Book Reviews: Marie Antoinette, Serial Killer by Katie Alender and The Dogs of Winter by Bobbie Pyron

Marie Antoinette, Serial KillerMarie Antoinette, Serial Killer
Katie Alender
Point, October 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-46809-1
Hardcover

At the tender age of sixteen, Colette Iselin’s life is ruined.  Her father left the family, taking his money with him.  The lifestyle changes that abounded devastated her.  Mom was forced to get a job, constantly taking on additional shifts just to make ends meet.   Their house lost; Colette, along with her younger brother and mother, squeezed into the tiniest of apartments.

Colette must keep her disastrous crash from wealth to the poor house…err, apartment, a secret.  Her friends do not hang out with the destitute.  The wildly popular, beautiful and ridiculously wealthy Hannah is always quick with that reminder.  Rather, Colette is reduced to sneaking off to thrift stores to acquire her wardrobe for her Paris Spring Break with her friends and classmates.  A greater teen-age tragedy is hard to imagine.

Wait…..what?

You aren’t really feeling her pain.  She seems whiny, superficial, self-centered and immature?  Yes, I thought that too.  Admittedly, I found this surprising.  Generally speaking, these are not traits best-suited to creating mass appeal for the main character of a Middle-Grade mystery.  Interesting.

The reader doesn’t meet Colette first, though. A spine-tingling, wickedly original murder in Paris kicks this story off and it pulled this reader right on in.  Have I mentioned the murderer?  Marie Antoinette.  A simply fascinating woman in history; the idea of her ghost committing grisly murders at an apparently obscure time is intriguing.  There does appear to be a method to her madness, and Ms. Alender unravels this mystery beautifully.

While Colette and her classmates tour, and learn the history of the City of Love and Lights from their charmingly demure, remarkably learned French college student; young, rich, socialites are dying in bizarre accidents that result, ultimately, in beheading. As the narrative unfolds, Colette realizes that she may have something in common with the victims.  She begins to piece together the puzzle and focus on a much larger picture.  Almost as if truly opening her eyes for the first time, Colette also begins to see things about herself; her choices and her friends.  There is a discernible shift, the pace quickens, the plot thickens.

I love what Ms. Alender has done here.  In addition to giving us an enchanting, distinctively different, middle-grade, ghost-story-murder-mystery; she courageously presented the most authentic representation of today’s “typical” teen-ager as our main character.  To me, it amplified the significance of Colette’s self-discovery and revised outlook.  Quite brilliant, I think.  Romance is mandatory when an adventure takes place in Paris; there may even be a law.  Again, Ms. Alender is spot-on.  This is a fantastic book for the avid reader and it would most certainly pique the interest of a reluctant reader. Yet another Middle-Grade read that I hope will not have a limited, young-readers-only audience.  I know I will be reading more from Ms. Alender.

Reviewed by jv poore, January 2014.

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The Dogs of WinterThe Dogs of Winter
Bobbie Pyron
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2012
ISBN 978-0-545-39930-2
Hardcover

In 1996 I was living in West Virginia.  I had been out of college for one year.  Despite having graduated with a B.S. in Business Administration, I could not find a job that paid more than minimum wage.  Things seemed bleak; I felt desperate, alone and afraid.  I felt that life was tough and unfair.  I had no clue.

At the same time, in Moscow, four year old Ivan Mishukov walked out of his flat to escape the daily horrors bestowed upon him by his mother and her alcoholic boyfriend.  Life on the streets had to be better.  He would not be alone.  It was estimated that somewhere between 80,000 and 2 million homeless children occupied Moscow and St. Petersburg as a result of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Feral dogs were also there, in the streets, alleys, train stations and even riding the trains.  These facts, in and of themselves, are beyond sad.  The amazingly resilient Ivan did something so unique that he stood out among the all of the “invisible” children.

A street child simply could not endure alone.  Even if able to handle everything else, a lone child would most likely freeze to death in Russia’s harsh winter climate.  Most children lived in groups to increase their chances.  Ivan did not.  At first, it did seem like the only option, but a little guy tough enough to abandon shelter for a “better” life is definitely not going to tolerate nastiness from other children. He turned to the dogs.

