Book Reviews: The Highwayman by Craig Johnson and Fallout by Sara Paretsky

The Highwayman
A Longmire Story
Craig Johnson
Penguin  Books, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7352-2090-4
Trade Paperback

The author prefaces this Longmire novel by stating he always wanted to write a ghost story.  And now he has, thrusting Walt Longmire and his friend, Henry Standing Bear, into the middle of an enigma.  At the request of the head of the Highway Patrol, Walt and the Bear seek to determine what is happening to Rosie Wayman, who patrols a stretch of highway in the Wind River Canyon, an area where radio communication is almost nonexistent.

On the other hand, Rosie begins receiving calls from Bobby Womack saying “officer needs assistance.”  The problem is that Womack, a respected highwayman who patrolled the same route, died 35 years previously.  Walt and the Bear have to determine whether Rosie really is hearing the signal, or is in need of psychiatric evaluation.  What follows during the investigation is a series of events which might be ethereal, or explained by logic in the real world.  It is up to the two men (along with the reader) to determine which.

It is a clever plot and, while it is a deviation from the 11 prior entries in the series, The Highwayman is a welcome addition to the earlier books, and it is recommended.

The 13th novel in the series, The Western Star, will be published by Penguin on September 5th!

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2017.

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Fallout
A V.I. Warshawski Novel
Sara Paretsky
William Morrow, April 2017
ISBN: 978-0-0662-584-2
Hardcover

It all begins in Chicago, and ends up in Kansas, but VI Warhawski needs more than ruby read slippers to return home.  Apparently, a black retired movie star decided on a moment’s notice to leave the Windy City, ostensibly to visit the town where she grew up, dragging a young man man along to film her reminiscences with stops along the way to Lawrence, KS.  When the two seem to disappear, VI is retained by the woman’s concerned neighbors to find them.  The young man also is a person of interest in a drug theft at his place of employment, and Vicky becomes more wary when she discovers his apartment ransacked.

So off goes VI on the long drive to Kansas, tracing the woman’s journey and attempting to pick up a trace of the pair.  She visits Fort Riley, where she learns they stopped, but little else.  So Vicky continues on to Lawrence, where she encounters all kinds of obstructions, and becomes involved in all kinds of side issues, other than her original purpose to locate the actress and her photographer.

The reader has to plow through a rather dry start to the novel, about one-third the length of the book, before the plot begins to develop.  Then it turns into a complicated story that probably could have served as the basis for one or more novels.    All in all, Fallout is an interesting work and can be recommended despite these reservations because the author and the series are so deservedly popular.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2017.

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Book Reviews: Night School by Lee Child and The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

Night School
A Jack Reacher Novel #21
Lee Child
Delacorte Press, November 2016
ISBN 978-0-041-7880-8
Hardcover

From the publisher:  It’s 1996, and Reacher is still in the army.  In the morning they give him a medal, and in the afternoon they send him back to school.  That night he’s off the grid. Out of sight, out of mind. Two other men are in the classroom – – an FBI agent and a CIA analyst.  Each is a first-rate operator, each is fresh off a big win, and each is wondering what the hell they are doing there.  Then they find out:  A Jihadist sleeper cell in Hamburg, Germany, has received an unexpected visitor – – a Saudi courier, seeking safe haven while waiting to rendezvous with persons unknown. A CIA asset, undercover inside the cell, has overheard the courier whisper a chilling message: “The American wants a hundred million dollars.”  For what?  And who from?  Reacher and his two new friends are told to find the American.  Reacher recruits the best soldier he has ever worked with:  Sergeant Frances Neagley.  Their mission heats up in more ways than one, while always keeping their eyes on the prize:  If they don’t get their man, the world will suffer an epic act of terrorism.  From Langley to Hamburg, Jalalabad to Kiev, Night School moves like a bullet through a treacherous landscape of double crosses, faked identities, and new and terrible enemies, as Reacher maneuvers inside the game and outside the law.

