Book Review: The Distance by Helen Giltrow

the-distanceThe Distance
Helen Giltrow
Anchor Books, July 2015
ISBN: 978-0-345-80435-8
Trade Paperback

In an ambitious debut novel, a former bookseller has written a dark novel, one which mystified this reader.  Is it a crime novel?  A mystery? A Le Carre-type story involving the intelligence community?  Or a mixture of all these genres?

The Distance would seem to contain all the elements of the three characteristics, and therein lies the ambition of the author.  Some simplification would appear to be in order.  The plot is too complicated, the reading too slow and the story unwieldy.  Too bad.  Because it is an interesting tale, and deserves to be read.

The gist of the novel is a tale of a woman, alternatively identified as a London Socialite, Charlotte Alton, and Karla, the head of an enterprise that specializes in, among other things, erasing identities and covering a criminal’s tracks.  One such person is Simon Johanssen, who surfaces after being hidden for years, asking for her help on an assignment to murder a woman held in “The Program,” a prison-like compound where he eventually becomes involved with the victim while hiding from a criminal boss also incarcerated there.

It all comes together at the finale in a perfunctory short wrap-up.  There are few if any clues before the end to establish these conclusions as if they are included merely to end a laborious effort.  A good re-write might have helped, certainly better editing.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2016.

Book Review: A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

a-taste-for-monstersA Taste For Monsters
Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-81784-4
Hardcover

Numerous mysteries and novels have been written involving Jack The Ripper. A few have been written where Joseph Merrick (known as the Elephant Man) was featured. In this juvenile mystery, the two come together under the excellent crafting of Matthew J. Kirby. I read and cheered on (for a well deserved Edgar) his Icefall, so I was eager to see how he treated this markedly different setting.

London, 1888: Evelyn, a young orphan, has already experienced multiple tragedies when she seeks a position at the London Hospital. She lost her mother very early and then her father when speculation in commerce turned against him and he drank away both his wealth and his life. Left to survive on her own, she was dealt another cruel blow when she was poisoned by the phosphor in the match factory where she worked. Surgery saved her life, but took part of her face and jaw. Forced to survive amid taunts and jeers from passersby on the streets of London and needing to scrounge enough coins to pay for lodging each night in filthy flop houses, she’s desperate.

When she seeks an interview with the hospital matron, the woman’s initial impulse is to send her away, fearing her disfigurement will upset patients. However, Mr. Merrick has come to spend his remaining days in isolation at the hospital and it has been difficult to keep anyone on staff who is not completely unsettled by his appearance. Despite her misgivings, Evelyn soon realizes that he’s a kindred soul and she feels a sense of comfort and safety when taking care of him. She reads to him, as well as assisting him with the completion of a complex jigsaw puzzle. The more they converse, the more she warms to him, realizing there’s a lovely, caring soul underneath his disfigurement.

All is well until a mysterious killer calling himself “Leather Apron” begins murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel, the ghosts of the victims begin to appear each night at exactly the same time in Mr. Merrick’s quarters. Each visitation seems to sap his strength a bit more. Evelyn can also see them and the two realize these spirits have something unresolved in life that has locked them into their nightly visits. Realizing that she’s the one who must leave the safety of the hospital in order to learn what must be done to send each ghost on to eternal rest scares Evelyn silly. With the help of Charlie, a violinist who befriended Mr. Merrick, she does so, but not without several upsetting experiences.

How she deals with them, secures peace for the ghosts, overcomes betrayal and deals with “Leather Apron”, make for a dandy read. Both young teens and adults will very much enjoy the story, the plot twists and the very strong main characters. It’s a book well worth adding to any school or public library or buying as a gift for younger family members who love to read.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, November 2016.

