Book Review: Substitute Soloist by D.R. Ransdell

Substitute Soloist
An Andy Veracruz Mystery #4
D.R. Ransdell
Aakenbaaken & Kent, February 2019
ISBN 978-1-938436-77-2
Trade Paperback

Andy Veracruz, a mariachi musician who has won himself a place in the Tucson symphony orchestra, suddenly becomes the concertmaster when the present one is accused of murder. The evidence seems quite compelling, although the maestro insists she’s innocent. When she flees the scene, enlisting Andy’s help, he sets out to prove it. Their investigations take them to Europe and to Mexico before they’re done.

Thoughts: A lot of hustling here and there didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. Why would Andy put himself in danger to go through these contortions to find this very difficult and unlikable woman? If the police thought the woman murdered a man, why didn’t they figure into the plot? A ticking time clock to prove innocence before the cops arrest her? Not mentioned. I don’t even understand why the maestro chose Andy to help him. The best part of the book was the music involved, but for a new, barely adequate violinist to be chosen concertmaster over the others strikes me as odd, especially when he keeps talking about making so many mistakes and how badly he’s playing. And then to put him into all these other symphonies as concertmaster when they go to Europe on a wild goose chase? Hmm.

Frankly, it took me several days to get through the book. For me, it fell flat although that may say more about me than it does about the author. But it certainly did not strike me as the page turner another reviewer called it. Everyone will need to judge for him/herself. The story did, when I got to the end, have a good twist, the writing is well-done, and the musical aspects are educating and interesting.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, February 2020.
http://www.ckcrigger.com
Author of The Woman Who Built A Bridge (Spur Award Winner), Yester’s Ride,
Hometown Burning and Five Days, Five Dead: A China Bohannon Novel

Book Review: Disappeared by Francisco X. Stork

Disappeared
Francisco X. Stork
Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2017
ISBN 978-0-545-94447-2
Hardcover

Existence in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico requires a combination of courage, vigilance and restraint.  The typical work-day commute equals exposure to potential harassment and harm.  Truly dangerous, totally unavoidable.  Students don’t have the luxury of focusing on academics or sports.  Families need financial support.

Emiliano attends his high school classes and participates on his soccer team, but he focuses on family and ‘his’ Jiparis.  Intelligent, innovative and driven, Emiliano creates a small business of collecting hand-made folk art from his pseudo-Mexican-Boy Scouts, which he sells to small shops. The Jiparis’ families receive the bulk of proceeds, of course, but Emiliano’s cut helps at home and his business has been noticed.

A journalist with El Sol, Emiliano’s sister writes a weekly column about the city’s missing girls.  Sara had shared her own story of loss, writing of the day her best friend was kidnapped.  Friends and family members of other missing girls responded to her article, and Sara was assigned a weekly column.  After reporting progress, Sara was stunned when she was ordered to drop the investigation and the article.

Emiliano becomes acquainted with several of the city’s successful businessmen and his views seem to shift.  Hard work is nothing without the willingness to get “a little dirty”.  A person can only truly move up, in this world, when illegal activity is going down.  Clearly, everyone is doing it; but it takes Emiliano time to realize how closely it is all connected.

Mr. Stork deftly displays the complexities of life in Mexico, even as he highlights the hope, strength, determination and compassion in the people that call it home.  Disappeared is a fictional story about Mexico’s missing girls, but the fact is, hundreds of Mexican women do disappear in this border city every year.

Reviewed by jv poore, September 2017.

Book Review: A Silver Medallion by James R. Callan

a-silver-medallionA Silver Medallion
A Crystal Moore Suspense #2
James R. Callan
Pennant Publishing, May 2016
ISBN 978-0692679227
Trade Paperback

A Mexican woman shows up at Crystal’s grandmother’s house saying that she’s escaped from a man’s house where she was kept as a slave. There’s another woman who won’t leave the slave situation because she’s been threatened with harm to her children who are being kept captive in Mexico. Crystal’s parents died when she was only seven, and the thought of the youngsters being separated from their mother won’t let her sleep. She sets out, without much of a plan, to free the mother and her children.

Crystal Moore is one of those heroines you just want to yell at, “Don’t do that! Don’t go there! Listen to your best friend, your grandmother, your boyfriend, the police, and that big, tough guy and his wife in Mexico. You’re going to get yourself killed!”

