Book Review: The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

The Italian Party
Christina Lynch
St. Martin’s Press, March 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-14783-7
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Newly married, Scottie and Michael are seduced by Tuscany’s famous beauty. But the secrets they are keeping from each other force them beneath the splendid surface to a more complex view of ltaly, America and each other.

When Scottie’s Italian teacher―a teenager with secrets of his own―disappears, her search for him leads her to discover other, darker truths about herself, her husband and her country. Michael’s dedication to saving the world from communism crumbles as he begins to see that he is a pawn in a much different game. Driven apart by lies, Michael and Scottie must find their way through a maze of history, memory, hate and love to a new kind of complicated truth.

Scottie and Michael are children of their times, as they say, and those of us who remember the 1950’s will certainly recognize them. They scream “American” with their enormous, flashy Ford Fairlane, their marriage is something of a convenience and they barely know each other, and they’re much, much wealthier than the Italians they want to live among. Michael is undoubtedly the head of the household and Scottie is the demure wife who follows her husband’s lead; in fact, Michael appreciates that she knows how to be a good, supportive wife. After all, her education at Vassar led to her Mrs. degree and she upholds it beautifully.

Unlike the “Leave It to Beaver” scenario, these two are not exactly the salt of the earth but, perhaps more importantly, neither one has a clue who the other one is and major secrets begin to come out as soon as they get to their destination, Siena. On top of everything in their personal lives, Communism is nipping at their heels.

All of that sounds kind of dismal, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s true to an extent but the joy in this novel comes from watching this young couple come to terms with themselves and each other while they’re in the midst of a most unlikely spy story of their own and there are a lot of laughs to be had, the kind that make you think “caper” and “adventure”. All in all, this was totally fun and I highly recommend it to anyone who likes spies, international intrigue, comedy, romance, adventure, history, Italian food…you get the idea 😉

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, April 2018.

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About the Author

Photo credit Stacy Brand

Christina Lynch’s picaresque journey includes chapters in Chicago and at Harvard, where she was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. She was the Milan correspondent for W magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, and disappeared for four years in Tuscany. In L.A. she was on the writing staff of Unhappily Ever After; Encore, Encore; The Dead Zone and Wildfire. She now lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. She is the co-author of two novels under the pen name Magnus Flyte. She teaches at College of the Sequoias. The Italian Party is her debut novel under her own name.

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Book Review: Fools’ River by Timothy Hallinan

Fools’ River
A Poke Rafferty Thriller #8
Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, November 2017
ISBN: 978-1-61695-750-6
Hardcover

The author writes in an afterword: “I had a vague idea when I started writing Fools’ River that it might be fun to bring together three or four simultaneous stories and see whether I could tell them all in a very compressed span…”  And so he did, relating several threads within 36 hours.

So we begin with Edward, the leading man in a play with Miaow, Poke Rafferty’s adopted daughter, begging Poke to find his father who is missing for 12 days; the travail of the father, one of a series of men lured by sex and imprisoned while his capturers milk bank accounts and credit cards; the life and times of Lutanh, a boy-girl, which permits descriptions of the seedier side of Thailand and its sex-obsessed trade; then there is Rose, former bar girl, married to Poke for seven years and now bearing his child in a difficult pregnancy, and mother of Miaow; and lastly Poke’s constant worry about Rose, while attempting to find Edward’s father.

The descriptions of the corruption of the Bangkok police is penetrating as are observations of the sex establishments: the Cherry Girls, the bars and of the farangs chasing after them.   Each of the sub-plots is fast-paced and absorbing and brings the reader along to a thrilling finish.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2017.

