Book Review: Salem’s Cipher by Jess Lourey

Salem’s Cipher
A Salem’s Cipher Mystery #1
Jess Lourey
Midnight Ink, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-7387-4969-3
Trade Paperback

Here’s a beauty and a brawn novel with a twist⏤they’re both women. Best friends from childhood, Salem Wiley is a well-known genius at codebreaking, and Bel Odegaard is an FBI agent with special abilities. Bel is both the beauty and the brawn. Salem is an overweight woman of Persian heritage  who hardly ever leaves her house. Besides being best friends, the two have another bond. Their mothers belong to a secret society determined to bring down a worldwide conspiracy group known as “the Heritage,” one of whose main aims is to keep women always in secondary positions of power. Right now, the Heritage plans on assassinating presidential candidate Senator Gina Hayes, who, on the cusp of the election, is already considered the winner.

This is a convoluted story supposedly hundreds of years in the making, with an unbreakable code floating around that leads to a treasure of jewels and money and wonderful artifacts. The discovery would break the Heritage if found by outsiders. Alternatively, it would fill their coffers if they found it first. Salem provides the key.

The first scene depicts the murder of one of the young women’s mothers, and the capture of the other. Salem and Bel are the next targets. As Salem and Bel crisscross the country,they find some wonderful allies, some horrendous villains, and some who might be either.

The characters here are well-drawn and interesting. The dialogue is good and draws the story forward. The plot moves quickly from one catastrophe to another, and even though  at 460 pages it’s a fairly long book, you’re never going to be bored by repetition or a slowing of the action. An excellent thriller all around.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, October 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Glass Houses
A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel #13
Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, August 2017
ISBN 978-0-2500-6619-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  When a mysterious figure appears on the village green on a cold November day in Three Pines, Chief Inspector Gamache, who now resides there, knows something is wrong.  Yet since no laws are being broken, he does nothing.  But a shadow falls over Three Pines, and unease sets into the community.  Soon the figure disappears, and not long after, a body is discovered.  During the ensuing investigation and later, when a trial begins against the accused, Gamache considers the events he set into motion long ago, disastrous means to an uncertain end, and if there will be a reckoning.  “This case began in a higher court,” he says at his testimony.  “And it’s going to end there.”  And regardless of the trial’s outcome, Gamache understands that in the end, he will have to face his conscience.  A gripping and haunting mystery, “Glass Houses” explores what Gandhi called the court of conscience and asks us, when the chips are down, is there a court that supersedes all?

This is the 12th book in the series, all of which take place in and around the aforementioned Quebec village of Three Pines, variously described as lost, hidden in the hills, and not on any map or GPS, in the middle of nowhere, and a place where “getting lost was almost a prerequisite for finding the place.”   All the residents of the village are present, and the many fans of the series will welcome them: Gamache, former Chief Inspector of the Surete, a post now held by Isabella Lacoste, Gamache now the Superintendent, heading up the division that oversees Homicide and Serious Crimes; his wife, Reine-Marie; Myrna, a large black woman who runs a new and used bookstore and was once a prominent psychologist in Montreal [referred to by others in the novel as “a verbal speed bump”]; Ruth Zardo, an eccentric, award-winning and “demented old” poet, and Rosa, her beloved pet duck; Gabri and Olivier, the lovers who run the bistro and the B&B; Monsieur Beliveau, the grocer; Clara Morrow, an artist and portraitist; as well as Henri, Gamache’s German shepherd; Jean-Guy Beauvoir, second in command in the Surete [formerly Gamache’s second in command] and now married to his daughter; and Madeleine Toussaint, the first woman in charge of Serious Crimes and the first Haitian to head up any department. Three Pines, and its residents, remain as charming as ever.

Shortly after the book opens, a trial is about to begin, the defendant being accused of the above-mentioned murder, Gamache being a key witness, the judge one Maureen Corriveau, handling her first murder case, a murder which seemingly had no motive behind it.  The identity of the defendant is withheld from the reader until much later in the novel.  The villain in the piece, a figure known as “the cobrador,” is a fascinating creation, apparently with its origin in Spain, in fact a Spanish debt collector, who followed and shamed people into paying their debts.

There is much here that is timely, dealing as it does with issues of drug/opiod use/abuse [present in our newspapers on almost a daily basis], and political corruption, among other things of national importance today.  As always the writing is never less than elegant, and the book is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2017.

Book Review: Just Another Girl by Elizabeth Eulberg

Just Another Girl
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-95628-4
Hardcover

A Rube Goldberg machine is a contraption that is deliberately over-engineered so that it performs a basic function in a completely unnecessarily convoluted, chain-reaction, kind of way.  Not unlike typical teenage girls making relationships exponentially more difficult by playing games and employing tricks instead of just kicking off a clever conversation.  Differing from teenage dating, however; there are actual Rube Goldberg competitions.  In Just Another Girl, Hope and Brady are part of their high school team that will be designing and building an entry for an upcoming contest.

