Book Review: Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Loewenstein

Death of a Rainmaker
A Dust Bowl Mystery #1
Laurie Loewenstein
Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic Books, October 2018
ISBN: 978-1-61775-679-5
Hardcover

I’ll start out by saying this is a book that’s already been added to my “Best Books Read in 2019” list.

Death of a Rainmaker features dust storms so brilliantly written they’ll have you choking from the dirt and grit filling your eyes, your mouth, your lungs. Historical fact: Did you know Dust Pneumonia was/is a real malady? It killed many a child during the dust bowl years. You’ll also learn about the everyday life of the inhabitants of this small and steadily shrinking Oklahoma town. They’re people you’ll get to know as if they’re your own neighbors.

Be prepared to feel the despair of the people, families, especially the rural families, who tried everything they knew to make a living during this heartbreaking time, but who could only watch their wells dry up and their livestock die. As they watched their children die. And their hopes and dreams die, buried in dust that piled in drifts around the buildings and got in through every little crack in the boards of their dried-out houses.

So, when a stranger claiming to be a rainmaker shows up vowing to bring moisture to the parched earth, why is he murdered outside a movie house run by a blind man, in the middle of a huge duststorm?

Was it because he failed to bring rain? Was it because of a fight he got into with a young CCC worker when they’d both had too much to drink? Or was it because he eyed another man’s wife?

These are all questions Sheriff Temple Jennings is going to need to answer. Quickly, because the election is coming up and for the first time in years he has a man running against him for the job. Etha, his wife, has her own ideas about the murder, and they don’t coincide with her husband’s.

So much goes on in this novel. It’s a history of those years when poverty stalked a large portion of the population, especially in the rural areas of Oklahoma and thereabouts. It’s a grouping of character studies. It’s a mystery. And it’s wonderful.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, March 2019.
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies by Ace Atkins

Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies
A Spenser Novel #46
Ace Atkins
Putnam, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-399-17700-2
Hardcover

For some reason I had not read this entry in the Spenser series created by Robert B. Parker, but have finally caught up to it, I’m delighted to say.

From the publisher:  Connie Kelly thought she’d found her perfect man on an online dating site.  He was silver-haired and handsome, with a mysterious background working for the CIA.  She fell so hard for M. Brooks Welles that she wrote him a check for almost three hundred thousand dollars, hoping for a big return on her investment.  But within weeks, both Wells and her money are gone.  Her therapist, Dr. Susan Silverman, hands her Spenser’s card.  A self-proclaimed military hotshot, Welles had been a frequent guest on national news shows, speaking with authority about politics and world events.  But when he disappears, he leaves not only a jilted lover but a growing list of angry investors, duped cops, and a team of paramilitary contractors looking for revenge.  Enter Spenser, who quickly discovers that everything about Welles is phony.  His name, his resume, and his roster of associates are nothing but an elaborate fraud.  But uncovering the truth won’t be easy, as he’ll have to keep his client from falling back into the mystery man’s tangled web, all while staying a step ahead of trained killers.  As the trail winds from Boston to the back roads of Georgia, Spenser will need help from trusted allies Hawk and Teddy Sapp to make sure Welles’s next con is his last.

 

The author has captured many of the expected patterns of Robert B. Parker’s writing. (Mr. Parker died in January 2010.)  But Mr. Atkins, besides giving us a very absorbing tale, has retained some of the most typical Parker patterns, e.g., nearly every character’s choice of clothing and headgear is noted, particularly caps declaring the owner’s love for a particular local sports team, whether Braves or Red Sox.  Connie Kelly’s early appearance notes that she “was dressed in a white sleeveless silk top with a black pencil skirt adorned with chrysanthemums and a pair of black open-toe heels that highlighted her shapely calves. Her toes had been painted a festive red.”  In her next appearance “she wore a very short red floral dress and black tights with black suede booties,” with a purple cardigan.  She explains what attracted her to Mr. Welles thusly:  “I wanted a tall, successful, and interesting man.  Someone who liked to travel and took time to enjoy sunsets.”  Well, she got all of that and a lot more that she could have done without.  Spenser is now living in the area of the Charlestown Navy Yard, where Pearl the Wonder Dog keeps him delightful company.