Book Review: Fall From Grace by Tim Weaver

Fall From Grace
A David Raker Mystery #5
Tim Weaver
Penguin Books, July 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-56257-0
Trade Paperback

David Raker, finder of missing persons, is asked to locate Leonard Franks, a retired 35-year veteran who headed the Met’s murder squad, and had disappeared seven months before without a trace in a variation of the locked room mystery.  His investigation becomes more complicated than just finding out what happened after Franks stepped out from his living room to gather a few logs from the woodshed.  When he didn’t return, his wife went out to look for him and couldn’t find a trace: no tracks in the snow, no car visible for miles in any direction.

Raker’s investigation takes him from the bucolic Dorset countryside to the depths of London and into an abandoned Bethlehem, a mental institution, a cast of characters too numerous to contemplate and copious family and police secrets.  Along the way, violence erupts and Raker and his daughter are in danger.

The author has chosen to develop a plot far beyond a simple missing person’s case, unraveling a series of subplots ending in a denouement far from the original start of the story.  Whether this track is a good idea or not is up to a reader’s taste.  This reader reacted in the negative, believing a story should be simple rather than overly complex.  But the novel is well-written and –plotted, and for those who can enjoy very multifaceted tales, it can be and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2017.

Book Review: Where I Can See You by Larry D. Sweazy

Where I Can See You
Larry D. Sweazy
Seventh Street Books, January 2017
ISBN 978-1-63388-211-9
Trade Paperback

Disgraced Detroit detective Hud Matthews has come home to a small lakeside Michigan community. His old friend, Police Chief Paul Burke has wrangled him a job in order to restart his career, even though both men have doubts. Hud had hardly been able to wait to get away when he was eighteen. He came back to bury his grandmother and to finally solve the mystery of his mother’s disappearance when he was eight.

Almost the first thing to happen is a murder, once which also leaves a young boy motherless. Why was she killed? The motive is obscured, and as Hud and the rest of the department strives to figure it out, more murders occur in rapid succession. What, wonders Hud, is the tie between these different people?

Overall, Hud’s desire–no, make that obsession–to find out what happened to his own mother, overrides every part of his life, and every relationship, whether with women or old friends. Even his job, which hangs by a thread at best, and rampant murder loses focus to his quest.

As a general rule, I love Sweazy’s books. HIs entry from last year, See Also Deception, was one of my favorite books in 2016. Unfortunately, for me, this one didn’t make the cut. The writing, as always, is excellent. But for me, the plot just didn’t quite meld and I found the characters, including Hud, unsympathetic, even though I felt for a child who lost his mother and never knew why.

The setting, however, is terrifically written. If you’ve ever been to one of these old, almost forgotten resorts, you’ll get the exact feeling Sweazy has provided in this book. Wonderful descriptions and atmosphere.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2017.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.

Book Reviews: The Thirst by Jo Nesbo and A Game of Ghosts by John Connolly

The Thirst
A Harry Hole Novel #11
Jo Nesbo
Translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith
Knopf, May 2017
ISBN 978-0-385-35216-1
Hardcover

Harry Hole, Norway’s most experienced serial murder detective, is content to no longer serve on the murder squad, instead lecturing at the police college and living happily after marrying Rakel three years ago.  Unfortunately, such bliss is interrupted when evidence of a possible murder too difficult to solve leads the police chief to blackmail Harry into joining the hunt.  And then he jumps in with both feet.

It turns out that the villain in a previous novel in the series, Police, may be the sought-after culprit, especially when Harry recognizes the killer’s MO.  As the frustrating hunt continues, we learn more about vampirism than, perhaps, we’d like.  It appears that the murderer has a taste for drinking the victim’s blood.  And Nesbo delves into the subject deeply and often.

In this, the 11th Harry Hole novel, the author once again demonstrates why the series is so popular:  a plot so well-developed that the reader hardly notices the length of the book.  And the twist that draws the tale to an end certainly is an added fillip.  The Thirst demonstrates to what lengths Harry Hole will go to solve a case.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2017.