Reacher is an imposing figure.  He is a military cop, 35 years old, a major with twelve years in, with rare attributes:  He is brilliant, with admirable reserves of intelligence and strengths (both mental and physical, at 6’ 5” and 250 pounds).   He thinks of himself as “a good street fighter.  Mostly because he enjoyed it.”  He thinks of his new “assignment” as a cooperation school, these disparate government agencies not known for getting along well together.  When the men fly to Hamburg, Reacher thinks:  “He had dealt with German cops before.  Both military and civilian.  Not always easy.  Mostly due to different perceptions. Germans thought they had been given a country, and Americans thought they had bought a large military base with servants.”  The identity of their primary target, known only as The American, is not known till 160 pages in, and the item[s] being sold not known until page 300.  We are reminded of the callous mindset when one character says “soccer wasn’t so bad. He had once seen it played with a human head.”

The book is intricately and meticulously plotted.  It was different from prior books in the series in that it is not as taut and edge-of-your-seat as previous entries, but the reader is carried along from beginning to end, just somewhat more sedately.  It is trademark Lee Child/Jack Reacher, however, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2016.

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The Second Life of Nick Mason
Steve Hamilton
Putnam, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-3995-7432-0
Hardcover

From the publisher:  A career criminal from Chicago’s South Side, Nick Mason got his start stealing cars and quickly graduated to safe-cracking and armed robbery.  But he left that life behind when he met and married his wife and settled down with her and their young daughter – until an old friend offered him a job he couldn’t refuse.  That fateful night at the harbor landed him in prison with a 25-to-life sentence and little hope of seeing his wife or daughter ever again.  When Nick is offered a deal allowing his release twenty years ahead of schedule, he takes it without hesitation or fully realizing the consequences.  Once outside, Nick steps into a glamorous life with a five-million-dollar condo, a new car, ten grand in cash every month, and a beautiful roommate. But while he’s returned to society, he’s still a prisoner, bound to the promise he made behind bars:  whenever his cell phone rings, day or night, Nick must answer it and follow whatever order he is given.  It’s the deal he made with Darius Cole, a criminal mastermind serving a double-life term who still runs an empire from his prison cell.  Whatever Darius Cole needs him to be – – a problem solver, bodyguard, thief, or assassin – – Nick Mason must be that man.  Forced to commit increasingly dangerous crimes and relentlessly hunted by the detective who brought him to justice in the past, Nick finds himself in a secret war between Cole and an elite force of Chicago’s dirty cops.  Desperate to go straight and rebuild his life with his daughter and ex-wife, Nick will ultimately have to risk everything – – his family, his sanity, and even his life – – to finally break free.

How does Nick resolve this second life he is now forced to live?  The manner in which he does so is revealed in this fascinating novel by Steve Hamilton, and the suspenseful way he accomplishes it is typical of what we have come to expect from this author, in this newest page-turner, just the first in a new series.  It goes against anything Nick had believed in:  Although admittedly involved with several kinds of illegal acts, he had never – and believed he never could – taken another man’s life.  But after five years and twenty-eight days in prison, and with the hope of re-starting his life with his beloved Gina and their little girl, he would do almost anything.  The book opens with quotes from two very different sources: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bruce Springsteen.  But expect the unexpected from this wonderful author.  I was delighted to learn that the next book in the series, Exit Strategy, will be published by Putnam in May, and I can’t wait to read it!   The Second Life of Nick Mason is, you will have guessed, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2017.

Short Story Review: Wildcat by Sara Paretsky—and a Giveaway!

Wildcat
V. I. Warshawski’s First Case
Sara Paretsky
Witness Impulse, March 2017
ISBN 9780062689504
Ebook Single

From the publisher—

Sara Paretsky, one of the most legendary crime writers of all time, presents an exclusive and thrilling short story featuring beloved investigator V.I. Warshawski as a ten-year-old girl on her first investigation.


V.I. Warshawski developed her strength and sense of justice at a very early age. It’s 1966 and on the south side of Chicago racial tensions are at an all-time high. Dr. Martin Luther King is leading marches at Marquette Park and many in the neighborhood are very angry.

