Book Reviews: Shadowhouse Fall by Daniel José Older, The Call by Peadar O. Guilin and Better to Wish by Ann M. Martin

Shadowhouse Fall
The Shadowshaper Cypher Book 2
Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-95282-8
Hardcover

Sierra and her wildly creative companions were captivating in Shadowshaper.   Clever consolidation of mad musical, verbal and graffiti-art skills created a dazzling cultural kaleidoscope that pulsated from the pages, and showed more than the shadowshaping-side of life in Brooklyn.  The sequel, Shadowhouse Fall, is every bit as delightful and dazzling, even as it tackles topics that parallel today’s headlines in an eerily accurate and chilling way.

Sierra has just learned of her role as the archetypal spirit, Lucera, “…the beating heart of the shadowshaping world.”  Never one to shirk responsibility, always a fierce protector; she’s doggedly immersed herself in learning, teaching and practicing shadowshaping.  Before she even begins to realize her potential, Sierra is forced to shift her focus.

The Sisterhood of the Sorrows had vowed revenge when Sierra “jacked up their shrine last summer,” precisely what Sierra and ‘her’ shadowshapers are preparing for; but no one could have predicted an attack so soon. It should have ben impossible.  Unless…the Sorrows are not alone.

To even stand a chance against an unknown in the urban spirituality system, each shadowshaper will need to be strong and smart independently; swift to support and assist when needed.  Basically, battling as they live, to save the community they dearly love.  Accustomed to every day prejudices and profiling, Sierra and her friends knew to expect hassle, rather than help, from the largely racist civil servants.

Mr. Older’s scintillating style swiftly hooks even the reluctant reader.  The scramble to fight the good fight is gripping and the escalation towards the end, engrossing.  When Sierra is left with only two choices, neither of which would result in a happy ending for her; Mr. Older presents a decision that, while not actually surprising, is absolutely unexpected.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2017.

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The Call
The Call, Book 1

Peadar O’Guilin
David Fickling Books, August 2016
ISBN 978-1338045611
Hardcover

Nessa was celebrating her 10th birthday when her childhood abruptly ended.  Instead of giving gifts and baking a cake, her parents explain The Call.

The little girl that built an emotional armor against people’s perceptions; both the pitying looks as well as the ones filled with contempt and disbelief, is intelligent enough to understand the uselessness of her efforts.  Her legs, twisted by polio into more of a hindrance than a help, have gone from a focal point to a genuine liability.

Held hostage and wholly isolated these Irish folks have but one focus: teaching the children to survive The Call.  From the age of ten through the teenage years, training is vigorous and relentless.  Just shy of cruel, the grueling paces are unquestionably a necessary evil.  Almost one in ten survive today, an exponential improvement over the one in one hundred from decades ago.  An amazing accomplishment, as fairies have an undeniable advantage when they pull a human child into their world.

Irish fairies may be my very favorite folklore creatures, and Mr. O’Guilin portrays them perfectly in The Call.  The one universal fact seems to be that fairies cannot lie and they possess a perverse pride in always keeping their word.  Bad to the core, but bound by these rules, Sidhe are as clever and cunning as they are cruel.

The hideous game of fairy versus human, produces a plot that is exciting, fast-paced and adventurous, accented with awesome action scenes.  Of course, nothing is so simple and definite in reality and Mr. O’Guilin does not settle for solely myth against man.   Most humans are considerate, committed to the greater good; but a few are slimy and self-serving.  Mystique makes the tale even more compelling and builds suspense creating compulsory page-turning.  Coupled with colorful, captivating characters and sharp and witty dialogue, The Call is a brilliant book that I enjoyed immensely.

Reviewed by jv poore, April 2017.

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Better to Wish
Family Tree Series, Book 1
Ann M. Martin
Scholastic Press, May 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-35942-9
Hardcover

Initial intrigue blossomed into complete captivation as Abby’s narration revealed an inexplicably sweet, strong and resilient girl—a compassionate, sympathetic soul–in spite of circumstances.  The centenarian’s story begins on a summer evening in 1930.  As one memory leads to another, her life unfolds like a map.