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A Game of Ghosts
A Charlie Parker Thriller #15
John Connolly
Emily Bestler Books/Atria, July 2017
ISBN 978-1-5011-7189-5
Hardcover

This is Book #15 in the Charlie Parker series.  In it, Charlie has made a deal with Special Agent Ross and is on retainer to the FBI, and he is asked to find a private investigator, Jacob Eklund, also working for Ross, who apparently has disappeared.  With few facts, especially what the PI was doing for Ross, Parker begins his investigation.  And it leads him into the weirdest of investigations. It seems Eklund, on his own, was involved in tracking down a series of homicides and disappearances, each linked to extraordinary events or sightings.

Meanwhile, Parker is also facing pressure from Rachel, his onetime girlfriend and mother of his daughter, Sam; she is convinced Sam’s exposure to Parker places her in jeopardy.  This belief, reinforced by Sam’s abduction in a previous novel and possible harm, leads Rachel to seek judicial relief preventing direct contact between Parker and his daughter without direct supervision.

As the author acknowledges: “This odd book—if mine are not all odd books—is as much a product of a lifetime of reading ghost stories…”  And it is odd.  And it is filled with ghost stories.  It is an intriguing tale of the supernatural, together with a basic crime story.  It is one fascinating account and well-plotted, bringing together what amounts to a detective story and a ghost story, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2017.

Book Review: An Imperfect Past by Eve Seymour

An Imperfect Past
A Kim Slade Novel #2
Eve Seymour
Midnight Ink, March 2017
ISBN: 978-0-7387-4867-2
Trade Paperback

Kim Slate is a psychologist/psycho-therapist in Cheltenham. She has apparently had some serious troubles in the past, losing her lover to violent death and being under suspicion. The incident has left Kim with a general suspicion of authority and law enforcement specifically. This complicates an already fraught situation.

One of her former patients, a young woman named Mimi, beset by an invidious eating disorder and a mother who also needs some family therapy, returns at fourteen to Ellerslie Lodge, the clinic serving anorexia-afflicted young women. Mimi, dying, tasks Kim with finding her long-lost brother. Mimi’s mother, a hard-driving successful business woman, entangled with a lover twenty years her junior, is in deep denial about her son. When the lover is discovered dead of a knife wound and expertly eviscerated, police naturally question Kim and look closely at a champion chef with whom Kim Slate has had a casual relationship.

There are even more complications as Kim sets out to avoid the police inquiry and attempt to track down Mimi’s long-lost brother. The novel is driven by people with night terrors brought flailing into the harsh light of day. Kim struggles to retain her sanity, manage clients in the clinic and complete her efforts to locate Mimi’s brother.

Several surprising events occur along the way to keep readers glued to the pages of this dark and well-written novel. In some ways, it is depressing to realize there are a great number of similarly afflicted individuals roaming about our landscape and interfering with our attempts to manage our own daily lives. This thoughtful, complicated story does not foster joy and laughter but it does explore a number of troubling aspects of our complicated lives.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2017.
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: Sleep Like a Baby by Charlaine Harris and Hair Brained by Nancy J. Cohen

Sleep Like a Baby
An Aurora Teagarden Mystery #10
Charlaine Harris
Minotaur Books, September 2017
ISBN 978-1-250-09006-5
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Robin and Aurora have finally begun their adventure in parenting. With newborn Sophie proving to be quite a handful, Roe’s mother pays for a partially trained nurse, Virginia Mitchell, to come help the new parents for a few weeks. Virginia proves to be especially helpful when Robin has to leave town for work and Roe is struck with a bad case of the flu.

One particularly stormy night, Roe wakes to hear her daughter crying and Virginia nowhere to be found. Roe’s brother Philip helps her search the house and they happen upon a body outside… but it isn’t Virginia’s. Now, not only does she have a newborn to care for and a vulnerable new marriage to nurture, Roe also has to contend with a new puzzle — who is this mystery woman dead in their backyard, and what happened to Virginia?

