The Blackhouse by Peter May

The BlackhouseThe Blackhouse

by Peter May
Series: The Lewis Trilogy, #1

Hardcover, 357 pg.
SilverOak Books, 2012

Read: December 18 – 19, 2017


Endinburgh’s DS Fin Macleod returns to work after a month’s bereavement leave and is immediately sent to the Isle of Lewis to aid in a murder investigation. The murder shares some commonalities with a murder he’d been investigating before his leave and Fin grew up in the same town as the murder — in fact, he knew the victim as a child and was bullied by him. Fin has returned to the island once since he left, and that was almost two decades ago — nevertheless he is surrounded by memories and ghosts.

As is so often the case with this kind of story — the returning detective/writer/lawyer/etc. — the narrative is divided between the present and the past. In the present we get Fin and his local contact looking into aspects of the murder, drawing on Fin’s knowledge of the suspects and other persons of interest. The other portion traces Fin’s friendships and lost loves on the island, his problematic relationship to the island’s culture, and some of the trauma of his life. In the end, as every reader knows, the past illuminates the present and Fin’s able to solve the mystery — at great cost to himself.

May structured this wonderfully, the prose is gripping, the characters well-developed and believable — you can feel the harsh environment, the cold, the isolation.

But . . . I just didn’t like it. I can’t point to anything in particular that put me off, I just didn’t click with it. I didn’t dislike it either, I should say.

Strong writing, a great sense of setting, a story well told — I can see why so many readers appreciated it, and figure many of my readers will, too. But it just didn’t do enough for me. I’ll give it 3 1/2 stars on the strength of May’s skill alone.

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3.5 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

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The Cult of Unicorns by Chrys Cymri

The Cult of UnicornsThe Cult of Unicorns

by Chrys Cymri
Series: Penny White, #2

Kindle Edition, 234 pg.
2016

Read: December 4 – 5, 2017


Sure, all I know about the life of an Anglican priest comes from this series and Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas, (oh, and one series of Grantchester) and maybe Fantasy fiction isn’t the best source, but man, being a priest in a small village/town in England seems to be lonely and horrible — especially around Advent. Which is where we find Penny White — running on fumes, bouncing from obligation to obligation — with barely enough time for her grieving brother, her gryphon partner and her snail shark (never mind the duties in the parallel world of Daear) — not to mention casually dating a police inspector and a dragon. Throw in a murder mystery and . . . wow. How does she sleep?

Before we get to much of that Penny and her brother, James, go to Lloegyr for the trial in the death of James’ girlfriend. It is quick, decisive, decidedly alien (as it should be) and adjudicated by a panel of 3 unicorns. Apparently, Unicorns are impossibly fair, honest and just so they make the perfect judges. No one, not even the dragons would dare protest what the unicorns decide. Penny can’t help but note how almost everyone she sees reacts strangely to unicorns — she’d probably do the same, however, if she weren’t so dragon-obsessed. When bodies start showing up on Earth with what seem to be unicorn-caused injuries, Penny seems to be the only one who is willing to follow the evidence. At the same time, maybe it’s just me, but it didn’t seem that Penny was too bothered by the murders — and certainly didn’t seem to spend too much energy investigating them. (although, that might have more to do with the obviousness of the culprits and the difficulty getting anyone else on board with it).

James is not handling the grieving process too well — not that anyone does — and I was less-than-impressed with the way Penny was dealing with him.. It really seemed out of character for her. I think it points to a slow-build of a problem for Penny and her dual callings. In the first book, we got hit over the head with the concern that she’d be too focused on the other world too much to do a decent job on Earth, and while it was only brought up once or twice here, I think it’s easy to see that the danger was real. I like how it seems that Cymri is moving this problem to the back burner, just so it can keep growing as a problem while being subtle about it. Professionally/vocationally, things are not going well for Penny, and I think this will continue for awhile.

While writing about book 1, I was worried about an impending romantic triangle — and I like the way that Cymri dealt with it here, much more than I assumed I would when we left it off. I’m not sure I’m ready to breathe easily about it yet, but I have hope (I also haven’t read as many romantic triangles this year as I have in years past, maybe my tolerance for them will increase). Actually, I liked just about everything about the romance angle in this book. Especially Morey’s.

The Murder plotline (and the aftermath) serves as the narrative hook for the book, but doesn’t seem to occupy as much of the time as you’d think. Where The Temptation of Dragons introduced us to this reality (or dual-realities, I guess), this one explores it — with a greater emphasis on Earth. We really spend very little time on the “other side.” Which was okay, really. I imagine that won’t always be the case (glancing ahead at the blurb for the next volume, it looks as if I’m right).

I’m not sure what else to say at this point, but I’m pretty sure I’ve been less thorough than I intended. I enjoyed The Temptation of Dragons and The Cult of Unicorns kept all the charm and wit about that, but grounded the characters and their actions better (or at least more firmly). And really, that’s about all you can hope for from a series — you keep everything you liked in the previous installment and build on it. Cymri nailed that, which serves to make me plan on getting to book #3 faster than I did this one.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for this post — thanks so much for this book.

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3.5 Stars

The Freedom Broker by K. J. Howe

The Freedom BrokerThe Freedom Broker

by K. J. Howe
Series: Thea Paris, #1

Hardcover, 361 pg.
Quercus, 2017

Read: November 6 – 7, 2017


Thea Paris is such a cool character — she’s like a combination of Charlie Fox and Vanessa Michael Munroe — but with a very different load of emotional baggage. When she was a child, her brother was sleeping in her room to help her make it through a hard night when he was kidnapped. She’s spent the following decades convinced that the only reason he was kidnapped is that the abductors thought he was Thea. Yes, he eventually made it back safely, but he was (obviously) never the same, and Thea used that to fuel her mission in life. Her father is the tycooniest of American Oil Tycoons, and she could’ve easily rested on his laurels, or followed in the family business.