This is another exciting entry in the series, thoroughly entertaining, and highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2018.

Next up for this reviewer is the next in the series by Mr. Atkins, another Spenser novel, Old Black Magic.

Book Reviews: Give the Devil His Due by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco and Shadow of the Wolf by Tim Hall

Give the Devil his Due
A Tarot Mystery #3
Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco
Midnight Ink, April 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-4224-3
Trade Paperback

Alanis MacLachlan grew up as the daughter of a notorious con artist, who often used the girl as part of her scams. Alanis never went to school, or knew her father, and her mother changed their names every few weeks.  After her mother was murdered, she left her daughter the White Magic Five and Dime, an occult themed tourist trap and fortune telling parlor in Berdoche, Arizona, a low rent version of Sedona. A teenage half sister, Clarice, was also left in Alanis’ care.

Alanis reads the cards of a middle aged man who turns up dead at a hotel the next day. Who could have killed him? She has her suspicions when a man from her mother’s past appears. Biddle, a man who her mother lived with and was as much as a father figure as Alanis ever had in her life, was last seen in an Ohio cornfield being pursued by armed gangsters. It’s no coincidence—as Alanis discover when an eccentric German billionaire shows up in town looking for a Van Gogh painting that was stolen years ago. Did Alanis’ mother have something to do with it?

Readers who have enjoyed Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies will enjoy this series featuring a con artist gone straight. This is third in the series of Tarot mysteries.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2017.

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Shadow of the Wolf
Sherwood’s Doom #1
Tim Hall
David Fickling Books/Scholastic, Inc., June 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-81664-9
Hardcover

The story of Robin Hood has captivated crowds from Disney fans to lovers of Mel Brooks’ “Men In Tights”.  Mr. Hall breathes fresh, furious berserker air into the fable.  Although this telling is like no other, there are scenes and scenarios that are spot-on similar to my fondest recollections.  Shadow of the Wolf is Robin Hood, maiden Marian, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham; but with back-story that explains so much, yet reveals so little.

Sympathy for Robin comes quickly.  In his own village, and on every encounter, it appears that no one is completely honest with him.  Reactions rage from wary to fearful to furious; nowhere is welcoming to the young boy banished to Summerwoods.   The story of his beloved bow is just one of many secrets shared.  We become painfully privy to how Robin Hood was raised, then, abandoned. Acutely aware of the actions that shaped him as he struggled to survive; alone except for the bewitching young Marian and the half-mad goddess and god of the foreboding forest.

The first blow of finding out he isn’t who he thought—his family origins, even his birth date, are false—paled when compared to the remarkable revelation that he is being actively pursued by both the Sheriff of Nottingham, determined to destroy all Winter-Born, and Sir Bors who claims to be the only haven for those creatures born in the cold months among the terrifying trees.

Mr. Hall teases, doling out morsels of mystery in tiny, tantalizing tastes to thoroughly whet the appetite.  Content to keep us guessing, one part of the puzzle begins to take shape, while a brand new picture appears to emerge.  Enveloped in action, Robin Hood actually fights for his life and tickled by fancy, moved with magic, he learns to acknowledge, accept and adapt.  I believe that fans of fantasy, adventure, mystery and magic (from high school students to senior citizens) will relish this retelling.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2016.

Book Reviews: Innocent Blood by Michael Lister and The Good Liar by Nicholas Searle

Innocent BloodInnocent Blood
Michael Lister
Pulpwood Press, May 2015
ISBN:  978-1-8881-4649-3
Hardcover
March 2015
ISBN 978-1-8881-4650-9
Trade Paperback

The sub-title of this novel by Michael Lister is Book #7 and A John Jordan Mystery, to which description is added The Atlanta Years, Volume One.  It is basically a prequel to the six earlier books in the series, and a fascinating look into what made the protagonist into the man he became, to wit: an ex-cop turned prison chaplain.

