Book Review: Under the Shadows by Gwen Florio

Under The Shadows
A Lola Wicks Mystery #5
Gwen Florio
Midnight Ink, March 2018
ISBN 978-0-7387-5053-8
Trade Paperback

We’re all creatures of habit and the older we are, the more ingrained those become. Lola Wicks spent much of her adult life being independent and free to follow her instincts into dangerous locations as an investigative journalist. It took her late husband Charlie, who was a member of a Montana Indian tribe and a county sheriff, years to wear her down and marry him. Part of those wearing down years involved the birth of their now eight year old daughter, Margaret.

When Charlie was killed, smothering a bomb planted by eco-terrorists, while they were on vacation in Arizona, the unexpected wave of grief was so strong and unexpected that Lola found herself not only shadowed by Charlie’s ghost, but so distraught that she couldn’t take care of herself or her daughter. Her best friend, Jan, along with the Aunties (women elders of the tribe) did an intervention.

The result isn’t something Lola is initially willing to consider. The Aunties and Jan will care for Margaret while Lola goes to Salt Lake City where Jan has arranged for her to do a story on foreign adoption by Mormon couples for a church owned publication. Everyone’s hope is that the challenge, the geographic change, and the threat of losing her daughter to the Montana social services department will provide the kick in the rear she needs to return to the ranks of the living.

What Lola alone knows is that her nails-screeching-on-the-blackboard hold on sanity is being held together by industrial strength pain pills, sometimes the only thing that allows her any sleep and relief from Charlie’s ghost. They also compound her gradual distancing from caring and life.

No sooner does she arrive in Salt Lake City and gets off on the wrong foot with her new boss by almost sleeping through her initial meeting, than she discovers that Trang, now called Frank, the Vietnamese teen adopted at age ten, has been arrested and accused of the murder of his girlfriend’s mother. Since it was his hockey stick that cracked her skull, although her death was the result of a vicious slash across the woman’s throat, nobody seems interested in looking for an alternate suspect.

What this major upset in plans does do is start a faint rekindle of the spark that used to drive Lola’s investigative instincts. After she’s bought Vicodin from a nervous teen in a sketchy downtown park, nearly had her own throat cut, realized a smell from her own youth is attached to someone who might be the real killer, made friends with the accused teen’s girlfriend, discovered just how strange and inflexible Mormon culture can be around certain social issues and nearly been thrown in a Vietnamese jail, you, the reader, are feeling a bit like you just got off a wild carnival ride.

While many elements of the story are straightforward mystery plot items, what sets this apart are the intensity of Lola’s grief, how that has spread to impact others and how much secrecy and deceit occurred long before Lola ever landed in Salt Lake City. It’s part of a series, but can be enjoyed a lot without having read any of the others by Gwen Florio.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, May 2019.

Book Review: Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis

Crow Mountain
Lucy Inglis
Chicken House, June 2016
ISBN: 978- 0-545-90407-0
Hardcover

Sixteen year old Hope lives in London with her extremely feminist, scientific researcher mom. She has very little contact with her actor father who took off with his pregnant co-star around the time Hope was born. Mom is extremely controlling…Of Hope’s schooling, her diet, what she can do, pretty much everything.

When Mom heads off to do an ecological study on a Montana ranch, one of the few remaining unspoiled ones that practices environmentally friendly ranching, she drags her daughter along, even though Hope wants to stay in London and be with her friends.

Crow Ranch has been in operation since the 1870s and run by the same family. When a handsome young man, Caleb, the owner’s son, meets Hope and her mother at the airport in Helena, she feels an immediate attraction, but her shyness keeps her from saying anything. When they stop in Fort Shaw and the local sheriff harasses Cal, as he prefers to be called, while hinting to Hope about unsavory behavior in Cal’s past, it’s her first inkling that there’s trouble ahead.

It doesn’t take long for Cal and Hope to start talking and become very aware of their growing mutual attraction. After he shows her the room above the barn where she can hide out from her mother, Hope discovers a diary written by a girl named Emily who was on her way to an arranged marriage in San Francisco via Portland Oregon, by stagecoach in the early 1870s. She’s fascinated by the story and takes the diary with her the following day when she and Cal head off through back country roads in the national forest on a trip to get Cal’s mother who has been caring for her sister in law following a broken bone. They’re also hauling a horse trailer as they’re to bring back a couple horses.

