Book Reviews: State University of Murder by Lev Raphael and Cattle Kate by Jana Bommersbach @LevRaphael @PPPress

State University of Murder
A Nick Hoffman Mystery #9
Lev Raphael
Perseverance Press, April 2019
ISBN 978-1-56474-609-2
Trade Paperback

Satirical, amusing, sometimes funny, scalpel sharp and relentless, this Nick Hoffman murder story will engage most academics, offend a few and, in the bargain, offers up a classic who-dunnit. Raphael’s writing, as always, is incisive, often cutting and mostly to the point.

The author provides an extensive context of the lives of the two principal characters, Professor of Literature, Nicholas Hoffmann, a semi-professional investigator and his marriage and life partner, Stefan, also a professor at the State University of Michigan (SUM) and a highly thought-of successful crime novelist.

Their department has recently been renamed English and Creative Writing, in the apparently usual manner, by Trustees of the University with little or no faculty consultation. This gives the author opportunity to swing wider his cleaver of criticism, aimed at all members of the academic community, top to bottom. A new chair has also been named, a flamboyant, self-centered, egotistical man of letters from France. He endears himself immediately to all full-time and adjunct faculty by making a series of unilateral decisions without consultation, thus raising to untold levels the ire of the department. Hoffman deplores the new office spaces as well.

The author carefully introduces us to many department members and sets the stage for murder, pointing to faculty jealousies and resentments which abound on this campus. The story moves along at a reasonable pace, with many side trips to drinks, dinner, a dog and social activities. All of it is precisely and clearly written with many quips and even sarcastic references to the world at large.

The story is well-placed in the world of today and reflects accurately the author’s world view and that of a more compressed academic community. The mystery is solved, the murderer arrested and the academics return to their emotionally fraught tasks of educating eager young people.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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Cattle Kate
Jana Bommersbach
Poisoned Pen Press, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-4642-0302-2
Hardcover

Award-winning journalist and author, Bommersbach brings to this moving thoughtful novel, years of careful research, good writing and yes, a jaundiced eye. Those attributes are particularly important for this project because the author is directly confronting long-standing scurrilous myth about the subject of the novel, a woman named Ella Watson, and about the mythology of the settlement of the west.

Every child alive in America today as well as previous generations grew up on stories of the men who settled the western plains of North America in the years following the Civil War. There were strong mountain men, trappers, taciturn cowboys, sodbusters and cattlemen. Mostly missing from the narrative are the stories of the strong women who proved up on land grants, herded cattle and made homes for the men in their lives.

This is the story of once such strong woman, secretly married, who owned land in Wyoming Territory and was murdered, along with her husband on a July day in 1889. The couple was murdered by several landowners who claimed, along with help from local newspapers, that she was a pimp and a prostitute and a cattle rustler. Her attackers simply wanted her land and water rights.

The author meticulously tells the story of Ella Watson from her early life in Canada and Kansas to her death. Bommersbach’s canvas is broad and richly colored with the times, the trials and the triumphs of so many women on the frontier. The characters are clever and vividly portrayed. The pace at times slows to a thoughtful meander, but never loses focus. Here is a novel of the true old west to be read, savored and read again.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby @novelcarolyn @dzancbooks

The Conviction of Cora Burns
Carolyn Kirby
Dzanc Books, March 2019
ISBN: 978-1945814846
Trade Paperback

Set in 1880s England, this is a rather horrifying story featuring chronic liars, the murder of a child by a child, of experimentation both mental and physical on unwilling victims, overwork and near starvation…in other words, a story of almost no hope. Sound depressing? Well, yes. But at the same time, it is a study in possible redemption. Is the violence within a convicted killer hereditary, or is it caused by being born in jail and the conditions of life following? Either way, can someone with a history like this change?

That’s what Cora Burns sets out to learn. But first, Cora will need to dig into a past that haunts her as she takes a job in the household of a gentleman-scientist making a study of these very questions. Most of all, Cora will have to discover if she can grow beyond her sordid past.