The Dogs of Winter is told through the voice of this little boy.  To me, this is the absolute best way to share his story.   Short sentences, acting out in anger, hurt feelings one moment then clapping with delight the next, ensure that the reader never forgets: this is a melancholy tale of a very, very young child.   Ivan’s kindness and generosity extended to the wild canines is reciprocated.  Soon, the boy is accepted into the pack and for two years, he has a family that loves him unconditionally.  This is a family that supports and protects him, and in turn, he does the same for them.  The child who now calls himself Malchik is happy.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), the unique situation warranted so much attention that every effort was made to “save” Ivan.  For reasons that I simply cannot fathom, Russian police became focused on removing Ivan from the streets and placing him in an orphanage.  The child that has endured more hardship in two years than most of us have in a life-time, now faces the toughest challenge ever.  He does not wish to be “saved”; he needs to remain with the family that he chose.

While “conversations” and situations in Ms. Pyron’s sharing of Malchik’s story are fictional, insofar as no one truly knows exactly what transpired, the spirit in which it is told is true.  I closed this book feeling very conflicted.  Logic aside, I feel angry that Malchik was singled out.  With thousands (millions?) of homeless children and feral dogs, why were resources focused on the one child that, by most accounts, was getting by without harming another living soul?  Why was it imperative for Malchik to be separated from his dogs to be placed in an orphanage or mental hospital?

I wish everyone would read this book.  In today’s world it can be so easy to become self-absorbed, to exist in our own little bubbles or corners of the world.  I think that we can use these reality checks to step back and reassess.  Who knows, maybe we can be so moved that we can make a difference.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2013.

Book Review: Poison Flower by Thomas Perry, Champagne for Buzzards by Phyllis Smallman, Under the Dog Star by Sandra Parshall, The Good, the Bad and the Murderous by Chester D. Campbell, and Baronne Street by Kent Westmoreland

Poison FlowerPoison Flower
Thomas Perry
Mysterious Press/Grove Atlantic, March 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2605-4
Hardcover

Thomas Perry has brought back his wonderful protagonist, Jane Whitefield, in his 19th novel, and the seventh featuring the part-Seneca woman whose credo has always been that “to save innocent people from the enemies who wanted them dead, there would be times when she must fight.” When her plans to free James Shelby from jail go immediately awry, she is forced, as perhaps never before, to make her own life and safety as much a priority as that of her client.

Shelby, described as “a man in his late twenties with light hair and a reasonably handsome face,” is still recovering from a stabbing two months prior while wrongfully imprisoned.  His sister had come to Jane at her home in Deganawida, New York, to enlist her help after he had been convicted of killing his wife, of which crime he is innocent, and given a life sentence.

For the uninitiated, “over the years she had taken dozens and dozens of them away.  Shelby was only the most recent.  They had almost all come to her in the last days of wasted, ruined lives, sometimes just hours before their troubles would have changed from dangerous to fatal.  She would obliterate the person’s old identity and turn him into a runner, a fugitive she would guide to a place far away, where nobody knew him, and certainly nobody would ever think of killing him. She would give him a new identity and teach him to be that new person for the rest of his life.”

The author once again has crafted a terrifically entertaining, meticulously plotted and suspenseful novel, one I couldn’t put down until the final page.  It is, obviously, highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.

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Champagne for BuzzardsChampagne for Buzzards
Phyllis Smallman
McArthur & Company, September 2011
ISN 978-1-55278-912-4
Trade Paperback

In the fourth of Phyllis Smallman’s Sherri Travis mysteries, the protagonist, who co-owns a restaurant/bar with her lover, Clay Adams, is planning his surprise birthday party at his ranch, 300 acres of jungle in Riverwood, Florida, near that state’s west coast.  The title derives from the fact that champagne is high on her shopping list, the ‘buzzards’ part from those unexpected carrion birds who have discovered and feasted upon a body under the tarp covering the back of her pickup truck  [The truck had been her husband’s, murdered two years prior and the subject of an earlier book.]