At this point, the book begins to alternate chapters between Hope and Cal following a scary accident, and diary entries telling the story of Emily and the mysterious young man she first sees outside her hotel room in Helena, as they encounter an eerily similar fate. To say more might spoil the plot, but I can say that first off, I bought this immediately following my reading of her other book City of Halves, which is equally stellar.

This is an excellent book, part adventure, part love story, part historical fiction and a book that forces you to keep reading because of the tension and uncertainty facing both couples. It’s one that deserves a place in many libraries, both school and public. If you like it, read her other book, City of Halves.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, June 2018.

Book Review: Treble at the Jam Fest by Leslie Budewitz

Treble at the Jam Fest
A Food Lovers’ Village Mystery #4
Leslie Budewitz
Midnight Ink, June 2017
ISBN 978-0-7387-5240-2
Trade Paperback

Jazz guitarist Gerry Martin, one of the headliners at the Jewel Bay, Montana, jazz festival, falls to his death from the rocks above the Jewel River. Local police call it an accident, that Martin slipped while out hiking, but Erin Murphy has her suspicions. Erin is manager of Murphy’s Mercantile, a general store in this food lovers’ town. There seems to be bad blood between Martin and Dave Barber, local musician who upstaged Martin in the concert on opening night. Newcomer Gabrielle Drake and her pushy stage mother also seem to have a problem with the headliner.

When Erin examines the crime scene, she notices a discarded coffee cup overlooked by the police, as well as the footprints left by the victim. Would Gerry Martin wear dress boots when setting out for a hike along rugged terrain? No, but he might if he was planning to meet someone.

Subplots and supporting characters surround Erin and her store—she hires a new salesperson, finally gets to meet her boyfriend’s best friend from childhood, and her mother has news of her own. Erin is more level -headed and believable than many of the protagonists in cozy mystery series, and Jewel Bay is a setting than carries the story along. Who wouldn’t like to visit a town with such a variety of restaurants, shops, and festivals, set in the natural beauty of Montana? Recipes are included, rhubarb fans will be especially pleased. This is the fourth book in the series, but it stands well on its own.

Reviewed by Susan Belsky, May 2018.

Book Reviews: Girl in a Bad Place by Kaitlin Ward and Code Red by Janie Chodosh

Girl in a Bad Place
Kaitlin Ward
Point, November 2017
ISBN 978-1-338-10105-8
Hardcover

Commune. A calm word, calling forth images of folks immersed in wilderness; frolicking with forest creatures, blissfully coexisting with Mother Nature. Idyllic, sure; but Mailee certainly didn’t anticipate the sad-looking metal shacks she saw upon arriving at the Haven. No matter how odd and uncharacteristic the visit to this remote area may be; she is determined to be positive; after all, this peculiarity is the only thing Cara has shown interest in all summer.

Mailee never expected a super-celebratory Senior year. The ache of Cara’s loss lingers and her home is still shrouded by a palpable dark cloud of sorrow and anger, sucking up all hope of happiness. Moreover, Mailee has noticed changes in Cara that cause concern. So, even though “…nature is gross. And filled with spiders,” Mailee is willing to make the pilgrimage as pleasant as possible.

The founder, a man dubiously dubbed Firehorse, seems more like a shifty, misogynistic pig than a peace-loving-Earth-boy and everyone else emanates a surreal, suspicious, semi-aggressive vibe. Initially surprised that Cara is smitten; Mailee is soon stunned by her best friend’s frenzied fascination of the creepy cooperative.

Maybe Mailee was willing to—temporarily—omit meat and dairy from her diet as a show of support; but as Cara raves, Mailee researches. The line between commune and cult begins to blur. Against her better judgment, Mailee agrees to attend a celebration at the commune with Cara. Guessing that she will need to provide more than moral support; Mailee has no idea how dangerous and dire the circumstances will be.

A bad place can be literal, figurative, or even both at once. Sometimes, as in Cara’s case, a metaphorical bad place leads to an actual bad place. In the same way that a phrase can mean more than one thing, this keep-you-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, compelling conundrum is not just a suspense-filled mystery, but also a survival story. One about learning to live in spite of loss, loyalty, and the immeasurable value of friendship.

Reviewed by jv poore, October 2017.