From the publisher:  When he was twelve years old he came face to face with the man who would be convicted of the Atlanta Child Murders.  Six years later, John returned to Atlanta determined to discover who was truly responsible for all the slaughtered innocents.  But first he must ascertain whether or not LaMarcus Williams belongs on the infamous list of missing and murdered children.  The questions in the case are many, the answers few.  Who killed LaMarcus Williams?  How was he abducted from his own backyard, while his mom and sister watched him?  Is he a victim of the Atlanta Child Murderer that didn’t make the list or is his killer still out there, still operating with impunity?

Opening with a brief Introduction by Michael Connelly, whose own iconic creation, Harry Bosch, assists John and gives him all the impetus he needs to devote the next several years of his life to becoming a cop like Bosch [whose telephone conversation has the background of jazz saxophone that Bosch fans will immediately recognize].  Although Bertram Williams was found guilty of both of the murders with which he was charged, one of them of a 27-year-old and the second a 21-year-old, John is not convinced that he committed all or any of the other murders mostly of young black children who had been victims of the Atlanta Child Murderer, not all of whom were young or black.  His commitment is made at age 17; as he is told, “the empathy you feel with the victims, the unquenchable thirst burning inside you for justice . . . for restoring some kind of order . . . the rage you feel at the murderer . . . your obsession with knowing, with uncovering, with finding the truth . . . they are the very things that make you perfect for this kind of work.”  And John himself feels “That’s what I’m called to do – – help people damaged by violent crime, salve the suffering of the living while searching for some kind of justice for the dead.  As both a minister and an investigator I’d be in a unique position to do both.”

John Jordan’s dedication to the task he has set for himself results in a well-plotted, well-written mystery, the resolution of which is stunning, and one which I for one did not see coming, and the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, May 2016.

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The Good LiarThe Good Liar
Nicholas Searle
Harper, February 2016
ISBN: 978-0-0624-0749-8
Hardcover

In the early pages of this debut novel by Nicholas Searle, we met Roy, who, we are told, could “pass for seventy, sixty at a pinch,” but he is a decade older than that.  He is meeting a woman on a blind date, each initially giving the other a “nom de guerre,” but they quickly admit the truth and re-introduce themselves to the other.  He tells her “I can promise you that was the last time I will lie to you, Betty, everything I say to you from now on will be the truth.  Total honesty.  I can promise you, Betty.  Total honesty.”  As the title suggests, however, this in itself is as far from honesty as one can get.  Instead, he sees in her little more than a mark, a very vulnerable woman.  But once the bloom is off the rose, so to speak, she still things it can work, “for the sake of the satisfaction and security she craves.”

The book is replete with flashbacks, each one rather lengthy, harking back decades earlier, first to mid-1998, then early 1963, mid-1946, and finally back to December of 1938 and a time of war.

The writing is beautiful.  One early scene in particular I would like to cite as an example:

“Boys of secondary school age are mere blustering rhinos, carried on a wave of hormonal surges of which they are the helpless victims and to which they are utterly oblivious.  Their female peers have gained an awareness.  And with awareness comes uncertainty, expressed in various ways.  The plain and studious invest in their faith that diligence and intelligence may help them navigate the horrors, away from loneliness and failure.  The fresh-faced, pretty girls of the class – – pretty vacuous too, most of them – – sense inchoately that their attractiveness may be ephemeral and dependent on the vagaries of their coming physical development.”

Roy turns out to be surprisingly likeable, this reader found, to her surprise.  But be assured, please, that this novel is nothing at all what one expects, whatever that may be.

From the publisher:  “Roy’s entire life is a masterfully woven web of lies, secrets, and betrayals that will blindside you.”  If anything, that understates the case.  This is a book that stayed with me long after the cover had been closed and the last page read.  And it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, March 2016.

Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying by Mary Elizabeth Summer

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Title: Trust Me, I’m Lying
Author: Mary Elizabeth Summer
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Release Date: October 14th 2014

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Book Reviews: The Osiris Curse by Paul Crilley and Assignment: Nepal by J.A. Squires

The Osiris CurseThe Osiris Curse
A Tweed & Nightingale Adventure
Paul Crilley
Pyr, October 2013.
ISBN 978-1-61614-857-7
Hardcover

Sebastian Tweed, seventeen-year-old reformed con artist, has dedicated his phenomenal brainpower to foiling the schemes of mysterious evildoers. Octavia Nightingale, Tweed’s best (and only) friend, is an intrepid newspaper reporter, intent on finding her kidnapped mother. Together, Tweed and Nightingale roam the streets of early 20th-century London. It’s the London of an alternate universe, though, featuring sentient automatons, invisibility devices, and “Tesla guns” that shoot electrical rays.

Over the course of The Osiris Curse, the second Tweed and Nightingale Adventure by Paul Crilley, our heroes stow away on a massive airship to Egypt, visit The Great Pyramid (which has been hollowed out and turned into a hotel for the enjoyment of the rich), and discover a hidden civilization inhabited by a (sort-of) alien race. This is the kind of book where Nicola Tesla is murdered by Osiris-worshipping cultists in the first chapter and that’s not even the novel’s big mystery.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Crilley has simply cobbled together every trendy cliché he could think of from neo-Victorian steampunk sci-fi, and . . . truthfully, that seems pretty accurate. Yet this ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ approach is responsible for much of The Osiris Curse‘s considerable charm. If Crilley stuck to one or two familiar tropes, Tweed and Nightingale might get lost in the crowd of similar stories. Instead, the author throws high concepts together with such maniacal glee, it’s hard to avoid being swept along.

The Osiris Curse, like its prequel The Lazarus Machine, is marketed to young adults, and it might be particularly enjoyable to readers encountering some of its sci-fi concepts for the first time. However, this series should also appeal to seasoned fans of steampunk, Doctor Who, or any of the recent Sherlock Holmes retellings. In fact, the novel’s characters share a connection to Holmes himself. (Holmes and Moriarty are real people in this universe, just as H.G. Wells is really a time traveler.) I don’t want to give the connection away in this review, though, for the sake of anyone who wants to read The Lazarus Machine first; it’s a plot point in that novel, and it’s far too good to spoil.

If you’ve been reading too many novels lately where it seems like nothing happens, this book’s breakneck pace might be just what you need in your life. It’s not all about mindless fun, though. Crilley takes time to address the moral quandaries that the plot raises in a way that manages to be thoughtful without stopping the story dead. The Osiris Curse doesn’t claim to solve all the dilemmas it raises, but that’s another nod to the narrative’s complexity. I’d be glad to see the consequences unfold in future Tweed and Nightingale books.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Caroline Pruett, November 2013.

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Assignment NepalAssignment:Nepal
An Irene Adler Mystery
J.A. Squires
Echelon Press, October 2011
ISBN 978-1-59080-854-2
Ebook

Readers of this review should be aware that this press has published some of my crime fiction and I am acquainted with the publisher, though not with the two authors writing under a single pseudonym.

The protagonist is named Irene Adler. Not the woman who beat Sherlock Holmes at his own game, her modern namesake, a Doctor of Philosophy in Anthropology at Boston University. Adler has a demi-cynical outlook on life and it turns out she supplements her income by playing poker; specifically Texas Holdem in the gambling parlors around the New England area. Irene Adler is a bright, smart, single woman, an endearing protagonist.

Her former advisor, a fellow faculty member, prevails on Ms. Adler to travel to Nepal to inquire into the life and times of a former fellow undergraduate student of Irene’s, a Margot Smith, who’s in Nepal doing research on one of that country’s goddesses, one Chwwaassa Dyo. The problem is that there appears to something awry with Margot and her physician husband and Adler is supposed to sort things out. What needs sorting turns out to be only part of the story. Irene agrees to go half-way around the world to see a woman she barely knows. From this most unlikely beginning, the plot drives poor Adler into one complexity after another.