With nothing but a bicycle, eighty-two cents in her pocket, and her Brownie camera hanging from her wrist, Victoria sneaks off to Marquette Park alone to protect her father Tony, a police officer who is patrolling the crowds.

What begins as a small adventure and a quest to find her father and make sure he is safe turns into something far more dangerous. As the day goes on and the conflict at the park reaches a fever pitch Victoria realizes she must use her courage and ingenuity if she wants to keep herself and her family members out of harm’s way.

I don’t know if it’s actually true but, for years, I’ve thought that Sara Paretsky and V. I. Warshawski have one thing very much in common—they’re both total badasses. Now, I know that V. I. was that way even as a child and I couldn’t be more delighted.

I’m not going to say much about the plot of this story—it’s so short the description given above by the publisher is almost longer. Just kidding, of course, but this IS a very short short story. Still, Ms. Paretsky packs a lot into these few pages and it serves its purposes, to entertain and to give us a little insight into what makes V. I. Warshawski aka Victoria tick.

Chicago in 1966 was deep in the civil rights era and even a 10-year-old felt the tension so, when Victoria believes her dad is at risk, her first reaction is to rush off on her bicycle to his aid. As young as she is, Victoria has been raised by her Holocaust survivor mother to be aware of the evil that can begin with words of hatred. In fact, it’s this sense of right and wrong that’s at Victoria’s core, that will in later life lead her to work for justice whenever she can. Her venture this time is also her own personal introduction to police corruption, the Mafia, extreme prejudice and violence.

And a private investigator is born.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, March 2017.

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Purchase Links:

               

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About the Author

Hailed by P.D. James as “the most remarkable” of modern crime writers, SARA PARETSKY is the New York Times-bestselling author of nineteen previous novels, including the renowned V.I. Warshawski series. She is one of only four living writers – alongside John Le Carré, Sue Grafton, and Lawrence Block – to have received both the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America and the Cartier Diamond Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She lives in Chicago with her husband.

Before there was Lisbeth Salander, before there was Stephanie Plum, there was V.I. WARSHAWSKI. She took the mystery world by storm in 1982 with her first appearance in Indemnity Only. A gifted private eye with the grit and smarts to tackle the mean streets, V.I. transformed a genre in which women were typically either vamps or victims. As a “courageous, sexually liberated female investigator,” she “has a humility, a humanity, and a need for human relationships which the male hard-boilers lack” (P.D. James). She lives in Chicago with her dog.

Catch Up With Our Author On:

             

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Book Review: Time’s Up by Janey Mack and Choked Up by Janey Mack

times-upTime’s Up
A Maisie McGrane Mystery #1
Janey Mack
Kensington Books, June 2015
ISBN 978-1-61773-690-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  All her life, Maisie McGrane dreamed of following in her father and other brothers’ footsteps and joining the force.  But when she’s expelled from the police academy, she’s reduced to taking a job as a meter maid.  Now, instead of chasing down perps, she’s booting people’s cars and taking abuse from every lowlife who can’t scrape together enough change to feed the meter.  McGranes weren’t put on this earth to quit, however.  When Maisie stumbles across the body of a City Hall staffer with two bullets in his chest, her badge-wielding brothers try to warn her off the case.  But with the help of her secret crush, shadowy ex-Army Ranger Hank Bannon, Maisie’s determined to follow the trail of conspiracy no matter where it leads.  And that could put her in the crosshairs of a killer – – and all she‘s packing is a ticket gun.

Maisie and her family members – equal parts cops and defense attorneys – make for a fascinating group of characters, as are the others who populate this novel, the first in a series.  In a first for this reviewer, immediately after I finished this book I opened up the next in the series, Choked Up, which picks up when Time’s Up ends.  I did this primarily because although I liked the plots and sub-plots, and mostly liked the McGraine family, I found somewhat off-putting the nearly constant updates on the couture of the characters, both male and female, accompanied by regular descriptions of the various (and numerous) motor vehicles which oddly play a part in the novel.  As well, there were several cultural references that escaped me.  But I’ll chalk that up to me and my advancing age, I guess.