Book Reviews: The Bid by Adrian Magson and Jacqueline by Jackie Minniti

the-bidThe Bid
A Cruxys Solutions Investigation #2
Adrian Magson
Midnight Ink Books, January 2017
ISBN: 978073875043
Trade Paperback

Modern warfare is a featured bit player in this novel of suspense. The story opens a window on a rich theme of warfare and crime in the coming twenty-first century and beyond. Indeed, one of the problems with the novel is the number of possibilities it raises for both criminals and law enforcement.

The target is no less than the President of the United States and the process of funding and carrying out the assassination is a clever idea rooted in very modern financial life. The author, an experienced British crime-novelist, has written over a dozen thrillers, most would be classed as spy or conspiracy thrillers. The action is tension-filled, mostly consistent and relentless. The writing is top-notch, the characters are mostly interesting and/or intriguing and the settings are appropriate.

A business consultant with operations in the US and overseas has a specialized insurance contract on his life. If he goes missing for a short period of time, unusually trained operatives go active, searching for the client and setting up protection for the client’s family. It sounds expensive and I wanted more explanation of the basis for the character, James Chadwick, to buy what must have been an expensive policy. The policy is administered by a company called Cruxys. This interesting security policy allows the writer to introduce a pair of company operatives who soon fly off to the US where most of the action takes place.

Over several chapters we learn that the company seekers, Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vasilk, have unusual and relevant training and employment backgrounds, including the ability to take lives when necessary to protect their employer and themselves. It is easy to see the range of possibilities for this free-wheeling pair to get into trouble and to rescue clients from a wide range of dangerous circumstances.

Were it not for the author’s penchant for slipping strong critical editorial commentary into the narrative voice from time to time, the pace of the novel would make this book truly a compelling page turner. One wonders if there is anything about American life he finds favor for. In spite of these asides, The Bid is enjoyable, attention-holding and well-worth the readers’ time.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, December 2016.
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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jacquelineJacqueline
Jackie Minniti
Anaiah Press, July 2015
ISBN
Trade Paperback

Jacqueline Falna of the title is a French child, twelve years of age, living in Rennes, France. When the story opens, in 1943, she and her mother have just learned that her father, a French aviator, is missing in action. Now they must cope with poverty, the Nazi occupiers, the coming of American forces all while maintaining a semblance of normal chiildhood.

Jacqueline, bright, energetic, with all the attributes one hopes to observe in a daughter or niece, is desolated by the news, but holds to the thread of possibility that her father may have been captured and will one day, after the war return to their home in Rennes. When a nearby family of Jews is abruptly taken away, the boy, David, remains and is hidden by Jacqueline’s family with help from neighbors.

In a simple, straight-forward style, through the eyes of this twelve year old child, we follow her daily challenges to help her mother find food, keep themselves warm in the winter and for Jacqueline, school and church. The novel is written for a middle school audience but the author’s craft does not pander, assuming readers may occasionally have to struggle with the language and some of the more mature considerations.

This is a fine, realistic novel, very well balanced with tragedy, happiness and it will not only engage readers in this age range. It also provides a way for young people to learn something about World War Two on an important personal level. Finally, after reading the novel, you may want to remind yourself of the name of the author.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, July 2016.
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 Reviews: Blood Symmetry by Kate Rhodes and The Girl in the River by Kate Rhodes

Blood SymmetryBlood Symmetry
Alice Quentin #5
Kate Rhodes
Witness Impulse, July 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-244407-3
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

From the publisher—

Clare Riordan and her son, Mikey, are abducted from Clapham Common early one morning. Hours later, the boy is found wandering disorientated. Soon after, a container of Clare’s blood is left on a doorstep in the heart of London.

Psychologist Alice Quentin is brought in to help the traumatized child uncover his memories, with the hope that it might lead the authorities to his mother’s captors. But Alice swiftly realizes Clare is not the first victim… nor will she be the last.

The killers are desperate for revenge… and in the end, it will all come down to blood.