Her assignment clearly has unstated dimensions about which neither we readers nor Irene Adler herself are clear. Now, Nepal is an exotic nation from which assaults on Mount Everest are mounted and the ubiquitous Sherpa play a  important part, as do digital cameras, former Cold War adversaries, political unrest in the country, and a whole series of meddlesome individuals who seem to still show up on the fringes of the former English Empire.

The novel winds its way through a variety of conflicts among wanderers, a boorish American tourist couple, and murder and bomb blasts. At times the narrative suffers from a pedestrian pace and some lapses of editing discipline over the point of view. Still, the story is interesting, Irene is definitely a character to build a series around, the exotic setting in and around Katmandu is, well, exotic, and a satisfactory conclusion is fashioned. I think four stars in too strong a rating, but the novel is more enjoyable than three stars would indicate. Sample the novel and make your own judgment.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

Book Reviews: Shear Murder by Nancy J. Cohen, Dying for a Dance by Cindy Sample, and No Rest for the Wicked by Elizabeth C. Main

Shear MurderShear Murder
Nancy J. Cohen
Five Star, February 2012
ISBN 978-1-4328-2554-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Weddings always make Marla Shore shed a tear of joy, and she’s elated to attend her friend Jill’s reception. Marla’s own nuptials are weeks away, and she’s busy following her frenetic to-do list. Her plans go awry when she discovers Jill’s matron of honor dead under the cake table, a knife embedded in her chest. Lots of folks aren’t sorry to see Torrie go, especially since the bride’s sister knew their deepest secrets. But when suspicion falls upon Jill, Marla wonders if her dear friend is truly innocent. She’d better untangle the snarl of suspects and iron out the clues before the killer highlights her as the next victim.

Weddings are much on hairdresser Marla’s mind these days, her own ceremony in a few weeks and the one coming up shortly that will unite her friend, Jill, with her husband-to-be—but will it unite Jill with her fractious sister, Torrie? Apparently not, as Marla discovers when she finds Torrie dead and it looks like it’s up to Marla to save her friend from being pegged as a murderer. Of course, she has to fit this in with her own pre-wedding tasks and running her salon. At times, the bad guys are a relief from the simmering hostilities between her and Dalton’s mothers but then someone tries to burn down her shop, a clear sign that she may be getting to close to the killer.

Marla Shore has been one of my favorite amateur sleuths for years and her escapades in Shear Murder are as entertaining as ever. Marla is a little different from your average amateur in a couple of ways. First, the woman is smart and she figures things out with a judicious amount of snooping rather than accidentally tripping over clues as so many do. The other thing that sets her apart is that the man in her life respects her intelligence and, even though he’s a police detective  and that sort usually disdains the efforts of such sleuths (and often rightfully so), Dalton actually encourages Marla. How refreshing!

Nancy J. Cohen is an author I always look for and I do hope #11 in the Bad Hair Day Mysteries series will be coming soon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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Dying for a DanceDying for a Dance
Cindy Sample
L&L Dreamspell, 2011
ISBN 978-1-60318-427-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

It takes two to tango-but only one to murder.

Lead-footed single mom, Laurel McKay, agrees to learn a foxtrot routine for her best friend’s wedding. After she trips her instructor, crashes into a pair of dancers and breaks the heel of her new shoes, she thinks her evening can’t possibly get any worse. Then she stumbles over another dancer. A dead one. With her broken stiletto heel stuffed in his mouth.

The action moves from the California Gold Country to Lake Tahoe as Laurel searches for the killer amid the sequins and flying feathers of a ballroom competition. Can she samba her way into the heart of the handsome detective who has once again entered her life? Or will dancing and detecting prove to be a lethal combination?