But no, Thea is in private security, with an emphasis on K&R (Kidnapping and Ransom). She’s the one negotiating with kidnappers/their representatives to get a ransom paid and the victim returned to his home/family/nation/company. When that doesn’t work, Thea will lead the extraction team doing what they can to bring te victim home. She’s one of the best around. She is not perfect, and we see that right off, but she gets the job done well.

Which is good, because on the verge of one of the biggest deals of his life, Thea’s father, Christos, is kidnapped. It’s up to her, some allies and friends to bring him home. There are several candidates for the kidnapper’s identity — there’s the Chinese oil corporations competing with her father, there are representatives of the African nation that kidnapped her brother all those years ago, there’s an arms dealer that has rumors flying, too. In the midst of this hunt, secrets will be revealed (many Thea will regret learning), and virtually everyone in her life will end up divulging something dark and hidden.

One more thing about Thea — she’s diabetic. Which is an interesting character trait — I can’t think of another action hero with something like that: a real physical condition that requires maintenance, but is manageable and will not ordinarily cause anything more than inconvenience. Sure, it does give us what I’m calling Chekhov’s glucose monitor (not a spoiler, that’s what I put in my notes when it was first mentioned).

I liked the other characters, too — but it’s hard to talk about most of them without getting too heavily into the plot. So let’s just say there are a few people I’m really looking forward to seeing again, and a few that I enjoyed enough this time out, but am very glad they’re in no position to show up again. Just about everyone has a believable motivation — no matter what side of the law and/or morality they fall on — which is just great.

Howe’s prose is tight and the pacing is great. There’s a few times that Thea has the same thought over and over — which is probably realistic, but it seems repetitive (and possibly not trusting the reader enough) to read her conclude “X may have done Y” in a chapter, and then “Y may have been done by X” in the next. But it’s nothing to get too worked up over, I didn’t think. Howe does seem to have a “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to story telling — the number of things that go wrong during Thea’s search for her father, and the number of opponents and obstacles in her way is seemingly endless. I love it, every time you think she’s on a roll and things are going to start going her way, a problem that the reader should’ve seen coming (but almost never does) shows up to derail things again. Sure, eventually, that comes to an end — the book doesn’t go on forever — but not until Howe’s good and ready for it to end. She’s probably getting a new kitchen constructed to hurl at Thea in the next book.

There’s a great mix of action and intrigue, putting clues together and smacking heads, emotional growth and uncovering the past. Like it’s protagonist, The Freedom Broker isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done well. Sign me up for the upcoming sequel, too.

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3.5 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Bodacious Creed by Jonathan Fesmire

Bodacious CreedBodacious Creed: A Steampunk Zombie Western

by Jonathan Fesmire
Series: The Adventures of Bodacious Creed, #1

Kindle Edition, 370 pg.
Bodacious Publishing, 2017

Read: October 16 – 19, 2017


This is a strange, fun genre hodgepodge of a book. When Fesmire approached me about reading this book, I figured it’d be something like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century, just set further south. A good mix of steampunk tech and an Old West setting, maybe with a Zombie wandering around as a vague threat, 300 pages later and we’ll be done. Wow. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

U. S. Marshall James “Bodacious” Creed is a one-man crime-fighting machine (figuratively speaking) — he comes to Santa Cruz in search of Corwin Blake, a notorious killer. While searching for Blake he sees plenty of evidence that there’s a greater criminal enterprise running through town, but he only has eyes for Blake. Not long after this, Blake guns Creed down. Creed awakens a couple of weeks later, stronger, unsure of what’s going on, but with the same drive to protect the citizenry of Santa Cruz and to put Blake behind bars or six-feet under. Creed’s appearance has been altered and his appearance alone makes criminals and non-criminals fearful (like the Gotham Knight will in a few decades). He becomes a one-man crackdown on crime.

How did Creed wake up? Well, that would be the purview of Anna Lynn Boyd — owner of a bordello and restaurant. She’s also a scientific genius on par with Tony Stark, her improvements to technology have propelled the California tech industry to unrivaled heights (including robotics of a steampunk sort). She’s been experimenting with some medical technologies and the murder of a hero like Creed provides just the opportunity she needs to test her breakthroughs.

You take that setup, add in a love interest for both of them, some loyal friends (old and new), some less-than loyal friends, a crime syndicate (before crime syndicates were cool), questionably capable law enforcement officials, and a rival scientist — and you’ve got yourself a heckuva read. It’s exciting, fun, pretty well paced with some very clever turns of phrase (the occasional bit of clunkieness and awkward phrases are easily forgivable).

The Steampunk and Western genres blend nicely — as seen in Dawn’s Early Light by Ballantine and Morris, and suggested in a Priest book or two. The time frames for both overlap — it’s just that Westerns are typically dustier than Victorian dramas. I spent a good deal of this novel doubting the “Zombie” tag — sure, you’ve got Creed walking around, but that was more of a Frankenstein’s Monster kind of thing. Although, there was a reference or two to something strange in New Orleans. — but at a certain point, the tag became fitting and appropriate, and despite my aversion to Zombies, I really liked what Fesmire had to say about them. His is an interesting take that should prove more interesting in future installments.

Beyond what I suggested at the beginning, I really didn’t know what to expect from this book — but whatever it was, I was wrong and pleasantly surprised to be so. This is one of those books that will not change or life or the way you look at anything, but you will surely enjoy reading it. Which is exactly what I needed when I read it, I encourage you to do the same.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for this post and my honest opinion. Honest, not timely, this is 2-3 weeks late — sorry about that, Mr. Fesmire.

—–

3.5 Stars

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.

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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.

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3.5 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