Book Reviews: Negative Image by Vicki Delany, Though Not Dead by Dana Stabenow, and Bloodline by Mark Billingham

Negative Image
Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-59508-790-4
Trade Paperback
Also available in hardcover

With each entry in the Constable Molly Smith-Trafalgar City Police Sergeant John Winters series, the plots become more sophisticated, the character development deeper, and the relationships more complicated. In this, the fourth novel in the mystery series, all these elements are present to a high degree.

To begin with, a has-been photographer, for whom Eliza Winters, John’s wife, once modeled and to whom she was engaged to be married, visits Trafalgar, BC, inviting her to his hotel room.  She had visited him shortly before he was shot in the head, making her a prime suspect (and raising questions about their marriage in John’s mind). Molly, a third class constable, gets to assist on a puzzling number of break-ins in the town while facing her own personal problems, including whether or not to apply for a job in Toronto or consider a deeper relationship with her Mountie boyfriend, as well as the death of her father.

The conflicts have to be faced, exacerbated by obstacles such as sexist attitudes on the police force, rivalry between the national and local detectives, including Winters, among others.  Well-written and smoothly told, the book was a joy to read, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, February 2011.

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Though Not Dead
Dana Stabenow
Minotaur Books, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-55911-3
Hardcover

Nearly a century’s worth of Alaskan history serves as the backdrop for this latest Kate Shugak novel, as witnessed by the long life of “Old Sam,” her uncle.  When he dies at the age of nearly 90, he leaves Kate as his only legatee, with instructions for gifts to a few, and a letter telling her to “find my father,” setting her on a dangerous wild goose chase seeking a long lost native icon, a map which might disclose some information pertaining to the mystery of its disappearance and whereabouts, among other objectives.

It seems Sam’s father was a ne’er-do-well who stole the icon along with a lot of other items during the flu epidemic following World War I, when few were physically able to defend themselves or their possessions, and sold them to an antique dealer in Seattle.  Sam attempted to find the icon to return it to his tribe (his mother was the daughter of a tribal chief).

The novel follows Kate’s attempts to unravel the various “clues” Old Sam leaves for her, facing dangerous competition from others seeking the valuables he left behind.  It is an exciting journey, and the novel is well worth reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2011.

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Bloodline
Mark Billingham
Mulholland Books, July 2011
ISBN: 978-006143274-3
Hardcover

Tom Thorne is a troubled protagonist.  More so than customary in this novel, the latest in the Thorne series, an unusual story about a serial killer, as well as in his personal life.  It begins with Tom and his partner learning that the latter’s pregnancy is not viable and that she needs a D&C. Tom does not quite how to react to or address the situation.

However, a grisly murder soon comes to light, diverting him to another tough case.  The victim is found with a piece of an x-ray in her hand, as well as some letters which eventually provide a clue.  It quickly is learned that her mother was murdered 15 years before by an infamous serial killer who had murdered six others.

More bodies are found with pieces of x-rays in their fists, and it becomes apparent that the killer is targeting children of the original victims.  Now the problem becomes not only catching the present-day murderer, but protecting the remaining potential victims.  This novel encompasses what is perhaps Thorne’s most complicated case.

The author’s ability to provide graphic detail in simple but pungent prose is clear and compelling.  The writing is smooth and the plot superb; the characterizations are poignant, and the insights into Thorne’s personality incisive.  Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Imagine That

Kathleen Delaney, author of And Murder for Dessert and other books, retired from real estate to pursue writing full time. Her long time love of small towns sent her looking through the Carolina’s for a new place to settle, Gaffney. Limestone College, a delightful historic district, and great library immediately drew her in. She lives in a wonderful 100 year old house, with a wrap around front porch, where she and her dogs can wile away a summer afternoon, and a big office, lined with bookcases, where she can spend her days writing. And, as always, reading.

Today I’m going to tell you a story about a little boy who used his imagination to cope with what was for him a difficult situation. It’s a true story.