The book is well-written, well-paced, with excellent dialogue to carry the story along. The grim history of orphanage/workhouse/goal situations seems spot-on. Even the descriptions of pseudo-medical experimentation during those years strikes a chord and is well-researched. But it’s also a sad commentary on the human condition. Be prepared.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2019.
https://carolcriggercom.sitelio.me/
Author of Five Days, Five Dead, Hereafter and Hometown Homicide.

Book Review: A Baby’s Bones by Rebecca Alexander @RebAlexander1 @TitanBooks

A Baby’s Bones
Sage Westfield Book 1
Rebecca Alexander
Titan Books, May 2018
ISBN 978-1-7856-5621-7
Trade Paperback

Archaeologist Sage Westfield is excavating a sixteenth century well near a listed building, Bramble Cottage, on the Isle of Wight. Expecting to find only some pieces of pottery and maybe some animal bones, she and her two students, Elliott Robinson and Stephanie Beatson, uncover human bones. Two skeletons, that of a woman and an infant, are covered under a pile of rubbish. The bones are at least four hundred years old, and Sage is curious to discover how they ended up in the well. There are tales of witchcraft and a haunted house on the property, and a grave with the inscription “Damozel” hidden in the woods.

While Sage works on the dig, she is also facing problems in her personal life. Six months pregnant, she has recently broken up with her married lover, and is planning to raise the child on her own. Marcus, her lover, has other ideas, and keeps inserting himself into her life. While on the dig, she meets the local vicar, Nick Haydon. and can’t help thinking about him.

Told in alternating chapters—the contemporary story of the dig and the story from the 1500s about Lord Banstock’s daughter Viola’s wedding preparations—this book will appeal to readers of Barbara Mertz, Dana Cameron, and Lyn Hamilton. Alexander has a particularly deft way with description; the vicar is described as “handsome in a 1950s, knitting pattern way.”

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, August 2019.

Book Reviews: Black Site by Philip Mudd and November Road by Lou Berney @RoguePhilMudd @LiverightPub @Lou_Berney @WmMorrowBooks

Black Site
The CIA in the Post-9/11 World

Philip Mudd
Liveright Publishing, July 2019
ISBN 978-1-63149-197-9
Hardcover

Here is an eye-opening, compelling inside narrative of our premiere intelligence agency during one of the most upsetting periods in the life of our nation. Remember that the Central Intelligence Agency was not very old when Al-Qaeda flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and literally shocked the American public to its core. In intelligence and political circles especially, the question arose: is there a plan to protect us against a second attack?

None of the law enforcement and counter-intelligence operations in our government could answer that question with any assurance and the political organizations of the nation were peopled with a lot of very nervous individuals.

Written in the third person, by a former executive in the CIA and at the White House, and also at one time an executive at the FBI, the author has a deep experience with the changing mores and culture of the intelligence world pre- and post-9/11 world. He draws on his knowledge of the important players at all levels from the Oval Office to some of the regular workers at Langley, striving to make sense of ever-increasing flows of information.

The Central Intelligence Agency was never planned as a keeper of prisoners. It had no jails and it had no protocols to deal with high or low value prisoners who had been members of the CIA’s principal target, Al-Qaeda. Author Philip Mudd follows the torturous path of interrogation techniques through the Department of Justice, the politicians and the operators, agents and analysts of the agency, the creation of black site jails and much of the rising and falling tension and shifting attitudes throughout the nation.

From it’s very first incident to the final conclusion this is a riveting exploration of the secret and the prosaic world of intelligence gathering.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2019.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

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November Road
Lou Berney
William Morrow, October 2018
ISBN 978-0-06-266384-9
Hardcover

A powerful, engaging crime novel of unusual breadth and perception: the story is a kind of road novel, involving a savvy canny New Orleans mob facilitator named Frank Guidry and an ordinary Oklahoma housewife and mother of extraordinary grit and talent.

Charlotte, mother of two small girls, is married to a husband who seems stuck in a bottle of booze and she’s frustrated with her work limitations and life in general.