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Code Red
A Faith Flores Science Mystery, Book Two
Janie Chodosh
Poisoned Pen Press, February 2017
ISBN 978-1-929345-28-1
Trade Paperback

Faith Flores is a bit of an atypical protagonist insofar as she’s somewhat rough around the edges. Of course, considering her circumstances, she’s a remarkably well-adjusted adolescent. Knowing the bare minimum about her father, really raising herself—while doing her best to take care of her addled, addicted mother—Faith’s occasional avoidance of silly social graces seems just about right. Above-average intelligence and a freaky-fast mind also, understandably, contribute to her curtness.

Having recently figured out ‘who-done-it’ when her mother was murdered (Janie Chodosh’s Death Spiral, A Faith Flores Science Mystery), Faith needs a change of scene as much as something to wholly occupy her inquisitive intellect. And so begins her internship in Santa Fe where she will be assisting in studies of genetically modified chiles. The fact that her always-absent-father supposedly inhabits this town certainly won’t distract her (she wishes) but the headline “A New Drug for Northern New Mexico” just might.

Smoothing the story with more than soul-soothing songs, we have violin virtuoso, Clem. Quite frankly, there is no going wrong with a dude named after Vassar Clements <bows deeply to Ms. Chodosh> and this young man is no exception. Aside from his evident awesomeness, for the first time ever, Faith feels a possible connection…perhaps he can identify with her “…own mixed race too-brown-to-be-white-too-white-to-be-brown ethnicity…”.

Santa Fe has several surprises in store for Faith and suddenly, her luxurious length of time here seems lacking. To focus on the inexplicably angry threats against her lab and GMO crops, grab a few minutes here and there with Clem, and attempt to take advantage of opportunities with new-found family; Faith definitively does not have time to delve into the intrigue of Liquid Gold, the latest in dangerous dope. Unless there’s a link that would render her choice irrelevant.

Reviewed by jv poore, November 2017.

*Not to go full-out-nerd on you but when I began writing this review I realized that I still felt relatively ignorant about the term “GMO” & the arguments against it. This Mental Floss article saved the day: What is a GMO?

 

 

Book Review: Membrane by Michele Corriel

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Title: Membrane
Author: Michele Corriel
Publisher: Leap Books

Publication Date: October 10, 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Young Adult

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membraneMembrane
Michele Corriel
Leap Books, October 2016
ISBN
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

In the multi-verse people may look familiar, but no one is who they seem.

In a small town in Montana, Sophie lives with her quantum physicist mother, and her equally brilliant, but dangerously obsessed step-father.

Her father disappeared years ago under mysterious circumstances, but Sophie is still haunted by memories of him that seem so real she swears she feels his presence one night as she drifts off to sleep.

Realizing that somehow her missing father is trying to send her a message, Sophie decides to take a big risk.

With her friend, Eli, Sophie must discover what strange experiment her father did and understand the startling impact it has on her world and another, just across the membrane dividing the multi-verse.

Isn’t that cover eye-catching? Better yet, it reflects the story as well as any I’ve seen in a long time. The fractured title evokes the thin barrier between Sophie’s Earth and…whatever is on the other side…and the image of the man, who surely must be Sophie’s missing father, is almost haunting, kind of a ghost. Kudos to the cover artist, Nina Gauthier Gee.

The thing I really appreciated about Membrane is its simplicity. Here we have a girl living in a less-than-fabulous family, a girl whose father went missing years ago without any resolution. When she begins to believe he’s trying to reach out to her, she’s compelled to go through his journal for hints as to what might have happened to him, leading her to an incredible adventure with her friend, Eli. What they discover is life-altering and Sophie may be humanity’s last hope.

Sophie is a smart girl with plans for her future but, at the same time, she’s protective of her mother and has learned to cope as well as possible with her increasingly paranoid step-father, Ted. Eli could easily become more than a friend if only Sophie would allow herself to let him in and I have to say Eli is possibly the most appealing guy-friend-potential-love-interest I’ve found in young adult fiction. I’m so glad there’s no insta-love here, just a naturally growing connection between two decent kids.

On the whole, Membrane is an intriguing tale with vivid characters and twists you never see coming. Although we’re left with some unanswered questions, that’s quite natural and I turned the last page feeling more than satisfied.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

About the Author

michele-corrielMichele Corriel lives and works in Montana’s scenic Gallatin Valley, surrounded by seven mountain ranges.