There is much here to like, and the book is recommended, with that small cavil.

More soon, as the review of the 2nd book in the series is next up for this reviewer, as mentioned above.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2016.

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choked-upChoked Up
A Maisie McGrane Mystery #2
Janey Mack
Kensington Books, January 2016
ISBN 978-1-61773-692-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  Scrappy Traffic Enforcement agent Maisie McGrane has finally landed her dream job as a Chicago police officer.  There’s just one catch.  She must remain undercover as a meter maid to gather evidence against Stannislav Renko, a charismatic Serbian mobster running a brutal multi-million dollar mobile chop-shop operation.  When Maisie is targeted by a killer who leaves a body slumped against her car, Renko comes to her rescue and takes her under his wing.  From her perch inside the crime boss’s inner circle, Maisie sets up a daring sting operation to take down Renko once and for all.  But can she pull it off before her family of overprotective Irish cops and her sexy ex-Army Ranger boyfriend blow her cover?

We learn a bit more about the makeup of the McGrane family in this, the second entry in the series, e.g., her birth mother was killed in an accident, and her adoptive mother, who is black, adopted all of his six small children when she married their father (“Da” throughout), the family now made up of four cops and three attorneys.  The family members become more interesting with each book, as do Maisie’s lovers, a sexy bunch I must admit!  The reader also learns a bit more about Chicago politics/corruption, three words inextricably intertwined throughout.

How can one not love a protagonist who quotes Virgil and Dashiel Hammett, watches episodes of Harry Bosch on tv and listens to Chet Baker on her I-Pod [or the equivalent]?  Not me!  This second book in the series is, as was the first, recommended, and I look forward to Maisie’s third appearance in Shoot ‘Em Up, due out from Kensington in October 2016.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, August 2016.

Book Review: Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann

easy-innocenceEasy Innocence
A Georgia Davis Novel of Suspense #1
Libby Fischer Hellmann
Narrated by Beth Richmond
The Red Herrings Press, May 2016
Downloaded Unabridged Audiobook
Also available in print and ebook editions

From the author—

When pretty, smart Sara Long is found bludgeoned to death, it’s easy to blame the man with the bat. But Georgia Davis – former cop and newly-minted PI – is hired to look into the incident at the behest of the accused’s sister, and what she finds hints at a much different, much darker answer. It seems the privileged, preppy schoolgirls on Chicago’s North Shore have learned just how much their innocence is worth to hot-under-the-collar businessmen. But while these girls can pay for Prada price tags, they don’t realize that their new business venture may end up costing them more than they can afford.

I’ve been a fan of Libby Fischer Hellmann for a long time but, although the print version of this book first came out in 2008, I had never read it or the following three books in the series. That wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it but I had focused on the author’s other works with the idea of getting to this “one of these days”. That day finally came when Ms. Hellmann offered a chance to listen to a re-do of the audiobook; I love audiobooks so I leaped at the opportunity.

From the standpoint of the story, the initial investigation into the teen’s murder eventually develops into three seemingly separate storylines but whether they are related is something Georgia will have to determine. In fact, she isn’t aware that one of these threads exists or, perhaps more accurately, she doesn’t understand all the parts; this is one of those instances when the reader knows more than the protagonist does but, deviously, Ms. Hellmann sees to it that we don’t know what we don’t know. Very nicely…and wickedly…done, Ms. Hellmann 😉

Georgia is a very likeable woman and an intelligent P.I. with a leg up from her police background. She doesn’t have a lot of people in her life but those who surround her are good people who care what happens to her. There’s nothing sleazy about Georgia and she approaches her tasks with a sense of honor and a desire to cause as little harm as possible.  That’s important because a lot of people could be very hurt by the results of her investigation, beginning with the ring of teenaged hookers and their oblivious families, not to mention their own airheaded ignorance of the dark side of their business venture. When Georgia learns of a possible fraudulent land development scheme, tying it to the prostitution ring ramps up the danger level to new highs including attempts on her own life.