Abby’s father feels that Maine should be “white”.  Specifically, Protestant and Republican.  His daughters aren’t allowed to befriend a girl because her parents emigrated from Quebec—she’s “French”, not “white”.  Also below his determined Nichols’ Family Standards; “lazy bums…Irish-Catholics.”  Certainly vocal with his opinion, he nevertheless does not seem to stand out to the family, or the community, as a particularly obnoxious, racist fool.

Although Abby’s mother has many bad days with “her mind stuck thinking” of two tremendous losses that left permanent holes in her heart; Dad wants a son.  Baby Fred arrives.  At home, Dad can pretend that Fred is developing, learning and growing at an average rate. Abby, Rose and their mother know differently, but it has no impact on their love and devotion to the charming child.

At the age of 5, Fred behaves like any toddler—including the time he is forced to sit through a high school awards ceremony.  Due to the perceived public embarrassment, the head of the household deems his son less than perfect.  Imperfection is unacceptable, leaving Mr. Nichols with no choice.  He informs the family after exercising his “only” option.

Throughout the tumultuous times,  Abby intuitively empathizes and instinctively protects those she loves and holds dear first, all other human beings second, thinking of her own wants and needs last, if at all.   Abby is the epitome of “good people” and her story instills hope.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2017.

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Book Review: Celine by Peter Heller

Celine
Peter Heller
Alfred A. Knopf, March 2017
ISBN 978-0-451-49389-7
Hardcover

Celine is one of the most fascinating and hard to describe books I have read recently. In many ways, it is really two books in one. In the prologue, readers watch a happy family outing turn tragic and meet the little girl who will eventually be Celine’s client. If you are a reader who generally skips prologues, DON’T skip this one. It is important.

Moving on to the first chapter readers are introduced to Celine, one of the most interesting protagonists I’ve met. In her sixties, she works as a PI specializing in reuniting families but is also an artist using mostly found items that can be best described as macabre. For instance, in the opening scene she is creating a sculpture of  the skeleton of a mink looking down on it’s own skin drying on a rock with a crow’s skull nearby. Celine suffers from emphysema from her many years of smoking. There is a sadness about her that readers should realize right away explains much of what she does. She has suffered many losses in her life from her father’s absence from his family to the death of her sisters. But even as her story unfolds, we sense that Celine has lost even more.

Fast forward to the call from a much younger woman who has read about Celine’s work in a college alumni magazine. The woman, Gabriela, has also suffered losses in her life. The first painful loss was her small cat who disappeared when she was seven. But that loss is quickly overshadowed by a much bigger loss, that of her mother. As terrible as that was it was at least clear cut. Her mother drowned. Sadly that brought about the loss of her father at least emotionally. But it was  the actual death of her father many years later that  haunted her and brought her to Celine. Her father, a world renowned photographer, supposedly was killed, and possibly eaten, by a bear just outside of Yellowstone. No body was ever recovered. Gabriela has long questioned the circumstances surrounding her father’s death. Too many things in the investigation just didn’t quite add up. Celine takes the case and proceeds to Wyoming to investigate.

From that point on, the book shifts from Celine’s investigation and flashbacks to her own story.  In the end, readers find out what became of Gabriela’s father, but sadly, the mystery of Celine’s deep sadness is not fully revealed. I am hoping that there will be another case for Celine. Readers (and Celine) want closure.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St.Clair, March 2017.

Book Review: Brooklyn on Fire by Lawrence H. Levy

Brooklyn on FireBrooklyn on Fire
A Mary Handley Mystery #2
Lawrence H. Levy
Broadway Books, January 2016
ISBN:978-0-553-41894-1
Trade Paperback

Mary Handley, a not-so-proper Victorian miss, has set up as a consulting detective. Her good friend, Mr. Lazlo, has provided her with not only a job until her consulting pays-off, but provided her with office space in a corner of his bookstore. Little does he know his store will be burned down as a result of this association, but that comes later in the story. The story opens with Mary’s first client.

Mary earned a bit of fame by cracking a highly reported earlier case. This previous success draws a woman named Emily Worsham to her office, stating her uncle has been murdered.The catch? It’s a very cold case. The uncle has been dead and buried for at least ten years⏤or has he? And is Emily Worsham actually a relative, or is she simply an actress hired to point a finger at one of the wealthy movers and shakers in the Brooklyn district? The plot thickens when Emily is murdered on stage, and it turns out she wasn’t Emily Worsham at all.