Imagination doesn’t desert us when we grow up. It just changes form. The person who invented the I Phone, for instance, had a great imagination. I never would that thought of that.

Fiction writers, of course, spend most of their lives living in an imaginary world, talking to imaginary people. If you see a writer sitting in her chair staring out the window, she’s not watching the neighbors, she’s wondering why that nice Miss Beaton did what she did last night, and how she’s going to get her out of this one. I wonder how many kids who spent most of their class time staring out the window, day dreaming, seeing a world the rest of the class didn’t know existed, ended up as fiction writers. Not all, of course, but I’ll bet lots of them did.

The boy in this story didn’t. His mother did.

The Year of Helen

by Kathleen Delaney

Helen arrived the day school started. Excitement made the air crackle in our kitchen that morning. Laura once more proudly showed her father her lunch bag, David set our teeth on edge making his new cords squeak and Kris, the oldest, gave long and detailed instructions to the other two. Their father, over the top of his newspaper, kept making pointed remarks about how much free time I was now going to have, as I frantically finished the last lunch, removed my pearl necklace from Laura’s neck, assured David eating oatmeal was manly and explained to Kris once more that girl scout uniforms were only worn on meeting day.

Only four year old Eric was quiet. I sighed as I watched him make milk canals in his oatmeal. He’d always had sisters, brother, neighbor children around. This year he would be alone all day. I’d arranged for pre-school two mornings a week, and as I watched his face get longer as the time for the bus came closer, I hoped it would be enough.

The walk to the bus stop was brief, everyone happily waved good-by, and Eric and I returned to the blessed quiet of our kitchen. I sat down with a much needed cup of coffee to find a dejected little body leaning against me.

“Don’t have nothin to do.” .

After absently correcting his grammar I suggested, coloring? his farm set? a book? something with his and David’s vast assortment of trucks?

No. None of those.

“What do you want to do? There must be something.”

“Cartoons?” He looked at me hopefully.

“No,” I told him, “and I don’t think you’re ready for Oprah.  Why don’t you go play in the sand box?”

Sighing deeply, he slowly headed for the back door, misery evident in every step.

With a bigger sigh than Eric’s I refilled my coffee cup, opened the grocery ads and started my shopping list.

The morning passed quickly and when I next glanced at the clock it was 12:30 and Eric hadn’t been back in once!  Alarmed, I raced for the yard to find him quietly pushing trucks through a sandy maze. Well, I thought as I leaned against the door jam, look who’s adjusting.  Aloud I said, oh so casually, “want some lunch?”

He looked up, his Norman Rockwell grin in place. “Un huh. Can Helen stay?”

My mind went blank. Helen? I looked carefully around the yard but no child, dog, cat or turtle presented itself. “Helen?”

“Yeah,” came the casual answer. “Him n’ me have been playin all morning and he’s real hungry.”

He pushed the truck aside and was on his feet, heading for the door.

For once disregarding sentence structure, I scanned the yard again, saw nothing, and followed my son inside. He pulled out a chair, not his, then climbed onto his own.

OK, I thought, I’ll play. “Hands?” I said, as I opened the bread drawer.

“Oh yeah. Can we have peanut butter? Come on, she always makes us wash.”

He headed for the bathroom where I could hear a lot of splashing and giggling.

How do I handle this one, I wondered, then took the cowards way out. One sandwich, cut in half, one apple, cut in quarters, two small glasses of milk, and two cookies. I set the plates in front of each chair and fled upstairs to collect more laundry. By the time I returned both plates were empty, so were the glasses and Eric was back outside, this time on the swing set.

About 2:30 he was back in, peering at the kitchen clock. “When does the bus come? Isn’t it almost time ?”

“Almost. Let’s go meet Laura.” Then I ventured, “Is, ah, Helen coming?”

“Na,” I was told scornfully, “he went home.”

After everyone was in bed, I told their father about Helen.  I thought he’d be amused. Instead, he was alarmed.

“Is that normal?  Maybe you should call someone and ask.” .

“Like who? I’m sure it’s just a phase.” For once I wasn’t the one raising the alarm and it felt good.