Also living at the ranch are Sherri’s father, Tulsa (“Tully”] Jenkins, and “uncle” Ziggy [not related by blood but might as well be], both in their sixties but still as feisty as Sherri, which is saying something.  She describes herself and Clay as “cultured and refined met smart-mouthed trailer trash,” she being the latter [called by Clay his “little beach-bar Mona Lisa].”  Their differences include the fact that she is 31, and he about to turn 45.  With her best friend, dental hygienist Marley, the two women start out bringing the upcoming party to fruition, but end up trying to solve the murder of the man who had gotten the attention of the aforementioned buzzards, to their peril. [The women, that is, not the buzzards.]

What ensues is a terrific and fast-paced mystery, complete with psychotic neighbors with a secret that they would do anything to protect, and a missing employee from whom Clay had earlier bought the ranch.  I had been unfamiliar with the work of this author [who apparently divides her time between Salt Spring Island, British Columbia and Manasota Beach, Florida], but will certainly keep an eye out for future offerings.  This was a thoroughly enjoyable novel, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, January 2012.

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Under the Dog StarUnder the Dog Star
Sandra Parshall
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59058-878-9
Hardcover

This is the fourth entry in Sandra Parshall’s Agatha Award-winning series, which brings back Rachel Goddard, veterinarian in Mason County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where there has been a rash of mysterious disappearances of family pets from all over the area, posters of which cover the walls of Rachel’s animal hospital. At the same time, reports have been coming in of a pack of feral dogs attacking ranches and homes at night, stealing eggs and killing chickens, threatening the safety of the homeowners and the local farmers’ livestock, and causing somewhat of a panic among the citizenry.  Some of them are up in arms, literally, and want nothing more than to form hunting parties, rifles at the ready, to find and kill the animals.  Rachel has other plans:  She is setting up a sanctuary, where she can house the animals and try to get them to bond again with humans, rather than the other members of the pack.

The stakes suddenly escalate in fast and furious manner when a local man is viciously killed, and when it appears that an animal is to blame, those already planning to hunt them down become crazed.  But Chief Deputy Sheriff Tom Bridger, with whom Rachel has been living for the past month, sees the evidence as pointing to a human killer who uses a trained and vicious dog as his weapon.  The powerful novel details some very real horrors and ugliness in our society [a hint of which was provided in real life by football player Michael Vick].

The ensuing investigation and chase becomes more and more complex: The victim was not without enemies, outside of and perhaps within his own household, which includes several adopted children and not a small amount of animosity.  The author has created some beautifully drawn characters, who come vibrantly alive in the hands of a terrific storyteller.  The suspense mounts to very high levels as the tale draws to an end, much too soon.  I loved it, and it is highly recommended.  [It should perhaps be noted that the book is also available in trade paperback and as an e-book.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2012.

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The Good, The Bad and The MurderousThe Good, the Bad and the Murderous
Chester D. Campbell
Night Shadows Press, November 2011
ISBN: 978-0-9846044-4-9
Trade Paperback

In his seventh novel [six have featured p.i. Greg McKenzie], Chester Campbell has brought back for only the second time Sid Chance.  Chance is a former member of the Army Special Forces in Vietnam, and had been a National Parks ranger for nineteen years, as well as a small town police chief for ten.  He has now set up shop as a private investigator in Nashville, Tennessee, occasionally but ably assisted by his good friend, “Jaz” LeMieux.  At Jaz’ behest, and despite Sid’s skepticism, he agrees to look into the arrest of a young man accused of murder.  One of the major factors in how convinced the cops are of his guilt is the fact that he had served several years in prison after killing another young man when he was all of twelve years old in the aftermath of a drug deal.  The current murder, of which he protests his innocence, and as Sid and Jaz investigate it, appears to have connections to a Medicare fraud set-up.  As the investigation proceeds, Sid becomes more and more convinced that the boy is innocent, and that moreover his own personal integrity is at stake, and things heat up.  On a more personal level, Jaz herself has been accused of racial harassment of an employee of her company, which morphs into something much more serious as the tale unfolds, and she and Sid believe that they are both being set up.  The good, the bad and the murderous indeed.

Jaz is a fascinating character:  Now a successful businesswoman, she had served in the Air Force Security Police, and spent a few years as a professional boxer before becoming a patrolwoman with the Metro Nashville police force.  This is a well-written and strongly plotted novel, and is a welcome addition to the series.  I loved the regular poker group to which Jaz and Sid belong, which they call the Miss Demeanor and Five Felons Poker Club, among whose members are a former Criminal Court Judge and a retired reporter, as well as the tip of the hat from the author to Tim Hallinan and his Bangkok mystery novels, and to Lee Child and his Jack Reacher books.