It’s the reader’s good fortune that James Callan’s sleuth doesn’t listen. We get to follow her quest into danger zones. She’s the heroine, and we know she’ll escape or be rescued, but wait… How will she survive when she gets herself into such impossible predicaments?

We almost have to create a new category for this mystery—cozy thriller. We love the main characters. There is an amateur sleuth, and her job is an important aspect of the story. But the lurking danger creates suspense as Crystal tries to save these young Mexican women and children who have been coerced into slavery. Read A Silver Medallion in order to experience delightful, cozy situations in towns and rural areas in southern Texas and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Don’t expect all relaxation, though. Your fingers won’t have a minute’s rest as you turn pages, and your shoulders will tighten from the suspense every time Crystal turns a corner.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, September 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Dizzy in Durango by D. R. Ransdell

Dizzy in DurangoDizzy in Durango
An Andy Veracruz Mystery #3
D. R. Ransdell
Oak Tree Press, December 2015
ISBN 978-1-61009-212-8
Trade Paperback

Trouble follows Andy Veracruz, and this time it’s at the airport in Durango, Mexico where the problems begin. Andy is there to visit his fellow Mariachi musician and sometimes lover, Rachel, who is there for a family celebration. But a sexy woman at the airport attracts his attention, leaves her purse with him, and disappears.

Inside the bag, Andy finds three thousand dollars. He involves his girlfriend in his search for the missing woman, and they run into danger. Stolen children, dead bodies, and psychotic killers from Durango to the Mexican border to Tucson, Arizona disrupt romantic intentions. Too, Andy’s dizzy spells produce concerns among his Mexican friends.

Meanwhile, Andy’s relationship with his girlfriend and his music career take unexpected twists and turns. The small-town setting of Durango, a symphony audition in Tucson, and the Arizona desert landscape add interest and appeal to the story.

Although references to previous episodes in the series disrupt the flow a few times, this cozy mystery is a page-turner with plenty of action. At the same time, it presents character studies and moral dilemmas that cause the reader to reflect on solutions long after the final scene.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, March 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections, Furtive Investigation and Nine LiFelines, the first three Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Double Switch by T.T. Monday and Don’t Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz

Double SwitchDouble Switch
T.T. Monday
Doubleday, March 2016
ISBN:  978-0-385-539958-1
Hardcover

The book is equal parts mystery and baseball.  Johnny Adcock is a terrific protagonist.  He is a no-longer-young baseball player, 36 to be exact, fourteen years in the big leagues, his assigned role to come into a game in the eighth inning, primarily to face left-handed hitters (as he is a southpaw himself), and retire them (working, as he says, ten minutes a night).  Divorced and with a teenage daughter, he plays for the fictional San Jose Bay Dogs.  In the opening pages, Johnny meets a woman with the unlikely name of Tiff Tate, who apparently has a following as a sports stylist – who knew?  In effect she does makeovers on sports figures, upgrading their image, including hair, body ink, clothing and the like.  We are told that “Her work is legendary, lucrative, and highly confidential.”

Johnny’s side job, so to speak, is as an investigator for friends and colleagues, which primarily involves cheating spouses, for which he charges no fee; he says that “an empty bullpen is the closest thing I have to an office,” seeing it as his job down the road after he retires from baseball.  Tiff asks him for help with regard to a Colorado Rockies rookie outfielder who is as well known for his escape from Cuba as for his power at the plate.   She says that he is being blackmailed by the Venezuelans who smuggled him out of Cuba, and are apparently holding his family at gunpoint in Havana as collateral.

At some point, dead bodies start to pile up, and Johnny’s sideline brings him into danger that he never anticipated.  There is much about the less glowing aspects of the sport, with its history of steroids and humongous salaries.  There are tidbits such as that the Coors Field equivalent of a no-hitter is four runs on eight hits, and Johnny pitching to a power hitter who is facing the possibility of leaving “a runner in scoring position against a thirty-six-year-old finesse pitcher who makes a fraction of his salary.”  Oh, and to the uninitiated, the eponymous ‘double switch’ is a “maneuver that allows a manager to change two players at once and swap their places in the batting order.”

