Book Review: The Old Deep and Dark by Ellen Hart

The Old Deep and DarkThe Old Deep and Dark
A Jane Lawless Mystery #22
Ellen Hart
Minotaur Books, October 2014
ISBN: 978125004769

You know you are in the grasp of a master story-teller when the ground becomes unstable underfoot in the first four pages. Given her longevity and varied output in the crime fiction genre, it is not surprising. Nor is it unusual that you have to read the entire novel to learn the neat resolution of that first chapter.

By turns clever, thoughtful, gut-wrenching and uplifting, this novel is very contemporary in its themes. The author’s long-time protagonist, Jane Lawless, now a licensed private investigator in Minneapolis, in addition to carefully overseeing the operation of her restaurant, faces complications at every hand, some of which are reflected in her sexual orientation. Yes, there are more and deeper examinations of gay and lesbian themes in this than readers will have encountered in earlier Lawless adventures. However, as always, Hart is tasteful and circumspect in her writing.

Long-time buddy, the ever flamboyant Cordelia Thorn has purchased and is restoring an ancient, historic theater building in downtown Minneapolis. As is the case with many buildings that suffer several alterations, there are oddities in this building, as well as several tales relating to more turbulent and law-skirting times. Seeking to create yet another restoration of the old building leads Cordelia and Jane down dusty narrow stairways and through ancient locked doors.

What crimes lie beyond those doors relate in surprising ways to a current case of murder that involves Jane and her father, Criminal Defense Attorney, Raymond Lawless, together with the family of a nationally known Country-Western singer and his inner circle and family.

With prudent care and thoughtful reveals, Hart entices readers to keep reading and turning pages. Her ability to parcel out important facts, bit by bit, is of a high order. The entire story is brought together in a complete and eminently satisfactory manner after Jane and Cordelia sort out several mis-directions. A most enjoyable experience.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, May 2015.
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly StraightOpenly Straight
Bill Konigsberg
Arthur A. Levine Books, June 2013
ISBN 978-0-545-50989-3

I have been thinking about labels…..a lot.  Sometimes, a label seems superfluous (the White girl), while other times it seems to be used as an “explanation” (the Blonde girl).  On the other hand, the lack of a label could be seen as misleading (oh, you didn’t say he was a Jock).  When, if ever, are labels genuinely applicable?

Openly Straight allows the main character, teen-aged Rafe, to search for an answer to this question.  See, Rafe has an opportunity for a do-over.  Because he is openly Gay, he believes that he knows the perception and stigma that can accompany that label.  He desperately wishes to know if he would be viewed differently without it.  Will he find an answer, or will he find himself with even more complicated questions and fewer answers than he started with?  Either way, it is a fabulously interesting journey on which we embark, as we accompany Rafe through his year of going from openly gay to slipping back into the closet….well, sort-of.

Even in a relatively controlled experiment, all things won’t be equal.  Rafe was The Gay Boy with no adverse affects in his charmingly indulgent Colorado town.  He begins to question the wisdom of coming out.  His acceptance into an East Coast boarding school seems to be the perfect opportunity for a fresh start.  There is simply no way he could have anticipated the devastation that can accompany a perceived secret.

Mr. Konigsberg tackles this somewhat sensitive topic head-on, honestly, and well…..openly.   The characters are realistically flawed.  They make mistakes, and don’t necessarily learn from them.  The dialogues, relationships and rivalries are quintessential teen behaviors; while Rafe’s parents are affably atypical.  Rafe’s story is certainly plausible; making his experiences feel very real to this reader.  I had a vested interest in the outcome of his “experiment”.

This book is amazingly written.  Mr. Konigsberg brings up points that, despite my mulling, I had never considered.  The most important thing that I learned from reading this book is that my issue isn’t with labels, it is with the stereo-typing that often accompanies the labels.  I believe that this story translates well for any label, but I am afraid that the audience may be limited simply because the label in Rafe’s life is Gay, rather than Jock, or Geek.  This is one time that I certainly hope I am mistaken, because this is a book that I believe any reader would enjoy.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2013.

Book Review: Adrien English Mysteries by Josh Lanyon

Adrien English Mysteries
Josh Lanyon
Loose ID, May 2007
ISBN 978-1-59632-465-7

This edition contains the first two novels in the series, Fatal Shadows and A Dangerous Thing.

Fatal Shadows introduces us to Adrien English, who lives above his Old Pasadena bookstore and is rudely awakened one morning by a pair of detectives, Chan and Riordan, The pair have come to give him the bad news that his employee and long-time friend has been murdered. Not only do they want to know Adrien’s whereabouts at the time of the crime but also whether Adrien was sleeping with Robert. It becomes obvious that the detectives think Robert’s homosexuality had something to do with his death and Riordan in particular seems to have a need to show his manliness. It soon strikes Adrien that he himself may be a target of the murderer but Riordan doesn’t take him seriously. In the meantime, small facts here and there lead Adrien to suspect a connection to his and Robert’s high school days and the body count begins to grow. That’s not all that’s growing though—Adrien can’t help an increasing attraction to Jake Riordan who may or may not be interested in return.

In A Dangerous Thing, Adrien takes a brief vacation to a ranch he inherited near Sonora, leaving his rather strange employee, Angus, in charge of the bookstore. He hopes the peace and solitude will help him break the writer’s block he’s having with his second novel but, just before arriving, he discovers a body lying in the road. Not being a stupid man, Adrien races back down the road and finally reaches someone in the Sheriff’s office. Unfortunately, by the time the sheriff and his deputy arrive, the dead man is gone. A long-lost gold mine, a trespassing team of archaeologists who think Adrien is the trespasser, a field of nicely-growing pot, an 1857 stagecoach robbery and more missing bodies (alive or not) ramp up the tension that Adrien was hoping to escape for a few days. Will Detective Jake Riordan come to the rescue or will perhaps Adrien be the one who rescues Jake after a fashion?

In case it isn’t obvious the two main characters (and some others) are gay but this really is no surprise if the reader does a minimum of research first. The mysteries are light but intriguing puzzles and, although there is some romance (and just plain sex), it’s a pretty good blend. I don’t particularly like to read sex scenes but, in this case, it’s not because the characters are gay—I don’t like it with hetero couples either. So, how did I deal with it? Simple. I used my trusty finger and the touch screen to move on down the road. On the other hand, as a former bookseller, I really enjoyed the details about Adrien’s bookstore, especially the squirrelly writing group and the peculiarities of Angus.

The author has an extensive body of work, plenty to keep a reader going for quite some time, and these are the first two of five installments of the Adrien English Mysteries. I’ll be looking for the next three which, unfortunately, will take me to the end of the series and then I’ll just have to try a lot of Lanyon‘s other books. I expect they’ll be every bit as entertaining as Fatal Shadows and A Dangerous Thing.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, January 2012.