A very enjoyable read, and one that is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2012.

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Baronne StreetBaronne Street
Kent Westmoreland
CreateSpace, September 2010
ISBN: 978-1-45370271-0
Trade Paperback

This first novel by Kent Westmoreland introduced Burleigh [“Burr”] Drummond, and takes the reader on a wild ride down Baronne Street, home to, in less than equal parts, sleaze, beautiful women, horny men, free-flowing liquor, old money, drugs, prostitutes and corruption of all kinds. Shocking, to find all that in N’Awleens, right?  A place where, among the tantalizing smells emanating from the wonderful restaurants, it takes “a little longer to identify the sickly sweet odor of unearned wealth.”

Now a private investigator for three years, twenty-eight-year-old Drummond is hired by a beautiful, moneyed woman to find out why her husband is suddenly behaving in a ‘peculiar’ manner, paying him very handsomely for the privilege.  The ensuing investigation turns up much more than either the client or Drummond bargained for, much of it very, very personal to the detective.

He is assisted in his endeavors, as usual, by Morgan Cross, 35 years old and ‘the coolest guy’ he’d ever known, reputed to be many things [among them mercenary, hit man, and spy], and indispensable to Drummond.  The latter has his own “special talent,” to wit, to “manipulate delicate situations discreetly and keep the consequences quiet.”  A tall order in this case, as it turns out.

This was a delightful read, with believable characters and terrific setting and dialogue, and one I highly recommend.  I can’t wait to see what’s in store for Burr Drummond and his New Orleans in the next book, one I certainly hope is in the pipeline.  [It should be noted that the book is available in paperback or as an e-book online or by ordering through your favorite bookstore.]

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2012.

Book Reviews: Dangerous Women & Desperate Men by Rick Mofina, The Blonde in the Lotus Elite by Robert Baty, The Herring in the Library by L. C. Tyler, and Under the Dog Star by Sandra Parshall

Dangerous Women & Desperate MenDangerous Women & Desperate Men
Rick Mofina
Carrick Publishing, June 2011
ISBN No. 978-0-9877080-0-7
Ebook

The introduction to this book gives you a lot of  information about the author, his writing and some of his experiences that have helped develop background for his books.

“Blood Red Rings” is the story of Frank Harper, a police officer as well as a family man.  Harper is tired of his job, tired of dealing with his problems at home and ready to end his evening.   His thoughts go back over the years and the good times in his life as he cruises his beat.  However, the evening ends in a very tragic way.  A story that will stay with the reader long after the last page.

“Lightning Rider” is the story of Jessie Scout who is employed as the driver of an armored car.  Jesse along with her crew members, Gask and Perez, haul a lot of money from the Las Vegas casinos.  The last drive that she made to pick up money is one that will not soon be forgotten by Jessie, her crew members, or readers of this story.

“Three Bullets to Queensland” takes Ike Decker on a chase for the suspect in a deadly armored car hit.  One where Paco Sanchez got away with all the cash.  A great story with a twisted ending.

“As Long As We Both Shall Live” is a short story written in the form of a statement in court and is very effective as well as shocking.

Mofina also adds exerpts of several of his novels as well as some background on the books and where he got his ideas.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.

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Vintage Connor The Blonde in the Lotus EliteVintage Connor: The Blonde in the Lotus Elite
Robert Baty
R. J. Buckley Publishing, June 2011
ISBN No. 978-0981965475
Trade Paperback

Ray Connor is a former police officer living in Oakland, California and dealing in vintage cars.  He drives an Alfa Romeo and is an expert in classic cars.  He is the person to look to if you are a collector wanting to buy a classic car.

When a cab pulls up and Evie steps out, he is immediately drawn back into the past.  Evie is a woman that Connor was in love with twenty years ago and he has never gotten over the fact that she walked out on him.  Now she is back in his life and seeking his help.  Evie’s daughter Janey is dead.  Connor didn’t even know that Evie had a daughter and now he is to investigate her death.  Janey’s death has been ruled a suicide but Evie refuses to believe that her daughter would kill herself.