Hope’s crush on Brady and her subsequent disdain of his girlfriend, Parker, form a familiar pseudo-love-triangle when viewed from Hope’s vantage.  I admit—for a moment this gave me pause.  I do love settling down with a classic chronicle; but, having read and revered Ms. Eulberg’s writing, it was unexpected.  I do love surprises, so I was quite pleased to sit back and see where it would lead.

Turns out, with her fabulously foreboding foreshadowing, the reader doesn’t need to be familiar with Ms. Eulberg’s work to feel something sinister and substantial slithering underneath.  Perspectives change when Parker picks up the narration.  In spite of her valiant effort to maintain a typical teen image, a closer look reveals her ruse.

Facets of Parker’s life unfold with all the feels.  Soul-shredding snippets, such as Parker’s money-saving system, serve as subtle reminders of the ripple effect.  One horrific act has many consequences.  The broadening view casts Parker in a new light and tosses some shade Hope’s way.  For me, it was impossible to feel sympathy, support and admiration for Parker without feeling a bit of frustration with Hope.

Ms. Eulberg highlights a significant subject in an affable, empathetic way.  Relatable characters have flaws, make mistakes and even behave quite selfishly at times—just like in real life.  Mirroring so many of the teens I’m fortunate enough to know; these adolescents have huge hearts, big ideas and the desire and determination to better themselves and help others along the way—-once they are able to focus on other people over themselves.   I adore this delightful book about an unimaginably dismal situation.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2017.

The Emotional Side of Editing

Hannah Carmack  enjoys volunteer work and spends most of her time working for the organization STEM Read, connecting reluctant readers and bookworms alike to the world of literature and science. She has a number of poetry publications, all of which regard living with ulcerative colitis. Although living with an auto-immune disease is difficult, she finds power in using her writing as a way to convey the world that people with disabilities live in to people who may not fully comprehend it. Her debut novel Seven-Sided Spy hit shelves this January with NineStar Press.

Website

After months of waiting for first-edits, a fully marked-up manuscript sat in my inbox. My editor had taken their pen, put it to paper, and came back with a slew of change requests and prose critiques, all of which were needed within a week.

I was insanely overwhelmed upon opening the document. Within two minutes of reading through edit marks, I headed to the nearest grocery store, picked up some gummy worms, a bag of sweet chili Doritos, and a six-pack of Not Your Father’s Cream Soda. On my way home, I stopped for McDonalds to top things off.

I hadn’t even looked at the full manuscript and I was already at distress-level 300. I turned to a few of my fellow writers and asked how they handle edits. I got a smorgasbord of advice, but what I heard the most was “It’s okay to be mad.”

Although well-intended this advice really didn’t help. So, I turned to Google, and there I also found a slew of articles on how to handle editorial changes, how to advocate against changes you don’t support, and how to handle the anger brought on by edits. What I couldn’t find were articles about what to do when those first edits make you feel devastated and unqualified.

I wasn’t mad, although everyone and google seemed to think that to be the first, rational reaction. More than anything I was crushed. There seems to be a lot of faking it till you make it in publishing and writing. Which, I mean, good. That’s honestly the only way things get done, but this pretending everything is okay seems to erase the imposter-syndrome-laden response some authors have when they receive that first- second- third- batch of edits.

I think what we need to hear most is not “It’s okay to be mad,” but rather “It’s okay to be mad.” Period. Having your work torn apart is hard, but necessary. Given I am with a smaller press, we dedicate a month to editing the manuscript, but in that month not only did the quality of the novel grow exponentially, but so did my quality as a writer.

Through editing you learn your own flaws and if you work hard enough you learn to correct them. Just be ready for when it hits and be open about it. If you get mad, that’s a-ok! Just ask Google, but if you feel like you’ve got a pit in your stomach and the book will never be good enough for print, that’s also a-ok! And for me at least, completely normal. For the most part, those feelings will be gone by the last proofread. Your editor is there to help you improve, not tear you down, so press on.