Timing is everything, they say, and my reading of this novel on the eve of the new baseball season couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.  It is a good mystery, with just the right amount of humor, and lots of terrific baseball lore and references.  And I even learned a new word:  callipygian!  Of course, the final scene has Johnny coming into a critical game in the eighth inning with the bases loaded.  One doesn’t have to be a baseball addict to enjoy the novel (although, to be fair and in the spirit of full disclosure, I am exactly that).  This is an entertaining book, on any level, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, February 2016.

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Don't Look BackDon’t Look Back
Gregg Hurwitz
St. Martin’s Paperbacks, December 2015
ISBN:  978-1-2500-6831-6
Mass Market Paperback

The title derives from words spoken by a mysterious figure at the heart of this book, an exhortation not to be taken lightly.  When the warning is ignored, in the early pages of the novel, it is the last mistake made by the woman to whom it is spoken.  The man is lethal in a nearly unbelievable way, well-trained in jihadi tactics, and intent on only one thing:  That no one must see him, no one must endanger his hard-won invisibility.

Our protagonist, Eve Hardaway, single mother of an adored 14-year-old boy, has taken a rafting and hiking trip in the mountains of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico.  Having come upon the fatal encounter referenced above, she is plunged into the most threatening and dire of situations, both nature-made and man-made, exhibiting incredible bravery.  The man hunting her, having seen her observing his murderous actions, has almost inhuman expertise in all things offensive and defensive.  Eve is facing unimaginable odds and a relentless adversary.  In fact, that last adjective describes the book as a whole, for it too is relentless.  So much so that I kept finding myself wanting to put the book down, but could not bring myself to do so.  The author’s descriptions of the jungle and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, are very well wrought.  There are occasional chapters from the pov of Eve’s adversary, giving the reader a glimpse into the mind and heart of a man who is basically, in addition to and despite being a devoutly religious man, a homicidal terrorist.

The book spans about one week, but the scenes that play out sometimes seem endless.  Eve is one of a group of seven, of varying ages and greater or lesser abilities under these threatening circumstances, and they each find their bravery and loyalty to one another tested.  At some point they see the reality of the situation:  “Us vs. nature.  Us vs. him.”  Which just about sums it up.

Despite some reservations, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2015.

Book Review: Terror in Taffeta by Marla Cooper

Terror in TaffetaTerror in Taffeta
Marla Cooper
Minotaur Books, March 2016
ISBN 978-1-250-07256-6
Hardcover

Readers of Nora Roberts, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Joanna Fluke, and Sally Goldenbaum mysteries will love Marla Cooper’s new cozy heroine, Kelsey McKenna. Kelsey is a wedding planner at a destination wedding she’s planned in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Everything is going well until the temperamental bridesmaidzilla collapses just as the village priest pronounces the newlyweds husband and wife.

Most of the wedding party flies home the next morning, and Kelsey is set to leave, too. Too bad—the bride’s sister is arrested under suspicion of murder, and Kelsey, along with the bride’s family are kept in town for questioning. Even though Kelsey is no shrinking violet, she’s never had to hunt down dangerous suspects, but that’s what the dominating mother-of-the-bride insists she must do to fulfill her contract as “the wedding planner.” Kelsey capitulates, not only for the sake of her check, but also for the sweet, innocent sister who sits wilting in a Mexican jail cell.

With the help of her convivial, gay wedding photographer, who agrees to stick around to help Kelsey, the witty, spunky planner-turned-sleuth probes the wedding party’s villa accommodations and the charming town of San Miguel for clues. In the process, she perturbs the police, the bride’s mother, and the killer, hooks up with an old flame, and eats a number of yummy-sounding Mexican meals.

An exciting, funny, page-turner, Terror in Taffeta is a delightful addition to the cozy mystery genre.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, February 2016.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Reviews: Stagestruck by Peter Lovesey, Ringer by Brian Wiprud, Infernal Angels by Loren Estleman, No Mark Upon Her by Deborah Crombie, and The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman

Stagestruck
Peter Lovesey
Soho Crime, June 2011
ISBN: 978-1-56947-947-6
Hardcover

What a pleasure to find a book which includes two of my favorite things:  a crackling good mystery, filled with humor, and a tribute to the theater. As the title might imply, the author obviously has much respect for the theater, with both a lower case “t” and upper case as well [see below].  His protagonist, on the other hand, not so much. In the newest book featuring Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, head of Bath’s CID, the reader learns that Diamond has always suffered from a phobia, what the author terms a “deep unease’ and resulting in what can only be described as panic attacks where the theater is concerned.