Janey died in Monterey so that is where Connor begins.  Connor calls on his ex-partner Vince Hendrix for assistance in tracking down some information.  When Connor begins his investigation, he finds that Janey’s death is looking more like murder than suicide.   It not only appears that there has been a big cover-up in the facts surrounding Janey’s death,  Connor also begins to feel that Evie may be covering up some facts about the case – facts that he needs to know.

Connor’s investigation takes him into dangerous territory and there are some close calls before he actually uncovers the truth.  Connor is never sure that Evie will even be around when he finally breaks the case.

Robert Baty has written an exciting mystery novel that I hope will just be the first one in a series of Connor stories.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.

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The Herring in the LibraryThe Herring In the Library
L. C. Tyler
Felony & Mayhem Press, 2011
ISBN No. 978-1934609767
Trade Paperback

Ethelred Tressider is a mystery writer although not first rate.  His agent, Elsie Thirkettle, is visiting Ethelred and while occupying their time with a game of Clue (Cludeo) Elsie is attempting to get Ethelred busy on his next book.  The game that occupies their time is one that they will soon be playing with a real life mystery.

Ethelred reminds Elsie that they are soon due at the estate of Sir Robert and Lady Muntham of Muntham Court for dinner.  Sir Robert is an old friend of Ethelred’s who was known in earlier days as Shagger.  Although Elsie was not a bit excited about having to dress up to meet the hosts she certainly wasn’t about to be left at home.

The dinner party turns into a disaster when Sir Robert is found dead in the locked library.  Lady Muntham prevails upon Ethelred to act as detective and locate the murderer.  Elsie does not have a lot of faith in Ethelred’s detective talents and proceeds to uncover her own clues.

The story is told in turns from the point of view of Ethelred and from Elsie’s point of view.  Both views are quite different.

A very entertaining story and the third in the Elsie and Ethelred series.  If you enjoy this book, you are sure to enjoy The Herring Seller’s Apprentice and Ten Little Herrings.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.

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Under the Dog StarUnder the Dog Star
Sandra Parshall
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2011
ISBN No. 978-1590588802
Trade Paperback

Family pets are disappearing in Mason County and veterinarian Rachel Goddard is stumped as to why the dogs are missing and attempting to devise some method to locate the dogs.  Rachel has moved in with Tom Bridger, Mason County Sheriff’s Deputy.  Rachel and Tom are rapidly adapting to the new living arrangement.  Tom worries that Rachel is spending too much time worrying about the missing dogs. Notices have been posted every place and he is sure the mystery will be solved before long.

Tom has another dog-related problem to occupy his mind.  There is a pack of feral dogs running around killing livestock.  Rachel is determined to help Tom and the local animal authorities capture the dogs and be able to get the dogs to a point where they would once again be the faithful dog of a family in need of a pet.  The feral pack is believed to have been brought about by the fact that people who have lost their jobs and their homes have taken to dumping their pets in Mason County in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.  The pack had been formed by the group of dogs just struggling for survival.

Suddenly the case of the lost pets and the feral dogs take a back seat to a gruesome murder.  Dr. Gordon Hall, head of Tri-County General Hospital is found dead on his property.   When Tom arrives on the scene, he finds Dr. Hall’s body along the edge of the woods near his house.  Dr. Hall’s throat had been ripped open by a savage animal.

Dr Hall’s wife Vicky is in very bad health.  Vicky is in advanced kidney failure.    The Hall’s have one natural son, Ethan, and three adopted children.   As the investigation proceeds, it appears that Dr. Hall was not a very popular person in the community and the Hall family was far from a close-knit family.

As Tom proceeds with the murder investigation as well as trying to capture the feral dog pack, Rachel is determined to save the lives of the pack of dogs.  The investigation brings out hints of a dog-fighting ring in the community that further complicates the situation.

Rachel’s feeling that all is not well with the younger members of the Hall family makes her determined to get to the bottom of the problem with the children as well as the ongoing problem with the feral dogs, the missing pets and a killer dog.

Dog lovers will shudder at some of the details of the search for the feral dogs and the attempts to find and shut down the dog-fighting group but the author has done a great job of handling touchy subjects.  This is a great addition to the Rachel Goddard series.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2011.