It’s November 1963, and readers may remember what happened in Dealey Plaza in Dallas. The assassination of President Kennedy sends Guidry to Dallas to retrieve an unused get-away-car he assumes was parked there to be used by an assassin. Real life interfered with mob plans and Guidry is expected to clean up loose ends. He divines that he is a loose end to the New Orleans mob and takes a runner.

In Oklahoma, one more drunken episode with her husband and a putdown by the local newspaper editor is the final insult and Charlotte packs up her children and departs for the west coast.

Weather and fate bring these two adults together down the road and new adventures ensue as Charlotte and Frank meet and grow ever closer. The time period is the weeks immediately after the Kennedy assassination and Charlotte still plans to make it to Los Angeles with her daughters. Of course, other forces are at play, other characters have different plans. Carefully and thoughtfully with excellent attention to pace and environment, the author carries readers along and steadily draws us into his unique world.

This is an excellent crime novel in every aspect. NOVEMBER ROAD is not a bang-bang-shoot-up with ever increasing time-sensitive tension. The tension, and there is plenty, lies in the author’s attention to important detail and the smooth artistry of his narration as well as the thoughtful and understandable conclusions.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Review: Queen’s Gambit by Bradley Harper @bharperauthor @SeventhStBooks

Queen’s Gambit
A Mystery Featuring Margaret Harkness
Bradley Harper
Seventh Street Books, September 2019
ISBN 978-1-64506-001-7
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Spring, 1897. London. Margaret Harkness, now in her early forties, must leave England for her health but lacks the funds. A letter arrives from her old friend Professor Bell, her old comrade in the hunt for Jack the Ripper and the real-life inspiration for Sherlock Homes. Bell invites her to join him in Germany on a mysterious mission for the German government involving the loss of state secrets to Anarchists. The resolution of this commission leads to her being stalked through the streets of London by a vengeful man armed with a powerful and nearly silent air rifle who has both Margaret and Queen Victoria in his sights. Margaret finds allies in Inspector James Ethington of Scotland Yard and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, who aspires to follow in Margaret’s cross-dressing footsteps.

The hunt is on, but who is the hunter, and who the hunted as the day approaches for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee when the aged empress will sit in her open carriage at the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral? The entire British Empire holds its breath as the assassin, Margaret, and the Queen herself play for the highest of stakes with the Queen’s Gambit.

I wouldn’t want to have lived in the Victorian era but I really do enjoy reading books set in the period and, with an author’s effective worldbuilding, getting immersed in it. Bradley Harper does that for me very well.  Not only can I envision myself settling in for a chat with Margaret and all her friends; I think I would truly like these people should they suddenly become real today (many actually were real more than a hundred years ago).

I did miss having more of Margaret’s interactions with Arthur Conan Doyle and Professor Bell as I had enjoyed those characters so much in the first book but James and Elizabeth were delightful additions to the cast. Also, Queen Victoria comes across as a woman to be reckoned with, perhaps a sort of role model for young women who resist their “place” in the world. Margaret is one of those young women, a journalist and author who dares to overstep the bounds of her time.

After her adventures with Doyle and Bell, I found this latest undertaking a little less engaging which is more than a little ridiculous when you think about it. I mean, Margaret and company are involved in international intrigue and trying to prevent anarchists’ terrorist activities; what more could I possibly want? Let’s just chalk it up to my own fascination with Jack the Ripper and the efforts of the Victorian police 😉

One of my favorite parts of this book is the Afterword in which Mr. Harper provides tidbits of very interesting information regarding the people and events depicted in this novel based on facts. After an ending that made me tear up more than a little, I’m truly anticipating the next book featuring the intrepid Margaret Harkness, should there be one, and I certainly hope there will be.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2019.

Book Review: The Body in Griffith Park by Jennifer Kincheloe @jenkincheloe @SeventhStBooks

The Body in Griffith Park
An Anna Blanc Mystery Book 3
Jennifer Kincheloe
Seventh Street  Books, July 2019
ISBN 978-1-63388-540-0
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

Los Angeles, 1908. Anna Blanc is a former so-so socialite, a flailing police matron, and a killer detective.