The story is fast-paced. Not only Mary herself is at risk, but her entire family and of course, poor Mr. Lazlo. Even Mary’s romantic interest, none other than George Vanderbilt, comes under the gun. Nothing is as it first appears and seeing Mary solve this convoluted puzzle is a joy.

An intricate plot will keep the reader guessing. The writing is good, the setting interesting (historical mysteries are my fave whether set in New York or the Pacific Northwest) and the characterization spot on. I can recommend this one.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, July 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Review: Plot Boiler by Ali Brandon

Plot BoilerPlot Boiler
A Black Cat Bookshop Mystery #5
Ali Brandon
Berkley Prime Crime, November 2015
ISBN 978-0-425-26155-2
Mass Market Paperback

Even though he’s willful and contrary and seems convinced that he, not Darla Pettistone, owns Pettistone’s Rare Books, cat Hamlet is a treasured member of the bookshop gang, along with retired Professor and rare book expert James T. James and goth Robert, barista in Darla’s new coffee bar. It’s July, and Darla and her Brooklyn business neighbors are hosting a Fourth of July block party with music and dancers and Martial Arts demonstrations and booths. Almost everyone is enthusiastic. Only George, who is convinced that Darla opened her coffee bar to drive his coffee-shop out of business, is dragging his feet. As the heat and the problems build up, Darla works to keep the party going. Then Hamlet finds a body in George’s shop.

There are plenty of suspects and lots of interesting incidents. I enjoyed the camaraderie between Darla and her friends, and followed her sleuthing with enthusiasm. And Hamlet was his infuriating, adorable self. Long may his plumy tail wave.

Reviewed by Marilyn Nulman, December 2015.

Book Review: Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older

ShadowshaperShadowshaper
Daniel Jose Older
Arthur A. Levine Books, July 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-59161-4
Hardcover

To be sure, when a “random old white dude” fancies himself as THE anthropologist guru of urban spirituality systems, and thusly thrusts himself into the mythology of the shadowshapers; no good can come from it. Oddly, the offended fury of the spirits and entities enraged by his pompous presumptions pales in comparison to the wrath of our plucky Puerto Rican narrator.

Sierra is tougher-than-nails-kinder-than-a-kitten, cajoling the reader to dive in and hang with her and the vibrant, charismatic, tightly-knit crew that beautify their Brooklyn with gorgeous graffiti art and energetic, enchanting rap battles.

“She inhaled and the world caught its breath; exhaled
and a tidal wave of space emptied out around her.”

In the quest to find the archetypal spirit Lucera, Sierra’s stumbling blocks signify social issues of today. The answer to her original query, why shadowshapers aren’t well known, is sad but true: “people don’t see what they’re not looking for.” The Columbia librarian, coincidentally examining the very anthropologists that study the spirit worlds, reminds us of potential fallacies when making snap judgments. The horrendous havoc following Lucera’s disappearance is, disappointingly, confirmation that no one realized how crucial she was…..until she was gone.

Mr. Older artfully unravels urban spirituality lore in a mesmerizing mystery that feels fascinatingly fresh, crisply colorful and invigorating; while simultaneously seeming familiar, somewhat nostalgic. The dazzling dialogue amuses and delights. Initially, Shadowshapers can be gobbled up….an indulgent, pleasure-filled immersion. Soon, though, subtle layers leap into the reader, like spirits into shadowshapers’ murals, conveying hope, inspiration and a calming, centering of the soul.

“The true source of shadowshaper magic is that
connection, community…we are interdependent.”

I applaud absolutely every part of this courageous, bold book and recommend it to essentially every reader, middle-grade and beyond. Undoubtedly, I’ll be bouncing around the room for my Shadowshaper Book Talk when I encourage my beloved High School English classes to check this out. Tomes tailored to the open and hungry minds of our young adults build bridges and embolden the youth to join like-minded, Not-So-Much Young Adults.

Reviewed by jv poore, July 2015.