A Passel of Teeny Reviews, Part 4

Once again, big surprise, I find myself with
an overload of books read but not yet reviewed
so I think it’s time for a roundup or two…

Unsub
Unsub #1
Meg Gardiner
Dutton, June 2017
ISBN 978-1-101-98552-6
Hardcover

If you’re ever in the mood for a nail-biting, gut-wrenching tale of police work, this is it. Detective Caitlin Hendrix comes very close to her own kind of obsession that plays like a counterpoint to the unsub’s sick and deadly obsession and, at times, it’s a little difficult to tell them apart. I don’t mean that literally—on the page, of course you know who is who—but the emotional turmoil that each feels has a sort of certain similarity and you can’t help wondering just how much the killer is affecting her, perhaps even twisting her mind, not to mention the agitation stemming from her own baggage. This unsub is pretty well terrifying and Ms. Gardiner had me flying through the pages.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

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Poor Things
Daniel Barnett
CreateSpace, June 2016
ISBN 978-1533613080
Trade Paperback

Are you ready for some creepy vibes of the horror variety? From the opening scene of a deer dying on the road, I had a sense of what the title might refer to in a vague sort of way but I wasn’t prepared for how much I would like these characters, especially Joel and a new friend, Ash, a tomboy with an inner strength and a no-nonsense attitude. A high school superjock, Joel is typically obnoxious and a bit of a bully towards his kid brother but his life changes in an instant. He’s naturally full of anger and resentment but a kernel of compassion is there. All he can really hope for is to find acceptance for his new circumstances and, just maybe, a little happiness.

Too bad there’s something evil beginning to stir, maybe the end of the world…

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

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Renting Silence
A Roaring Twenties Mystery #3
Mary Miley
Severn House, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-7278-8653-8
Hardcover

Jessie Beckett isn’t really a private investigator but she seems to have a knack for it so, when Mary Pickford asks her to look into a starlet’s death, she agrees, having no idea where her search for the truth will take her. Vaudeville’s colorful past, blackmail, an impending death sentence…all come into play but will these varying pieces lead Jessie to Lila Walker’s real murderer before Ruby Glynn hangs?

The mystery here is topnotch but it’s Ms. Miley‘s evocation of Hollywood in its early days that’s really the star of the show, pun intended. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Myrna Loy, Zeppo Marx,  even Rin Tin Tin fill the pages with so much history and fun it’s easy to become mesmerized. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode in Jessie’s life and will be staring the next book, Murder in Disguise, as soon as I can.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

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Resurrection Mall
A Penns River Crime Novel #3
Dana King
Down & Out Books,
ISBN 978-1-943402-65-6
Trade Paperback

A town that’s down on its luck, economically speaking, is ripe for drug trade and mob activity along with a rise in petty crime and that’s what’s happened to Penns River, leading to corruption on multiple fronts and a police department that’s sorely tested. The “Resurrection Mall” of the book’s title actually is a shopping mall, one that’s being refurbished by a minister trying to help the community or so he says.

Doc Dougherty, the quintessential cop we all want on our side in a crunch, still goes home for Sunday dinner because that’s the kind of guy he is, rooted in family and the truly important things in life. Police work in Penns River is generally not exactly unusual but this time it most certainly is, beginning with the mass murders of five top level members of the drug trade.

Resurrection Mall is a little more dismal than I usually like but Mr. King‘s elegant writing, his plot development and his characters (who are refreshingly normal) all kept me going because I became invested in this Rust Belt community and in Doc. There are two earlier books and I think I’m going to have to check them out.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

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Crimson Earth
Modi Series #2
Anna Soliveres
Anna Soliveres, December 2015
ISBN 978-0-9960149-3-9
Trade Paperback

Aeva is a most unusual girl, even in her world that’s so different from our own, and is currently passing as the missing Queen Violet. Aeva is also right in the midst of the fight against a man who is obsessed with power, no matter what he has to do to obtain it and Aeva’s people look to her intelligence and strength to protect and lead them in this time of crisis. To do that, this remarkable young woman has become the strong, self-reliant heroine she was destined to be.

Crimson Earth is the sequel to Violet Storm which I read and enjoyed more than three years ago (https://cncbooksblog.wordpress.com/2014/09/24/book-review-violet-storm-by-anna-soliveres/). I didn’t feel quite the same connection to this second installment but I blame myself for not re-reading the first book before getting into this one and I really do recommend reading them in order to get the full effect of a really well-conceived dystopian tale.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2018.

The Mystery and Romance of a Foreign Language

LISE McCLENDON is the author of fourteen novels of suspense, mystery, crime, and wise-crackery. She writes the Bennett Sisters Mystery series, as well as series set in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and WW2-era Kansas City. As Rory Tate she’s written two thrillers, Plan X and Jump Cut. She co-wrote the dark comic thriller, Beat Slay Love, with four other mystery writers calling themselves Thalia Filbert. Her short story is included in the new anthology edited by Gary Phillips, The Obama Inheritance. Lise served on the national boards of Mystery Writers of America and the North American chapter of International Crime Writers. She lives in Montana and at lisemcclendon.com

Some years ago I started writing a novel set partially in a foreign country. I had traveled to this country but writing a novel set there is another matter. It requires detail, nuance, and someone on the ground to answer questions and send the occasional photo. I found some American ex-pats in France, my foreign land, did my own reconnaissance, and wrote my novel.