Ex-heiress, Anna Blanc, is precariously employed by the Los Angeles Police Department, reforming delinquent children and minding lady jailbirds. What she really wants is to hunt criminals and be alone with Detective Joe Singer–both no-nos that could get her fired. On a lover’s tryst in Griffith Park, Anna and Joe discover the body of a young gambler. Anna can’t resist. She’s on the case.

With a murder to solve and her police matron duties piling up, a young girl shows up at Central Station claiming to have been raped by a man from Mars. The men at the station scoff, but Anna is willing to investigate. Meanwhile, Anna begins getting strange floral arrangements from an unknown admirer. Following the petals leads her to another crime–one close to home. Suddenly pitted against Joe, Anna must examine her loyalties and solve the crimes, even if it means losing the man she loves.

With sentences like this, it’s impossible not to love this book:

Anna arranged her face matrimonially—that is, she
tried to look grown-up, haggard, and a bit sour.

Doesn’t that bring a visual right to mind?

Anna Blanc is a young woman determined to find a place for herself in a time and society that doesn’t encourage women’s independence and she’s chosen to do so in the LAPD, decidedly a bastion of male privilege and dominance. Anna’s boss and only female colleague, Matron Clemens, is a hard taskmaster (taskmistress?) but Anna has proven her detecting skills several times now.

Meanwhile, Anna is carrying on a clandestine romance with Detective Joe Singer and, if they’re caught, Anna could be fired. Knowing that, the lovers go to extraordinary lengths to keep their liaison a secret and they may or may not be entirely successful; in fact, we know they’re not but the powers that be are still in the dark. Regardless, their efforts are inventive and frequently amusing.

On one of their trysts, while Anna and Joe are ostensibly looking for a truant, they discover a corpse. Joe immediately thinks it’s a suicide but Anna is not so sure and her detective talents kick in and, once she points out several observations to Joe, he can’t help but agree. Before all is said and done, a variety of cases will have Anna going in all directions, albeit surreptitiously, and we’re also treated to more of her family drama while Joe continues to support her as best he can in his 1908 manly way.

And who keeps sending Anna bouquets of beautiful flowers?

This is the second book I’ve read in this series—not sure how or why I’ve missed the first one—and I’m an ardent admirer of Ms. Kincheloe‘s obvious research into the early part of the 20th century. More than that, she brings Anna and her surroundings to life, making me want more. I guess I’ll have to go pick up The Secret Life of Anna Blanc while I’m waiting for book #4 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2019.

Book Review: The Huntress by Kate Quinn @KateQuinnAuthor @WmMorrowBooks

The Huntress
Kate Quinn
William Morrow, February 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-274037-3
Trade Paperback

In this terrific novel by Kate Quinn we meet three remarkable people. Jordon McBride, an American teenager, who dreams of one day becoming a renowned photographer. Nina Markova, a young resourceful Russian whose mission in life is to become a pilot, and Ian Graham, a British reporter covering the second world war and who at its end turns his attention to hunting down Nazi war criminals.

Each of their stories unfold in alternating chapters (a powerful way to heighten tension) and, as we move from the Second World War to the early 1950’s, we see Jordon struggle to fulfil her dream, frustrated in a time when young women are expected to find a suitable husband and start a family. We also follow Nina who, after joining an elite flying group targeting the Nazis, is shot down in enemy territory. She manages to avoid capture but, ultimately when the war ends, feels lost and alone, unsure what the future will bring. And Ian who soon becomes obsessed with finding one particular war criminal known as the Huntress, a German woman, responsible for the brutal murder of a number of innocent people including children and Ian’s younger brother.

These characters are all vividly drawn, with varying strengths and skills, and as their stories start to come together, tension quickly escalates and they find themselves in a race to apprehend the Huntress before she vanishes.

I had a hard time putting this book down. It’s a wonderful novel with drama and humour and thrills and a cast of characters you can’t help but like and root for.

In the Author’s Notes at the end of The Huntress you also find out how the Author conceived the idea and also learn that some of the characters are based on real people and real events. I highly recommend The Huntress. Check it out you won’t regret it…

Reviewed by guest reviewer Moyra Tarling, July 2019.