Book Reviews: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty and Brooklyn Graves by Triss Stein

In the Morning I'll Be GoneIn The Morning I’ll Be Gone
A Detective Sean Duffy Novel;
The Troubles Trilogy, Book Three
Adrian McKinty
Seventh Street Books, March 2014
ISBN: 978-1-61614-877-5
Trade Paperback

This, the third novel in his Troubles Trilogy, is the darkest and the most complex. It is not devoid of humor. Sean Duffy, a cop in the protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary, (RUC) has finally seen his attitudes and conflicts within the police hierarchy come back to haunt him. He’s chucked out of the force on a trumped up charge. A few weeks later, MI5 comes calling. So right away readers may wonder about that charge of hit and run.

This all sets the tone of this dark novel about the conflicts between warring sides in the Irish Troubles of the Nineteen-Eighties. Duffy, a Catholic in a protestant-dominated landscape, sees old school friends escape from prison, sees them die in fights with occupying British Army units and the RUC and wonders about the morality, the ethics of it all, and he sees the ruination of a society he truly loves.

A master bomber of the IRA, a dangerous man Duffy knew well, escapes from prison and Duffy is recruited to find him before his potentially high-profile act of ultimate destruction can be carried out against Her Majesty’s Government. Will Duffy find the right threads? Will his fascinating interactions with old and new characters result in success? Or will he become a witness to horrific failure?

Well-written, well-organized this taut dark novel is truly a gripping experience. McKinty is a fine writer with penetrating insights into the makeup of all kinds of people involved in the Irish scene at that time. It is fiction, but the stunning climax will remain with many readers for a long time. As it should. For though the novel is set in the previous century, it has much to say about our troubles of the present time.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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Brooklyn GravesBrooklyn Graves
An Erica Donato Mystery #2
Triss Stein
Poisoned Pen Press, March 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0217-9
Hardcover

This novel is the second Erica Donato mystery, and, like the first, Brooklyn Bones, it’s not all about a contemporaneous crime, but involves the past.  In a way, this is fitting, since the protagonist is working on a PhD in history.  As in the first in the series, it takes place in Brooklyn, NY, home of the Green-Wood cemetery, where many Tiffany windows adorn mausoleums, and Brighton Beach, home to numerous Russian immigrants and nicknamed Little Odessa.

The plot involves the murder of a Russian immigrant, Erica’s friend and the father of her daughter’s friend, whose second job was as a night watchman at the Green-Wood cemetery, and the theft of a Tiffany window from one of its mausoleums. This gives the author the opportunity to delve into history, as she reviews century-old letters of an artist who worked for the famed glassmaker.

The story moves a bit slowly, weighed down by Erica’s personal life, complicated by her widowhood, the pressures of her studies, her own insecurities, and the raising of her 15-year-old daughter.  But in the end, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn.”  Yet Triss Stein is carving out that territory as her own.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2014.

Book Reviews: Brooklyn Bones by Triss Stein, Highball Exit by Phyllis Smallman, and Nightrise by Jim Kelly

Brooklyn BonesBrooklyn Bones
Triss Stein
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0120-2
Hardcover
Also available in trade paperback

Erica Donato has a difficult personal life:  Her mother has passed away, she is estranged from her father after he moved away to Arizona with the new woman in his life, her husband died in a tragic accident at age 26, leaving a 24-year-old widow and three-year-old daughter, now fifteen, and she is trying to raise a teenage daughter on her own. Erica is a historian, in grad school, and working in a museum on a part-time internship, receiving a small paycheck and getting academic credit for the work.

During the course of extensive renovation work in her century-old house in one of the less-upscale parts of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a skeleton is found, hidden behind a wall, apparently that of a young girl, and it appears to have been there since late in 1972.  Both Erica and her daughter, Chris, become determined to try to ascertain who the girl was and why she died.  Her daughter says “I feel like I found her so I owe her something.  I feel like she wants me to find out about her.”  Erica agrees, thinking about “this refuge that no longer felt so safe, where a girl my daughter’s age had seemingly disappeared a long time ago.  I didn’t want to think about who must have been looking for her way back then, or the terrible sadness if there was no one to look.”

As the two start to investigate the history of the house, bad things start to happen to people in their lives, both of long standing, and new ones, and Erica is repeatedly warned to stop asking questions, to her and her daughter’s peril should she fail to do so.