Diamond is forced to confront his fear when he is called to the 200-year-old Theatre Royal, in Bath, which some refer to as “an itsy-bitsy provincial theatre” and others as “the prettiest theatre in the kingdom,” when on opening night, the celebrity pop star with the unlikely name of Clarion Calhoun who has been cast as the lead in a production of “I Am a Camera” is stricken, just after the curtain goes up.  She is apparently the victim of something which has caused third degree burns to her face and upper chest, precisely where her stage makeup had been applied some moments before, effectively destroying her career, not to mention her looks.  Things get even dicier when two days later a dead body is found in the theater.

The novel is thoroughly enjoyable, with the last twenty or so pages keeping the reader in great suspense as the culprit is unmasked.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2011.

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Ringer
Brian Wiprud
Minotaur, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-60189-8
Hardcover

Ringer is a sly tale revolving around an encounter between a 65-year-old billionaire and a Mexican man of less than savory background.  A caper novel with a plot arising out of a stew comprised of an ancient ring which may or may not be blessed and/or cursed, a spoiled and willful 19-year-old girl, a Greenwich Village palmist and her assorted relatives, and a smattering of several truisms purportedly from the mouth of Abraham Lincoln, among many other things, make up this consistently delightful concoction.

The protagonist is Morty Martinez, introduced to readers in the author’s Feelers, Brooklyn native and former house cleaner, who now considers himself as La Paz gentry now that he is living in Mexico again and he has a few million in the bank.  The aforementioned teenager is [ironically] named Purity Grant, who has a mutually hateful relationship with her stepfather, the billionaire.  Their toxic dynamic fuels thoughts of murder as the easiest way out of matters financial and emotional, by both parties, and somehow Morty becomes the designated hit man of each.  The mantra invoked from time to time, by each of the major players, is Earn Destiny, and they all go about trying to achieve that end in a manner which seems most logical to those involved, as opposed, perhaps, to anyone in the ‘normal’ world, such as, e.g., the reader.

Purity’s speech is regularly peppered with acronyms, as though her mind is permanently in text-speak.  [Being in the minority that is not thoroughly conversant with that particular mind-set, I have to admit to being unable to decipher them all.  Typing this, it only just dawned on me, e.g., that “ITWYT” means “if that’s what you think.” “NHNF” and “YGAGA m9” still elude me, as does in general the concept of people actually using these in everyday, that is to say verbal, speech.  Hopefully there is nothing profane in any of that.]  But that only contributes to the enjoyment of this zany tale, which had me smiling or laughing aloud throughout.  I have to admit I have not yet read Feelers, but will try to correct that without much further ado.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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Infernal Angels
Loren Estleman
Forge, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1955-5
Hardcover

In the twenty-first novel in the wonderful Amos Walker series, Loren Estleman once again captures the spirit of Detroit, as much a character in the novel as it is the mise en scene.  As the author describes it, it is a city which “continued its slug’s crawl toward bleak oblivion.”   Although the tale begins innocuously enough, when Walker is hired to recover 25 stolen cable-TV converter boxes, it is soon apparent that there is more going on than meets the eye, when two people with whom Walker has spoken turn up dead, within hours of those meetings.

Walker is undaunted, and pursues the case with even greater zeal.  He is no longer invincible, he admits:  “In the pursuit of my profession I’d been shot, beaten, coldcocked, drugged, and threatened with death. . . It would be a good joke on a lot of bad people if it was a heart episode that took me.”  The title derives from the line, soon after the second body is discovered, that of a man Walker had known for years:  “Once you’d made the decision to live on the dark side of the moon, all your friends were infernal angels at best.”

His descriptions of several characters are exquisite portraits.  Of a detective:  “He’d lost flesh from age and the weight of the world, pasting skin to bone like shrink-wrap.  His boys were grown and married, one of them was still speaking to him, and his wife, who earned more money than he did working shorter hours, was often away on business.  Home for him was just a place to change horses between shifts;” of a colleague:  “His face was the same vintage as mine, but he ironed his more often and packed it in ice overnight;” a building caretaker “an ambulatory dandelion gone to seed.”  The prose is equal parts elegance and street.