In the first third or so of the book, I thought things dragged a little and the narrator’s performance added to that feeling because of her somewhat deliberate and slow pace. In fact, at one point, I turned up the speed on my iPod just to see what it would sound like and, although Ms. Richmond sounded quite a lot like she inhaled helium, I could still understand her clearly. That indicates to me that her pace really was a little too slow BUT….

….everything changed once certain things started happening and Ms. Richmond grabbed and held my attention. Certainly a lot of that is because Ms. Hellmann‘s story began to come to life but it’s also because Ms. Richmond really is quite a good narrator, especially with her varying voices. When all is said and done, I’m now wanting to continue with the series and with Beth Richmond‘s narration.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2016.

Book Review: Jump Cut by Libby Fischer Hellmann—and a Giveaway!

Jump CutJump Cut
An Ellie Foreman Mystery #5
Libby Fischer Hellmann
Poisoned Pen Press, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-4642-0519-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Hired to produce a candy-floss profile of Chicago-based aviation giant Delcroft, Ellie is dismayed when company VP Charlotte Hollander trashes the production and cancels the project. Ellie believes Hollander was spooked by shots of a specific man in the video footage. But when Ellie arranges to meet the man to find out why, he is killed by a subway train before they can talk. In the confusion, she finds a seemingly abandoned pack of cigarettes with a flash drive inside that belonged to the now-dead man.

Ellie gets the drive’s contents decrypted, but before long discovers she’s under surveillance. Suspecting Delcroft and the ambitious Hollander are behind it, she’s unconvinced when Hollander tells her the dead man was a Chinese spy. Ellie and her boyfriend, Luke, try to find answers, but they don’t realize how far they have ventured into the dangerous echelons of hidden power where more lives are on the line―including their own.

I first met Libby Fischer Hellmann years ago, not too long after the release of her first Ellie Foreman book, An Eye for Murder, and both the book and its author called to me mightily. Through the years before I left the bookstore business, I’d run into Ms. Hellmann here and there at various mystery conventions and we always had a nod and a smile for each other but what I really enjoyed about those times is that it usually meant she had a new book out.  In the early days, the books were in the Ellie Foreman series and I always looked forward to them. Alas, the last one came out in 2005 and then the author moved on to other series and standalones, all just as good but I always wished for more Ellie.

Maybe the author heard my wishes; whatever the reasons, Ellie is back and I could not be happier. She’s the same intelligent, caring, somewhat foolhardy woman she’s always been and it takes next to no time for her to become embroiled in a mishmash of espionage and murders, all because she and her video production team were unfairly fired from a job for a huge aviation company. Being fired is one thing—they’ll still get paid—but Ellie is so outraged that she can’t resist digging into what’s going on. Remember I called her “somewhat foolhardy”? Yeah, that’s the perfect term for her and it’s not the TSTL syndrome so much as her mind and her sense of integrity just won’t let it go. Unfortunately, Ellie comes to the attention of a lot of people and they don’t all have her best interests at heart.

Jump Cut is a thriller in the very best sense with explosions and missing people along with the espionage and murders and it would be easy for all of this action to turn sour in the hands of a lesser writer but Ms. Hellmann is, as always, on point. She kept me riveted, needing to know what this simple flash drive held and how it could be so very important to so many factions but, at the same time, I was pulled into her truly normal and appealing personal life. Now, I have to hope that I won’t have to wait so long for my next Ellie Foreman fix 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, February 2016.