One, two, three, four. Too many suspects on this dance floor.
Five, six, seven, eight. Find the murderer before it’s too late.

I love traditional mysteries. I love them even more when they’re funny and Dying for a Dance is a very funny mystery. Laurel reminds me of a boss I used to have who was also a very good friend. Marilyn, like Laurel, was an attractive woman who usually had her act together and had a good man in her life (still does). She was one of those women it would be easy to hate because she seemed to have it all, you know the type? And then she would pull off a ridiculously silly and inept move, frequently involving her feet. One time, we were walking across an icy parking lot and she was suddenly not there—she had literally slid under a car. Another time, we were at a business dinner and she excused herself for a few minutes. On the way back across a tile floor, her feet went up in the air (she was wearing these shoes called Candies that were notorious accidents waiting to happen) and, the next thing we knew, she was flat on her back with her skirt over her face. All in view of our clients, of course.

So when I read Cindy Sample‘s stories about Laurel, I have a clear picture of her in my mind and I’m laughing before I even start. Fortunately, the author does not let me down. In this case, I can relate to this essentially clumsy woman having to stumble her way around a dance floor or face the wrath of Bridezilla and Laurel is clearly relieved, in a way, when she gets involved in a murder investigation. What better excuse could she have to avoid the dance floor?

Going along with Laurel as she annoys her detective boyfriend and a bunch of potential murder suspects, copes with her mother’s boyfriend who once suspected Laurel of murder, fends off amorous Russians and learns more than she wants to know about competitive dancing is pure fun and I really hope the third book is coming soon.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.

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No Rest for the WickedNo Rest for the Wicked
Elizabeth C. Main
Five Star, 2011
ISBN 978-1-4328-2504-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Jane Serrano, 43-year-old widow and founder of the Murder of the Month Book Club, just wants life to return to normal at Thornton’s Books in Juniper, Oregon. Ten months after being dubbed the “Bookstore Heroine” for unexpectedly bringing a killer to justice, her life hasn’t settled down at all. Though Jane at first found the attention flattering, now she’s had enough and wants to explore the intriguing possibilities of a romantic relationship with local attorney Nick Constantine.

However, the other charter members of the book club relish the ride on the celebrity bandwagon. Business at Thornton’s Books is booming and the club’s been swamped with entreaties to join–no surprise, given the widespread publicity the group received. Between the fan mail and the tourists stopping by, they’ve barely had time to read mysteries for their regular meetings. Jane attempts to keep the unwieldy group grounded in reality, but it’s tough going.

Following the discovery of a new corpse in the sagebrush, book club member Alix Boudreau finds the finger of the law pointed straight at her. The murdered man, Hunter Blackburn, was a skilled con artist . . . and Alix’s ex-husband. Alix had both motive and opportunity to kill Blackburn. Her friends set about finding the real killer, using the  goodhearted ineptitude they first demonstrated in Murder of the Month. Jane tosses aside her hope of tranquility and sets to work. Solving the earlier crime was righteous fun. This time it’s deadly serious.

When Jane’s friend Alix gets involved in  murder, the mystery devotees of the Murder of the Month book club quite naturally expect her to solve it because, after all, she did it once before, didn’t she? Jane can’t seem to convince them otherwise but then her hackles are raised by the lazy sheriff who jumps to a conclusion she’s sure is wrong and who won’t even consider other possibilities. Obviously, Jane will have to find the killer before Alix is sent up the river.

Ms. Main has a nice touch with crafting a puzzle and I have to confess to being distracted, as intended, by the red herrings here and there. I was also distracted, in a very good way, by the chuckles that ensued whenever the book club members were on the scene, especially when they take a road trip, but it was also clear that these folks cared a lot about each other and they made smalltown life seem very appealing. And can I please have some of Minnie’s weaponry cookies?

I really want to spend some more time with Jane, Minnie and the rest of the gang—including the loveable Wendell, dog extraordinaire— so I hope Ms. Main is going to give us a third book sooner rather than later.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2012.