The tale is an intriguing one.  The book seemed to sag a bit in the middle, but quickly picks up again, and I found this a very interesting novel, one that makes me want to read more from this author.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2013.

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Highball ExitHighball Exit
Phyllis Smallman
Touchwood Editions, November 2012
ISBN 978-1-927129-79-1
Trade Paperback

Billed as “a traditional mystery series serving Jack Daniels instead of tea,” this is the fifth in Phyllis Smallman’s Sherri Travis mysteries.  The protagonist, who co-owns a restaurant/bar with her lover, Clay Adams, is going through difficult financial times in the current economy, and uneasy romantic times in her relationship with Clay.  As the book opens, “Aunt” Kay arrives at Sherri’s house in a police cruiser, and tells Sherri that her former waitress, 21-year-old Holly Mitchell, has been found dead, in what the police declare to be a suicide:  There was what appears to be a suicide note with an empty highball glass sitting on it; it is their belief that she washed down some pills with a strong drink.  Three months behind in mortgage payments, and terrified that she will lose the Sunset Bar & Grill, she finds a temporary solution to that problem when Aunt Kay persuades her to look into the young woman’s death, made more urgent by the fact that there is no sign of Holly’s baby, telling her that she will take care of the outstanding payments if Sherri will give her a week of her time.

Now thirty-one, Sherri’s life had not been an easy one:  Married when she was 19, she had survived the murder of her cheating husband, been kidnapped by a psychopath, and now takes martial arts classes, goes to the shooting range, and is never without her can of pepper spray, in spite of all of which she regularly suffers from panic attacks.  Her current inquiries puts her life in danger from totally unexpected quarters, as she enters a world of drugs, sex workers, and perversion, but she is determined to get to the bottom of Holly’s death and to find her baby.

The book is filled with interesting characters, starting with Elvis, “the only egret in all Florida who preferred hotdogs to fish;” feisty “Auntie” Kay, who had known Sherri from the age of five; Sherri’s father, Tully, and Sherri’s former mother-in-law, Bernice, who are now romantically involved, to Sherri’s consternation.

This was a thoroughly entertaining novel, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, April 2013.

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NightriseNightrise
Jim Kelly
Crème de la Crime/Severn House, February 2013
ISBN: 978-1-78029-033-1
Hardcover, 244 pp., $28.95

This was a book that I enjoyed immensely, despite the fact that at times it moved rather slowly for me, probably because many of its frames of reference were unfamiliar, coming as I am from the “other side of the pond.”  Even extending to the title, although I supposed it was meant to evoke the opposite of sunrise, and is defined by the author at one point as the moment when one sees “the first star clear in the sky.”

Philip Dryden had been a Fleet Street reporter, a job he’d left for one on the local paper to be near his wife.  I found him to be a very original protagonist, one made very human and vulnerable when, on the opening page, he is introduced to the reader as the father of an infant son, following somewhat traumatic circumstances:  His wife “had been badly injured in a car accident a decade earlier – – trapped in a coma for more than two years.  She would never completely recover.  They’d been told a child was impossible.”    But, almost miraculously, here he was.

Also in the opening pages, Philip is told by the police that his father has just been killed in an auto accident, the body burned beyond recognition, only the vehicle itself providing the identity of the owner.  This is a second near-impossibility:  His father had died 35 years before, drowned during the floods of 1977, the body swept away and never found.  The thought that he might have survived and simply chosen not to return to his family is, to say the least, stunning.

There are other story lines here, and a faint suspicion allowed that somehow they may be linked..  A West African man, seeking asylum in England but being forced to return to Niger, has been refused, without explanation, the return of the body of his infant daughter, buried, he is told, in an unmarked grave, and he and his wife seek Dryden’s help.  Then there is the mystery behind the murder of a local man whose already dead body had been hung from an irrigator in an open field.  When another murder occurs, a very personal one for Dryden, his efforts to solve these crimes are redoubled.

The novel is very well-written, suspenseful, and with a totally unexpected ending.  This is the sixth book in the series, but the first one I’d read.  I was happy to discover it, and shall definitely look for the previous entries.  This one is certainly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2013.