Police procedurals are high on my list of things I want to read and it’s even better if the police in question are British. While Blood Symmetry is, strictly speaking, not a police procedural, that’s just semantics. Alice is a psychologist who, beginning with the first book in the series , works closely with the police to solve crimes, especially those that don’t seem to be so cut-and-dried and she is now part of the Metropolitan’s forensic psychology unit.

Any crime involving harm to a child is certainly worse than the norm—even hardened criminals are disgusted by it—and it’s easy to see why Alice would be brought in to work with this eleven-year-old in the effort to find his still-missing mother and the individual(s) behind the kidnapping. Clearly, Clare was the target, not Mikey, so what is it about her that drew the attention of the abductors? She’s a blood specialist and others in her profession have been victimized but why?

As detectives begin to learn that it all revolves around tainted blood, Alice slowly progresses toward a breakthrough with Mikey and it’s this part of the story that especially appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in the workings of the human mind and children are a different kettle of fish, so to speak, because their minds don’t work the same as adults. In this case, Mikey’s near-muteness is an additional barrier to finding out what he knows.

On a more personal note, Alice and her significant other, DCI Don Burns, are working this case together and that lets the reader who’s new to the series get a good feel for the relationship between these two. It took me about two seconds to decide I really like Alice and Don as a couple as well as individually; they have their differences and neither thinks it’s a good idea to work together but this young boy and his mother trump their reluctance.

Kate Rhodes has reached into the past in writing this story, basing it on the scandal surrounding distribution of tainted blood in the 1970’s and 80’s, and it’s a much-needed reminder that things can go very wrong in medical developments. Besides constructing a truly engaging criminal investigation with nicely developed characters, she has made her story very relevant and I am thoroughly happy to have made the acquaintance of this fine series.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2016.

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The Girl in the RiverThe Girl in the River
(published as River of Souls in the UK)
Alice Quentin #4
Kate Rhodes
Witness Impulse, October 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-244404-2
Ebook
Also available in trade paperback

From the publisher—

Jude Shelley, daughter of a prominent cabinet minister, had her whole life ahead of her until she was attacked and left to drown in the Thames. Miraculously, she survived. A year later, her family is now asking psychologist Alice Quentin to re-examine the case.

But then a body is found: an elderly priest, attacked in Battersea, washed up at Westminster Pier. An ancient glass bead is tied to his wrist.

Alice is certain that Jude and her family are hiding something, but unless she can persuade them to share what they know, more victims will come.

Because the Thames has always been a site of sacrifice and death.

And Alice is about to learn that some people still believe in it…

When psychologist Alice Quentin is asked to look into a year-old assault and attempted murder, a cold case, she’s reluctant to get involved with this politically-charged situation but her realization that the earlier police work was shoddy at best changes her feeling about it. Before all is resolved, Alice will have to confront a lot of issues, not least of which is the murky mind of a serial killer who sees things very differently from “normal” people.

Soon, the murder of a priest which may or may not be connected and Alice’s sense that the first victim, Jude, and her family are withholding information causes her to understand that this is much more than a simple attack…although the word simple is a misnomer considering the terrible facial disfigurement Jude suffered.

Since I read this book, fourth in the series, after the fifth book, Blood Symmetry, a few things are a little out of kilter but not beyond redemption. The chief difference is that Alice and Don are not yet in a relationship although clearly they have a past. Watching them work together (because Don was initially involved in the case) is interesting for the investigative aspect but perhaps more so for the development of their relationship. I was already a fan of these two and I still am for a lot of reasons, not least of which is their ability to separate work from their personal lives.

The investigation into the attacks on Jude and Father Kelvin leads down some dark and twisty paths and I was completely immersed in it. I know a lot of readers don’t care for crime fiction involving serial killers but I’m endlessly fascinated by the workings of the damaged mind and this one is particularly interesting. In the end, horror is tempered with sadness and I closed the book knowing I’m going to look for Ms. Rhodes’ earlier Alice Quentin books.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2016.