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Book Reviews: The Incidental Spy by Libby Fischer Hellmann and Make Me by Lee Child

The Incidental SpyThe Incidental Spy
Libby Fischer Hellmann
The Red Herrings Press, September 2015
ISBN:  978-1-938733-84-0
Trade Paperback

This newest book by Libby Fischer Hellmann, the author of a number of standalones as well her acclaimed Ellie Foreman and Georgia Davis mystery series, takes a different path entirely: a historical thriller.  The protagonist is Lena Bentheim, who, in pre-War, 1935 Berlin, pledges her undying love to Josef Meyer, who reciprocates those emotions, vowing his love “until death do us part.”  A few weeks later, Lena, 16 years old, seizes the opportunity to leave Berlin and boards a ship for New York, then heads to Chicago.  Neither Josef nor her parents were quite so fortunate.

Josef was “waiting for her in Budapest, and as soon as she could, she would bring him to the States.”  But that seems destined not to happen.  She takes a job working in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago, headed by Professor Arthur Compton, the department chair and a Nobel Prize-winner.  She soon meets and ultimately marries Karl Stern, another Jewish German refugee, in June, 1937 and a little over two years later, their son Max is born.  The news in Europe is such that she is sure neither her parents nor Josef have survived the Nazis, with their Final Solution, and despite the new life she has been given, the fates, or whatever else one chooses to call them, are not yet done with her, and more tragedy awaits her.

Lena is now working with a group of physicists who produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, in what would become the Manhattan Project.  But Lena is forced to spy on the nuclear fission experiments at the University.  She feels that “she was nothing more than a pawn . . . Unimportant.  Expendable.”  The plot is completely convincing, and Ms. Hellmann has given us an engrossing novel, and this reader was totally unprepared for the shocking ending.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2015.

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Make MeMake Me
A Jack Reacher Novel #20
Lee Child
Delacorte, September 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7877-8
Hardcover

This is no spoiler:  As this newest book from Lee Child opens, it is made clear from the first paragraph that someone has been killed, and his body is about to be buried.  He is even identified:  His name is Keever.  And the mise en scene is apparently in the middle of nowhere  – a wheat field “in the middle of ten thousand acres of nothingness,” a month before harvest time.  Jack Reacher makes his appearance on the very next page, as he finds himself on a train slowing down and coming down to a stop in a town apparently called Mother’s Rest, “which he had seen on a map and which he thought was a great name for a railroad stop . . .  He had no place to go, and all the time in the world to get there, so detours cost him nothing.”  So on a whim more than anything else, intrigued by the name of the town, he decides to check it out.

Reacher is an imposing figure.  He is a retired military cop, with rare attributes:  He is brilliant, with admirable reserves of intelligence and strengths (both mental and physical, at 6’ 5” and 250 pounds).  As he exits the train, he is approached by an Asian woman, about 5’9” and 40 years old, and very attractive.  The woman, Michelle Chang, has apparently been waiting for a man who fit Reacher’s general description, and is disappointed that it is Reacher, and not her colleague, the man called Keever.   She is a private detective, ex-FBI, ex-cop from Connecticut.  Keever was trying to make contact with a client whose identity is a mystery, but now it is her mystery as there has been no word from Keever since he told Chang he had arrived in Mother’s Rest.  Not improbably, Reacher joins her in her quest.

The mystery of the origin of the name Mother’s Rest is not resolved until the final pages of the book; the mystery of Keever’s whereabouts is resolved a bit more quickly, although it is a long and tortuous road discovering the answer.  And it soon appears that the tiny village of Mother’s Rest is not as peaceful as it might seem, and the small number of inhabitants are watching every step Reacher and Chang take, and reporting those movements to something of a master criminal.

The book is meticulously plotted, and wonderfully well written – no surprise there!  There are some constants in a Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel (and thank goodness for that!)  He still abides by his golden rules, the first of which is “eat when you can,” followed closely by “hope for the best, plan for the worst,” and travels with “everything he needed [usually only a toothbrush], and nothing he didn’t.”   The book is trademark Lee Child/Jack Reacher, very high praise indeed, and the novel is highly recommended.

(As to that title, that is explained in the last words on the flyleaf:  “As always, Reacher’s rule is:  If you want me to stop, you’re going to have to make me.”)

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2015.