Roe seems to be in the midst of a lot of relatively new life experiences, what with a fairly recent marriage, a younger brother who hasn’t been in the picture all that long, a brand new baby and, now, a new dead body. Goodness, what’s a sleuthing librarian to do?

When Robin has to leave town for a few days and Roe is sick, they call for help from Virginia who had been a nanny/housekeeper/mother’s aide after Sophie’s birth and she’s happy to come do night duty. Roe’s much younger half-brother, Philip, who lives with them now, will help out in the daytime as much as he can so Roe feels comfortable sending Robin off to his book convention. That comfort is, of course, the trigger for dastardly things to start happening. This time it’s a double whammy when Virginia goes missing and there’s a strange woman lying dead in Roe’s backyard. Obviously, the police have to be called but this IS her backyard and her missing nanny so, naturally, she’s going to do some investigating on her own, right? One of the first things that comes to light is that the dead woman is no stranger and then the clues begin to mount.

Now, I’ve been making a little fun of Roe and her latest exploits but the truth is she’s one of my go-to amateur sleuths when I’m feeling the need for some light mystery reading. Roe is a smart woman, well-educated, and she has the chops to do the snooping what with her amateur criminology background. Belonging to a club of people who like to solve mysteries gives her a one-up on most sleuths and some cops. And Robin, well, he’s one of the very good guys and I appreciate their relationship and their respect for each other even though I sort of wish they hadn’t gotten married. I also am not thrilled with her having a baby.

Robin and Sophie kind of throw this series into the land of those TV shows where we wait for years for that special relationship to happen and when it does everything starts to go flat. That hasn’t happened yet but there’s no doubt Roe’s behavior and perspective are different now and the family issues were a bit too front and center. Still, I really did enjoy this book and I’ll just have to see where things go from here.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2017.

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Hair Brained
A Bad Hair Day Mystery #14
Nancy J. Cohen
Orange Grove Press, September 2017
ISBN 978-0-9970038-8-8
Trade Paperback

From the author—

Was the car crash an accident or a deliberate attempt to run Marla’s friends off the road?

When hairstylist Marla Vail’s best friend is hurt in a suspicious car accident, Marla assumes guardianship of her infant son. No sooner does Marla say, “Baby want a bottle?”than she’s embroiled in another murder investigation. Her husband, Detective Dalton Vail, determines the crash may not have been an accident after all. But then, who would want Tally–or Ken in the car with her–out of the way? As Marla digs deeper into her friends’ lives, she realizes she didn’t know them as well as she’d thought. Nonetheless, it’s her duty as their son’s guardian to ensure his safety, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Can she protect the baby and find the culprit before someone else ends up as roadkill?

Marla and Dalton have been struggling with the idea of having a baby—he wants one, she doesn’t—so it’s fortuitous, if unhappily, that Marla takes guardianship of her best friend Tally’s four-month-old son when Tally and her husband, Ken, go missing. Having little Luke around might give their dilemma a bit of clarity but the reason for his presence is ominous.

Marla had already been thinking that Tally had recently been a little reserved and uncommunicative as though there was something she wan’t prepared to share with Marla. Now, she has to consider that this secret, if that’s what it is, has something to do with the disappearance. A lot about the couple going out makes no sense even though it was New Year’s Eve; they hadn’t planned on an outing so why did they suddenly change their minds just because Ken got a business call? When Marla and Dalton learn that Tally was hurt and Ken killed in a car accident, their immediate attention is on Tally’s survival and what they can do for her and the baby but then they find out the accident may have been no accident after all.

Spending time with Marla and Dalton is like visiting old friends and I think Hair Brained is one of Ms. Cohen‘s better entries in the series. The mystery itself and their investigations are absorbing and the baby issue is a question that confronts many couples that are in a more “settled” time in their lives. Marla is directly invested in this particular case and rightfully so, creating a natural rationale for her sleuthing. With the story concluding in an open-ended fashion, I can’t wait for the next book.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2017.