Fast forward to 2018. That novel, Blackbird Fly, was originally set to be the first in a series about five sisters but with the upheaval in publishing I sent it out into the world as a stand-alone in 2009. Five years later I realized I not only missed these sisters but readers did too. I revived the series and now have six books featuring the Bennett sisters, all lawyers, and their adventures in suspense, crime, and romance.

One of my marketing contacts features books set in France, or by French authors, on her blog, France Book Tours. I noticed she was now translating books into French and was intrigued. I had long wished for a way to get my books into the French market, especially ones set there.  When I discovered the translator’s fees were reasonable—often a barrier to labor-intensive translation—I jumped on the opportunity.

Emma Cazabonne, the translator, is a native French speaker, a must for translation. Although she lives in the US now, she has a proofreader, Gaelle Davis, who lives in France. Because the author herself (i.e., moi) is not fluent in the language, especially one so prickly and with as many verb tenses as French, I must trust my translators to get it all right.

As the author you don’t do much during the translation process. There may be errors found in your original manuscript (yes, even more) but as you are not the expert here, you sit back and let the translators work their magic. I find French, even when I don’t completely comprehend it, to be musical, a joy to the ear. The only input I had was on the title. Blackbird Fly is a song title, a Beatles tune, and works in the plot as well. Merle, the main character’s name, is also the French word for blackbird. And the sisters have a love of the Beatles in the story.

But a literal translation is rarely the answer to a title of a novel. The idioms of a foreign language, the nuance of phrases, are crucial. We threw around ideas: using bits of the poem from the foreword, various takes on flying, something literary or esoteric. In the end Gaelle came up with the title, À Vol de Merle, which means ‘As the Blackbird flies’ like ‘As the crow flies’ in English. Capitalizing ‘Merle’ emphasized that it has a double meaning in the book as the character’s name. But that was only the start of the capitalization debate.

My translators told me that although we were capitalizing ‘Merle’ for emphasis, words in a French title beyond the first word are rarely capitalized. Unlike English titles where every word outside minor ones like ‘and’ or ‘the’ are capitalized, it is bad form in French. Because the title is short however, it looked strange to me. ‘À’ is a small word in French, ‘of’ or ‘as.’ Then to leave the word ‘vol,’ meaning flight or flying, in lower case seemed strange.

I did some internet sleuthing. My translators are correct. Only the first word of a French title is generally capitalized. But it is not universal. For instance, the new Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury, is titled in French: Le Feu et la Fureur (which has the unfortunate connotation of Führer but that’s another language.) Another translation, the novel, Broken Promise, by Linwood Barclay, is titled in French: Fausses Promesses. Translations are possibly more likely to use the capitalization of the original title, although this is often sidestepped on the cover by using all caps.

I also found an obscure rule about capitalizing the first important noun in a title, in this case ‘vol.’ So I overruled my translators and got À Vol de Merle. Which looks right to me at least.

So my mystery is ‘partout dans le monde français.’ I gave it a new cover, a little darker and more mysterious in line with a darker French view of the world. Americans seem sunnier, more optimistic to me, at least until recently. My American in France, Merle Bennett, finds the French people in her little village at turns helpful, friendly, then annoying, snooty, intriguing yet hard-to-know, but in the end they come to understand each other. Merle’s French, like mine, is of the high school variety, causing misunderstandings and judgment on both sides.

A big part of setting a book in a foreign country is using the language barrier as plot device. When a character travels to another land, they are the classic ‘fish out of water’ in a story, trying to understand how things work and what people mean. Will Merle still be an ‘étranger,’ a stranger, when she apparently speaks perfect French in the translation? Bien sûr. Of course. At least I hope so.

Book Review: Fools’ River by Timothy Hallinan

Fools’ River
A Poke Rafferty Thriller #8
Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61695-750-6
Hardcover

The author writes in an afterword: “I had a vague idea when I started writing Fools’ River that it might be fun to bring together three or four simultaneous stories and see whether I could tell them all in a very compressed span…”  And so he did, relating several threads within 36 hours.

So we begin with Edward, the leading man in a play with Miaow, Poke Rafferty’s adopted daughter, begging Poke to find his father who is missing for 12 days; the travail of the father, one of a series of men lured by sex and imprisoned while his capturers milk bank accounts and credit cards; the life and times of Lutanh, a boy-girl, which permits descriptions of the seedier side of Thailand and its sex-obsessed trade; then there is Rose, former bar girl, married to Poke for seven years and now bearing his child in a difficult pregnancy, and mother of Miaow; and lastly Poke’s constant worry about Rose, while attempting to find Edward’s father.

The descriptions of the corruption of the Bangkok police is penetrating as are observations of the sex establishments: the Cherry Girls, the bars and of the farangs chasing after them.   Each of the sub-plots is fast-paced and absorbing and brings the reader along to a thrilling finish.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.