“Isn’t there something in those books you’ve got?” he persisted.

“Let’s see how it goes.”  I sounded a little smug even to me, but underneath, I wondered.

Helen arrived the next morning and all that week. He came right after the school bus pulled out and went home promptly at 2:30. Saturday came, but Helen didn’t.

“How come?” asked Laura.

“He’s busy,” was her reply.

“He’s not coming ’cause he’s not real,” said David, with great guffaws. “Eric’s seein stuff.”

“Am not.” Eric stomped his foot indignantly.

David was prepared to continue when Kris, with a toss of brown curls, intervened.

“You really shouldn’t lie, Eric. You know what we learned at Sunday School.”  Then, with a preview of impending adolescence, “besides, it’s embarrassing. Who ever heard of a boy named Helen?”

That effectively stopped the discussion, at least over the weekend, but on Monday Helen was back.

Gradually we became used to Helen, so much that, as Halloween approached, I became a little nervous. My children expected great things in the costume department and I wasn’t sure what to suggest for someone I couldn’t see.

“Helen’s not goin,” Eric announced. “He doesn’t like candy.  Besides, he’d be too scared.”

“Like you were last year?” their father asked, not too tactfully.

Thanksgiving passed, Helen declined to grace our table, and Christmas approached. Helen and Eric accompanied me on our shopping trips. Helen was full of ideas for gifts, and generously shared his ideas on Christmas decorating, ideas voiced through Eric. I caught myself wondering if I should hang an extra stocking.

On the first day of Christmas vacation Eric announced that Helen had gone to visit his Grandma. He evidently had to take a train, one that sounded a lot like the train in the book we had just finished, and he would get to see snow.

“Gee, Helen’s lucky,” said Laura thoughtfully, “I’d like to ride on a train.”

“Really, Laura,” started Kris, hands on hips, “you know perfectly well…”

She was interrupted by David, falling off his chair, laughing. “Ain’t no such thing as a Helen. He’s makin it all up.”

“Don’t say “ain’t” I said absently, then continued, “and don’t tease your brother. Hurry and finish your breakfast. We’re to see Santa.”

Helen disappeared in the ensuing discussion of Santa and reindeer, the church nativity play, decorating the tree, presents, and relatives arriving. Eventually it was over, the New Year came and went, and school and Helen returned.

Winter moved Eric and Helen inside, but the confined space only gave wider wings to their adventures. Over lunch each day they explained them to me. Once they went to the mountains, painting them all purple. Another time they visited a swamp and wrestled an alligator. Somehow a magic carpet was commandeered and they rode wildly over the town rooftops. Ponies came and went, with an elephant thrown in for good measure. That these were somehow related to the books read to Eric at bedtime was, of course, coincidental.

Sometime after Easter they moved back outside, and it was then that I noticed Helen wasn’t coming around as much. Eric talked more about the children he met at pre-school, asking if he could have them over to play. He was invited to other houses and seemed eager to go.

In May he turned five and proudly learned to ride his new two wheeler. The training wheels would soon be in the garage, I thought, as I watched him practice.

June came and with it summer vacation. We were going to Yellowstone for two weeks and the planning took up a good deal of time. When we returned the rest of summer fled by under an avalanche of swimming lessons, trips to the beach, and finally shopping for school clothes.

Once more it was the first day of school. Kris looked solemn as she contemplated her responsibilities as a sixth grader. Laura was blase’ about this year’s lunch bag, although she was once more wearing my necklace. This year, two pairs of new cords squeaked under the breakfast table.

“Now that you’re going to have all that free time,” started their father from behind his newspaper, while I finished stuffing the last lunch box, retrieved my necklace, helped Kris finish her french braid, and removed the horned toad from David’s pocket.

I reached for Eric to comb his hair one more time only to have him squirm out from under me and follow his brother and sisters out the door.

I followed to the bus stop where I stood around useless, like all the other mothers waiting in the background for the bus to come. Eric stood next to me, not quite holding my hand. Finally, I couldn’t stand it.