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About the Author

Kate RhodesKate Rhodes is the author of four previous Alice Quentin novels, Crossbones Yard, A Killing of Angels, The Winter Foundlings and The Girl in the River. She is also the author of two collections of poetry, Reversal and The Alice Trap. She writes full-time now, and lives in Cambridge with her husband, a writer and film-maker.


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Book Review: The Marvels by Brian Selznik

The MarvelsThe Marvels
Brian Selznick
Scholastic Press, September 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-44868-0
Hardcover

I believe that, right before blowing out every single candle on the cake, a young reader somewhere made a spectacular wish for a book filled with gorgeous illustrations and a fabulous, fanciful story rich with quirky characters, adventure and mystery.  Mr. Selznick fulfilled this wish in grand fashion.

To open The Marvels is to be immediately immersed in a harrowing adventure at sea.  In the blink of an eye….or to be precise, the turn of several pages, invested in the story of a shipwreck with spunky survivors.  Illustrations that seem to float above the pages “tell” a compelling, heart-tugging tale.  Delightful drawings seem to reach out and wrap around the reader, securing you in the story well before Mr. Selznick weaves his word magic.

When Mr. Selznick does put his pen to paper to write rather than draw, the result is no less stunning.  His young, out-of-place-and-underfoot main character, Joseph, embodies awkward instances we’ve all endured.  In his earnest desire to genuinely bond, to actually belong…he easily elicits empathy.

When the sweet, stubborn boy tracks down his eclectic, enigmatic uncle in London, Joseph is sure he’s off to a terrible start.  Genuine curiosity, compassionate neighbors and most importantly, time, make the reunion more palatable and the untold story of Joseph’s past is slowly revealed.

In a sly, subtle shift, Mr. Selznick spins two separate, yet supporting stories in one brilliant book.  Both with breathtaking backdrops: The Marvel family in the theatre and Joseph’s in his uncle’s frozen-in-time home.   In the end, it seemed that I was moved by two different families.  I was close, but not correct.

My very favorite parts of the book occurred to me days after I’d finished the story.  Mr. Selznick managed to encompass serious social issues such as loss, suddenly and inexplicably; alongside of loss that is excruciating slow, as two men deeply in love are both infected with AIDS.  Intrigued and impressed, I finished the book by reading the Afterword, where Mr. Selznick sprung one more surprise.  A large part of this fantasy is based loosely on the lives of two very real people.

Reviewed by jv poore, February 2016.

Book Review: Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah

Woman with a SecretWoman with a Secret
Sophie Hannah
William Morrow, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-06-238826-1
Hardcover

Woman with a Secret is a book that could only have been written now, in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century. While some of its themes – infidelity, the nature of love, the mysteries within marriages, human perversity – are ageless, the way they are explored in this novel is through the thoroughly modern world of online bloggers, Twitter, and virtual dating websites.

The book begins, traditionally, with a murder. Outrageously opinionated Damon Blundy, a celebrity columnist, is found dead in his house in a suburb outside London. The crime scene is bizarre – a knife is taped to Blundy’s face, but was not used to kill him, there’s a knife sharpener in the room, and the killer even leaves an unrecognizable self-portrait to mock the police. There’s also a cryptic clue painted on the wall: the phrase “He is no less dead”, which baffles  the crime scene officers and detectives.

While the book is partly a police procedural, it is much more of a literary novel, with an intense focus on people’s hidden motivations and secret lives. The story is told from a number of different perspectives. There are sections made up of Damon Blundy’s columns, and some of the Twitter wars resulting from the things he has written. These mostly consist of debates about a disgraced cyclist who strongly resembles Lance Armstrong , about a weed-saturated literary novelist named Reuben Tasker, and about gorgeous former MP Paula Riddough, and her faithlessness. These chapters alternate with descriptions  of the police investigation, mainly featuring arrogant, single-minded Simon Waterhouse, and Simon’s wife Charlie Zailer. The sections that are perhaps the most compelling are the first-person, present-tense chapters narrated by Nicki Clements, a feverish, rattled, possibly pathological housewife tormented by an upsetting childhood and a marriage that bores her.