There are perfect fleeting references on such eclectic topics as jazz musicians, politics and politicians past and present, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro, as well as little-known facts on historical figures as diverse as Black Bart and Marcus Garvey, and nostalgia for Tigers Stadium.

A fast-paced and consistently witty entry in this terrific series, it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, November 2011.

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No Mark Upon Her
Deborah Crombie
William Morrow, February 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-199061-8
Hardcover

In the opening pages of Deborah Crombie’s 14th novel, DCI Rebecca [“Becca”] Meredith, an Olympic contender and a senior officer in West London’s Major Crimes unit, is found dead in the waters of the Thames near her home in the town of Henley, 35 miles from London.  The events that follow take place, amazingly, over a period of about a week.  I say ’amazingly’ because so much happens, in a terrifically plotted novel.  The case falls to Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, of Scotland Yard’s Murder Investigation Team, with some aspects of it falling to his bride, Gemma James, DI with the Notting Hill Police.

The book is filled with wonderfully drawn characters, including not only both the protagonists but also Kincaid’s partner, Sgt. Doug Cullen, about to become a first-time homeowner and nervous at the prospect; Gemma’s colleague, Melody Talbot; Becca’s ex-husband, Freddy; Kiernan Connolly and Tavie Larssen, members of the SAR [Search and Rescue], or K-9, team as well as its four-legged members, Finn, a Labrador retriever and Tosh, a German shepherd, every bit a part of the plot as are their human partners.

The common thread among several of the characters is a love of – in fact, a passion for – rowing or, to be more specific, sculling, a very specific skill employing the use of sleek racing shells, apparently a world of its own.  Just how much so is made very clear through the author’s use of quotes, preceding the start of most chapters, from various publications on the subject, as well as Ms. Crombie’s own prose in the early pages, describing the victim shortly before she is killed:  “she sat backwards on a sliver of carbon fiber narrower than her body, inches above the water, and that only her skill and determination kept her fragile craft from the river’s dark grasp.”

The James/Kincaid family dynamic of ‘his’ [Kit], ‘hers’ [Toby – – their respective 14-year-old sons], and ‘theirs’ [Charlotte, the mixed-race 3-year-old foster child they are planning to formally adopt], is a constantly active one that makes the protags’ personal lives every bit as engaging as their professional ones.

The author comments “Things were always so much more complicated than they appeared on the surface,” and employs mini-cliffhangers throughout, maximizing the suspense, as well as some shocking revelations, producing several OMG moments.  But I’ll leave those discoveries to the readers of this highly-recommended novel.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.

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The Most Dangerous Thing
Laura Lippman
William Morrow, September 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-170651-6
Hardcover

The new standalone novel from Laura Lippman was, to this reader, unlike anything this wonderful author had written to this point. [Among her more recent ones, I’d Know You Anywhere and What the Dead Know still stand out in my memory and resonate with me.]  The present work is not really a mystery [although there is a death early on in the book] nor procedural, but instead a series of in-depth character studies which will be difficult to match.

The author takes her time recreating and juxtaposing scenes from the past with those of the present, from the time when “everything was perfect until the moment it wasn’t,” in the lives of five youngsters in their early teens, three brothers and two young girls.  Ultimately each of these, along with their parents and siblings and extended families, will have their own chapters, describing events which took place in 1980, in their native Baltimore, with p.o.v. changes from one character to another and from those early years to the present time, when most of them have grown children of their own, all of it shaped by one pivotal ‘incident’ [insert your own euphemism] which changes all of their lives forever.  The reality of the events of that night is different for each of them, children and parents alike.  And ultimately it is about secrets kept, or not.

One of the three brothers, Gordon (“Go-Go”) Halloran, nine years old in 1980 and always the most reckless of the three, although presently two years sober, leaves the bar at which he has just fallen off the wagon and does not make it home alive, crashing into a wall at about 100 mph. There is a question about whether it was a tragic accident, or something somehow worse.

I found this book [in which, btw, Tess Monaghan makes a cameo appearance] a departure for this author, and very thought-provoking. I suspect it too will stay in my memory for a long while. Parenthetically, I loved Ms. Lippman’s description of one perpetually angry character who, when counting to ten, started at nine.  But there are many memorable moments, and personalities, here.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, December 2011.