“Is, uh, Helen starting school too?” .

He turned to look up at me, for a second eyes blank.

“Helen?” Slowly, thoughtfully he said, “oh no. Helen, you know, he’s just a little kid.”

Then, without a look back, he boarded the bus.

Book Review: County Line by Bill Cameron

County Line
Bill Cameron

Tyrus Books, June 2011
ISBN No.  9781935562351
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Skin Kadash returns home after spending a month in a retreat called Last Homely House.  Last Homely House is a bed and breakfast where Skin has been recuperating from a near-fatal gunshot wound.  Skin has been following doctor’s orders but now he is back and anxious to see Ruby Jane Whittaker.  Skin keeps trying Ruby’s cell phone on the way back home but he doesn’t get a response.  Ruby Jane owns several coffee houses and Skin is sure he will find her at one of them but that does not happen.   She has left town without telling anyone her destination.

When Skin gains access to Ruby’s home, he finds a homeless man dead in Ruby Jane’s bathtub.  Skin contacts the police and gets the body removed but is still no closer to finding out what has happened to Ruby Jane.

With a gut feeling that Ruby is in danger, Skin begins a search for her.  His first stop is Pete McKrall.  Pete now lives in Walnut Creek, California.  Pete had a relationship with Ruby Jane but that is in the past.   Now Skin fears that Ruby has gone back to Pete.  Pete knows no more about where Ruby Jane has gone than Skin does but decides he is going to join in the search.

Ruby’s trail leads the two across the country and deep into Ruby Jane’s past.  It appears that Ruby Jane has not been totally honest about her past.   The two uncover one surprise after another but Ruby Jane seems to be one step ahead of them.  It is obvious that she doesn’t want to be found.  This makes Skin and Pete even more determined to locate her.

Skin is a retired police officer who knows his way around trouble and there is no end to the trouble he runs into in his search for Ruby Jane.  There is excitement on every page and Ruby Jane’s background is a puzzle that takes a while to put together and reveals a young Ruby Jane very different from the adult that Skin is familiar with.

Bill Cameron has developed some wonderful characters in his Skin Kadash novels.  County Line can be read as a stand-alone but the previous novels are well worth reading and it is difficult to pick a favorite.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, July 2011.

A Madman's Rampage In A Peaceful Land

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, is available at bookstores everywhere.

www.jeannematthews.com

On July 22, 2011, one week before I made my first visit to Norway, a madman detonated a massive car bomb in the heart of its capital city, Oslo.  Eight people died and ten were critically wounded.  While the police and emergency units rushed to secure the downtown area and tend to the dead and wounded, that same madman boarded a ferry to the idyllic island of Utoya where the sons and daughters of the immigration-friendly Labor Party were attending a summer camp to study issues affecting their nation and to learn in what ways they might engage in the political process.  When the bomber arrived, disguised in the uniform of a policeman, he began summarily to execute each and every person he saw and to hunt down and shoot those who hid or tried to swim away to safety.  His killing spree lasted for over an hour.  By the time he surrendered, he had murdered sixty-nine Norwegians, most of them teenagers.  It was the deadliest attack by a single gunman in recorded history and the worst violence to hit Norway since World War II.

For years, I had wanted to travel to the Land of the Midnight Sun, but other destinations seemed always to beckon and Norway was pushed to the back burner.  When I decided to set my next book in Norway, a research visit became a happy necessity.  But as things turned out, I arrived during Norway’s unhappiest time.  The concussion from the explosion that destroyed the government headquarters in Oslo shattered the windows of surrounding buildings for blocks around and plywood covered the gaping holes.  Days after the memorial service in which a hundred thousand Norwegians filled the streets in a show of national defiance and solidarity, the city was still mourning.  Every public space was blanketed with flowers and candles, tens of thousands of flowers and candles, along with small Norwegian flags and photographs of the dead and messages of grief and condolence.  Crowds filed into the churches and hundreds more added fresh flowers to the carpet already placed.  Many of the bouquets bore messages of respect and gratitude from immigrant groups the Norwegians have welcomed into their country.

