.

Meanwhile, her father’s lawyer sends a prospective client to her — Teddy Barkowski is a general contractor who is being sued by someone who fell off some scaffolding and injured his back. Kate doesn’t want to take this case, but honestly, the money woos her. Soon she agrees, with internal reservations, to look at the case. After meeting Barkowski’s wife and kids, she’s all in — there’s no way that she’ll let this guy and his lawyer hurt the family. Easier said than done, really — this is one tough nut to crack.

Thankfully, Kate’s not alone — she has two great sources to turn to for help. She’s got the actors, producers, writers and the rest from her theater to pitch in, playing various roles to try to help her get information about the workman’s compensation case. Not only that, many (if not all) of the tenants in the building she manages are friends with Kate and each other. She calls the apartment the House of Emotional Tics and to say that it’s populated by a collection of strange characters, is an understatement. With a variety of particular skills (many of which are legal to exercise), Kate calls upon them to help with her investigation of her father’s death.

Her son, an assistant DA in the city and the homicide detective she starts dating, aren’t nearly as supportive of her new career. In fact, they’re downright discouraging. I wasn’t a fan of almost all the interactions with her son — but his last appearance in the novel won me over. The love interest-detective, on the other hand, I thought worked very well.

This is a light/comedic mystery novel — but it is a mystery novel with strong PI stories, both of which could’ve been told without the comedic elements and made a pretty good novel. But they do work better the way that Leder told them. Basically Kate’s Stephanie Plum with actual skills, or David Ahern’s Derry O’Donnell with a bit more maturity, success in theater, and no psychic abilities. The first-person narration is amusing and crisply written, there are more laughs than tense moments — but all the elements work together and balance each other out well. Occasionally, the goofiness that accompanies the people from the D-Cup theater or the House of Emotional Tics threatens to interfere with the narrative, but it never does — and usually ends up supporting the detective stories. In the end, Kate’s large collection of sidekicks are more like the team that Fox & O’Hare use than Stephanie Plum’s coworkers/family/friends — they aren’t inept, but they can actually accomplish most of what they set out to do (and when they don’t, it’s not because they’re jokes — it’s because they got beaten fair and square).

I’ve compared this to Evanovich enough, how does this compare with Rich Leder’s work? Well, I quite enjoyed Let There Be Linda, and I can say that this isn’t the same kind of book. Linda frequently felt out of control, in a good way, mind you, but you could argue that Leder took a handful of whacky ideas and threw them together in a contained space to see what would happen when they combined with each other. This was just as funny (sometimes more so, sometimes not as much), but felt controlled — there was one strong narrative and a few others that supported it. Characters that were more grounded (note, I said more grounded, not grounded), and some emotional depth to the story/storytelling. I’m belaboring this point to underline the differences in the books because I think it demonstrates Leder’s skill, and because I know that Linda‘s style can be off-putting for some, and I don’t want those people to think that this book should be avoided.

When the reveal of the murderer happened, I was a little annoyed with myself for not catching the clue that tipped her off. I will admit, I noticed the same thing she did, but shrugged it off, assuming it was a problem with the editing. But, naturally, the folks at Laugh Riot Press don’t make flubs like that — it was a genuine clue and I didn’t run with it. Beyond my annoyance with myself for not figuring out the murderer, I rather enjoyed the reveal — and Kate’s ultimate triumph in the other case, too.

A very satisfying, entertaining novel — really funny with real emotion — that introduces you to a cast of characters that you want to spend more time with — thankfully, there are two more books in the series and I hope to return to them soon. Give this one a shot, folks.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion.

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3.5 Stars

The Hunger Angels by Jason Miller

The Hunger AngelsThe Hunger Angels

by Jason Miller
Series: Slim in Little Egypt, #1.5

Kindle Edition, 62 pg.
Harper Paperbacks, 2016

Read: September 29, 2017

Taking place sometime after Dead Don’t Bother Me, Slim’s night of Scrabble with his daughter, Anci is interrupted by his friend, Jeep and a former co-worker, Snake.

Don’t you just love the names of these characters?

Anyway, since leaving the coal mines, Snake has made a little money here and there, and has a few rental properties now. His nicest place is being rented by the nicest young couple, but Snake has family that needs it, so he has to evict the nice folks. Which is where Slim and Jeep come in. Because when Snake visits the house, its overrun with bikers and met and all sorts of property damage. The local law stops by everything looks fine and the housewife is as pleasant as Snake thought.

So now, Slim and Jeep need to do two things: 1. See if things are really as bad as Snake thinks, or if the police are right (well, I should say, confirm Snake’s version) and 2. Serve the tenants with an eviction notice. All of which goes just as easily as you’d expect. Excitement and sleuthing ensues.

The best part of this story is Anci — her relationship with her father is wonderful and it’s the kind of thing you want to read more of. Like Spenser and Hawk at their best, or Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, you just want to read pages and pages of their conversations. It took about 6 sentences from Anci for me to note, “Oh yeah, that’s why I loved her.” Slim’s easy to like, too — I’ve got notes aplenty about some of his lines, but I won’t quote any because the story is so short, I don’t want to ruin anything for you. Great dialogue, great Chandler-esque narration, and lot of action. That’s all I need to be satisfied.

This is listed as 62 pages, but I’m guessing at least 20 of those are promotional pages for the 2nd novel — it’s so hard to guess at Kindle length. It was long enough to justify reading, and short enough that you can breeze through it.

I’ve been nagging myself lately to get around to Red Dog, and getting this short story only served to make that a more pressing desire. Which I’m pretty sure was most of its purpose — I’ve got to spend more time with Slim, Anci and the rest in Little Egypt. Read this and you’ll feel the same way.

3.5 Stars