I couldn’t say that I liked Woman with a Secret, because I’m not fond of unreliable narrators, and I didn’t find any of the characters likeable. However, it was an interesting taste of current literary mystery fiction, and I was fascinated by the author’s focus on social media – both the true revelations and the lies that many of us now seek out daily online. Hannah explores people’s psyches deeply, and in a manner that’s often unpleasant, reminding us how cold and selfish some of our motivations can be. Not surprisingly, given the title, Hannah delves specifically into questions around honesty and dishonesty, and all that surrounds those qualities: righteousness, cheating, mistrust, forgiveness. Despite all of the nasty twists and convoluted psychological turns in this book that left me wondering if anyone in it was capable of experiencing real love or friendship, I think the author has captured something authentic about the difficulties of recognizing the truth in the current smoke-and-mirrors atmosphere of social media.

Reviewed by Andrea Thompson, May 2016.

Book Review: After the Fire by Jane Casey

After the FireAfter the Fire
Maeve Kerrigan Novels #6
Jane Casey
Minotaur Books, May 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-04885-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

London police detective Maeve Kerrigan has spent plenty of time at Murchison House. One of the many cement high-rise towers comprising the Maudling Estate housing project, Murchison House is home to a motley mix of society. From domestic abuse victims and elderly widows with nowhere else to turn to its flourishing criminal elements, Maeve is familiar with many of its occupants by name or reputation.

But when a fire breaks out at Murchison House that consumes the top floors and leaves three dead, Maeve and her colleagues are startled to learn the identity of one of the victims. Geoff Armstrong was a wealthy, notoriously right-wing London politician―the last person they’d expect to find in a place like the Maudling Estate. And things get even murkier when evidence surfaces indicating Armstrong was murdered before the fire broke out. Was his death connected to the fire? To the other deaths at Murchison House? And what was he doing there in the first place? What Maeve begins to uncover will lead her on a terrifying journey through all levels of society, putting her very life in danger.

A wide variety of people lead dreary lives in Murchison House, from the lonely widow to the girls whose bodies are sold by cruel men to those who are running from something but was the fire that day intended to cover up a murder? Why was such a high-profile person in such a place and why is he dead?

Detective Maeve Kerrigan and the Murder Squad ask questions, a lot of them, and their questions begin to lead them in unexpected directions. Probably the most intriguing aspect of the investigation, at least to me, is the dichotomy found amongst all the different tenants—or temporary occupants—of this council house and it’s easy to feel a good deal of empathy for many of these people for one reason or another. Such diversity also makes the detectives’ jobs all that much more difficult and, when the truth comes out, there is nothing left but tragedy.

Maeve herself is one of my favorite female police detectives for a lot of reasons, not least of which is her ability to lead and yet be an integral part of her squad without the annoying characteristics so often found in such characters. Maeve is intelligent, forthright, considerate of others and has a sense of humor, the latter being pretty important because she has her clumsy moments. Then there’s Derwent who, supposedly, is Maeve’s boss but we all know better. He thinks of himself as a manly man but he really functions best as Maeve’s partner in detection. Derwent can be intensely irritating, especially to readers who are put off by a guy who seems to want to be in control but the relationship between these two is interesting as they head towards what could be a true friendship. (It’s also quite refreshing that, at least at this point in the series, there’s no romantic entanglement.) Meanwhile, Maeve has a stalker, Chris Swain, who is as menacing as such a person usually is.

I’m fond of police procedurals, particularly those set in the UK, and I have to say this could be one of my favorite series of that kind. I haven’t read any of the earlier Maeve Kerrigan books but After the Fire has really gotten my attention and I’m going to read the previous five novels as soon as I can. Ms. Casey is not only a fine writer but also truly good at creating a compelling crime story.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.