The Kingdom of Norway stretches sixteen thousand miles from south to north along the western edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula, but if you were to run the tape measure in and out of the country’s deep fjiords and around its thousands of islands, the coastline would measure fifty-two thousand miles.  It’s a vast country, but it has a population of only five million people.  From what I saw and the stories I heard, each one of them has taken this attack as a personal grief and a challenge to their national identity.  They will not change their open and inclusive way of life because of an extremist’s rampage.  Norway will continue to offer asylum to the oppressed peoples of this world and – how’s this for audacity? – Norwegian policeman still don’t carry guns.

A Madman’s Rampage In A Peaceful Land

Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.  Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, is available at bookstores everywhere.

www.jeannematthews.com

On July 22, 2011, one week before I made my first visit to Norway, a madman detonated a massive car bomb in the heart of its capital city, Oslo.  Eight people died and ten were critically wounded.  While the police and emergency units rushed to secure the downtown area and tend to the dead and wounded, that same madman boarded a ferry to the idyllic island of Utoya where the sons and daughters of the immigration-friendly Labor Party were attending a summer camp to study issues affecting their nation and to learn in what ways they might engage in the political process.  When the bomber arrived, disguised in the uniform of a policeman, he began summarily to execute each and every person he saw and to hunt down and shoot those who hid or tried to swim away to safety.  His killing spree lasted for over an hour.  By the time he surrendered, he had murdered sixty-nine Norwegians, most of them teenagers.  It was the deadliest attack by a single gunman in recorded history and the worst violence to hit Norway since World War II.

For years, I had wanted to travel to the Land of the Midnight Sun, but other destinations seemed always to beckon and Norway was pushed to the back burner.  When I decided to set my next book in Norway, a research visit became a happy necessity.  But as things turned out, I arrived during Norway’s unhappiest time.  The concussion from the explosion that destroyed the government headquarters in Oslo shattered the windows of surrounding buildings for blocks around and plywood covered the gaping holes.  Days after the memorial service in which a hundred thousand Norwegians filled the streets in a show of national defiance and solidarity, the city was still mourning.  Every public space was blanketed with flowers and candles, tens of thousands of flowers and candles, along with small Norwegian flags and photographs of the dead and messages of grief and condolence.  Crowds filed into the churches and hundreds more added fresh flowers to the carpet already placed.  Many of the bouquets bore messages of respect and gratitude from immigrant groups the Norwegians have welcomed into their country.

The Kingdom of Norway stretches sixteen thousand miles from south to north along the western edge of the Scandinavian Peninsula, but if you were to run the tape measure in and out of the country’s deep fjiords and around its thousands of islands, the coastline would measure fifty-two thousand miles.  It’s a vast country, but it has a population of only five million people.  From what I saw and the stories I heard, each one of them has taken this attack as a personal grief and a challenge to their national identity.  They will not change their open and inclusive way of life because of an extremist’s rampage.  Norway will continue to offer asylum to the oppressed peoples of this world and – how’s this for audacity? – Norwegian policeman still don’t carry guns.

Book Review: Nazareth Child by Darrell James

Nazareth Child
Darrell James
Midnight Ink, September 2011
ISBN 978-0-7387-2369-3
Trade Paperback

A young woman searching for her mother. A federal agent down on his luck. A religious ‘healer’ overseeing his own community. That’s the premise of James’ first novel. Mostly set in Kentucky, the story is a search for answers and a time of self discovery, all within the framework of a low key thriller.

Bond server Del Shannon is recruited to go undercover with ATFE agent Frank Falconet to find a missing FBI agent at a religious compound in the rural Kentucky town of Nazareth Church. Coincidentally, this assignment is the closest lead she’s had in her quest to find her mother. Working against a charismatic and powerful messianic leader in one Silas Rule, Shannon and Falconet attempt to ferret out the secrets of the isolated town and it’s almost hypnotized population.

The story moves along on a fairly even pace with lots of set up to a predictable explosive climax. James has some interesting characters easily believable if you saw them on the evening news. A fine first effort in what could be an interesting series.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, August 2011.

Listen To Your Reader

Born and raised in Southern California, Marja McGraw worked in both criminal and civil law enforcement and calls on her experience when writing.  She eventually relocated to Northern Nevada where she worked for the Nevada Department of Transportation.  Marja also did a stint in Oregon where she worked for the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and owned her own business. She briefly lived in Wasilla, Alaska.

McGraw and her husband now live in Arizona, and they say they enjoy life in the desert. “Bullhead City has really become home, and the city even made a cameo appearance in Prudy’s Back! I’ve set it up so that two of my characters live here, so from time to time I can involve Bullhead City in my mysteries.”

McGraw writes two series, one involving a young, female private investigator named Sandi Webster, and one featuring a Humphrey Bogart look-alike named Chris Cross. The books are lighter with a touch of humor. Asked why she chose this type of story, McGraw said that she wants to entertain her readers, and she feels that humor is the way to do that. Old Murders Never Die – A Sandi Webster Mystery was released in July, 2011, from Wings ePress. Previous books include A Well-Kept Family Secret, Bubba’s Ghost, Prudy’s Back!, The Bogey Man and Bogey Nights.

I recently read some comments about readers’ pet peeves. Someone commented on settings in a story. Readers want to know where a story takes place. It’s a little like putting a face to a character. If a character is running through a forest, the reader wants to know where that forest is located, and sometimes they even want to know if it’s a real location or fictional.

Interestingly, I’d just been on a panel at a conference where we discussed settings. The general consensus of the authors on the panel was that setting is paramount to the story in most cases. Readers want to feel like they’re the fly on the wall while they read, and that’s difficult to do if the setting isn’t described in the story.

When I read, I like to have a feel for where the characters are and what they’re seeing and feeling. A well-written setting can achieve what, as a reader, I want to see in a book.

In July, 2011, Old Murders Never Die (by Marja McGraw, me) was released. I only mention this because it’s a good example of why setting is important to a book. This is the story of a female P.I. and her partner, who become stranded in a ghost town. The only characters in the story are the P.I., her partner, a rather large brown dog, a really large black horse, and a mysterious cowboy.

When the private investigator finds the town sheriff’s records, dating back to 1880, she learns of a series of murders from that era. As she reads the records, she doesn’t know if the crimes were ever solved or not. Now, here’s the thing. The ghost town, or setting, is so important to the story that it’s almost a character itself. Without the setting, there wouldn’t be a mystery. Also, having to do with the setting, it appears that many of the town’s people just up and left one day, leaving all of their belongings behind.

If you were reading this story, wouldn’t you want to be able to visualize the old town? Wouldn’t you like to see (in your mind) what the town looks like now, and what it looked like in 1880? While writing this I was almost the fly on the wall.

There was another woman on the panel whose books take place in the desert, and another one whose stories are located in Hawaii. Another woman writes travel mysteries, so obviously setting would be important. Would you rather have a writer say that the story takes place in the desert, period, or would you prefer that it’s a flat expanse with sand and saguaro cacti and Joshua trees, and when someone looks into the distance they see what looks like water, but probably isn’t? A mirage? Why does the image look like it’s moving when you know it’s not? Does it set a scene for a reader if the writer says it’s so arid their throat tickles–that water has never tasted so good to them?

Setting can be integral to a story, and readers know that and, surprise, they even discuss it. I listen to them because after being true to myself and my characters, that’s who I write for each day.

How do you feel about settings? Is it a major factor when you read a book? This inquiring mind would really like to know.

Lelia, thank you for inviting me to visit today. This is an awesome site!

(Two new books by Marja McGraw came out in 2011, so it’s been an exciting year. Bogey Nights-A Bogey Man Mystery was released by Oak Tree Press, and Old Murders Never DieA Sandi Webster Mystery was released by Wings ePress.)