Her work is as varied as the life she’s led, from the rock/art venues of New York City to the rural back roads of the Rockies. With her fourth book just out from Leap Books, she’s also a prolific freelance magazine writer with articles regionally, nationally and internationally. Michele has received a number of awards for her non-fiction as well as her poetry. She also enjoys teaching, presenting writing workshops and speaking on panels across the country.

When she’s not writing you may find her on the golf course, hiking or slogging her way through the snow on what some people like to refer to as “skis.” You might also find her in the kitchen creating exciting new flavors or recreating classics.

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Book Review: Buffalo Jump Blues by Keith McCafferty

Buffalo Jump BluesBuffalo Jump Blues
A Sean Stranahan Mystery #5
Keith McCafferty
Viking, June 2016
ISBN 978-0-5254-2959-3
Hardcover

From the publisher:  In the wake of Fourth of July fireworks in Montana’s Madison Valley, Deputy Sheriff Harold Little Feather and Hyalite County Sheriff Martha Ettinger investigate a horrific scene at the Palisades cliffs, where a herd of bison [a/k/a buffalo] have fallen to their deaths.  Are they victims of blind panic caused by the pyrotechnics, or a ritualistic hunting practice dating back thousands of years?  The person who would know is beyond asking, an Indian man found dead among the bison, his leg pierced by an arrow.  Farther up the valley, fly fisherman, painter and sometime private detective Sean Stranahan has been hired by the beautiful Ida Evening Star – – a Chippewa Cree woman who moonlights as a mermaid at the Trout Tails Bar & Grill  – to find her old flame, John Running Boy.  The cases seem unrelated, until Sean’s search leads him right to the brink of the buffalo jump.

This is the fifth entry in the series, and to call it eclectic would be an understatement.  Both the fishing and wildlife aspects of it, which predominate in the early sections, are entirely foreign to this reader, whose usual preference is for character-driven novels.  But the header for Chapter 8, “A Mermaid, an Arrowhead, and True Love,” captures the elements of most of the rest of the book.  The aforementioned Ida is the first of these, the arrowhead a piece of evidence in the search for the murderer of the Indian Man, and true love is – well, as Sean says: “True love knows not logic nor lust, but the synchronized bearing of hearts.”

The bison was the “icon of the West” that only a century ago had stood at the brink of extinction.  When Harold comes upon the first body, he puts the dying animal out of its misery.  He muses, “The irony of what he had done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years, was not lost on him.”  But he had done what he had to do, and cannot second-guess himself.  Shanahan is a terrific protagonist, of whom Martha says “You’re what I call a Montana Renaissance man.  You have about five different jobs and still you have to stick a hose down a gas tank to siphon up enough fuel to get to the store.”  (He guides during the trout season, writes for fishing magazines and paints in the winter (or when he gets a commission).  He says of himself “I’m a better artist than I am a detective.  Or fishing guide.”  But he is selling himself short, as he demonstrates during the ensuing investigation, assisting Martha in the search for the man or men behind the events.  The geography of Montana is vividly presented.  The writing is terrific and filled with humor, e.g., “Fishermen are born honest, but they get over it.”  The beauty of Montana is vivid, and that and the wonderful writing have pointed me to the fourth novel in the series which I had somehow missed, Crazy Mountain Kiss, next up for this reader.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, June 2016.

Book Review: Bitter Creek by Peter Bowen

Bitter CreekBitter Creek
A Gabriel DuPre Montana Mystery #14
Peter Bowen
Open Road Media, April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4976-7658-9
Trade Paperback

Stock inspector, fiddle player extraordinaire, father, grandfather, stepfather⏤Gabriel Dupre is a man of many parts. Most of all, he’s a man of unlimited curiosity and observation who isn’t about to let a mystery go unsolved. Not even if it’s a hundred years old, and especially not when it concerns his people, the Métis.

Chappie Plaquemines, DuPre’s girlfriend’s son, has come home from Iraq maimed in mind and body. So has Chappie’s commanding officer, Lieutenant John Patchen, who’s come to Montana to persuade Chappie to accept the Navy Cross. While both young men are having a sweat bath in the mystic Benetsee’s steam tent, voices come to them that even DuPre, waiting outside, can hear. The voices of a group of massacred Métis from one hundred years in the past speak to them of Bitter Creek. They beg to have their story heard. But before DuPre can point a finger at the culprits, he’ll have to find where the bodies are buried. Only intense investigation will reveal the dead’s story, but not without a few new victims.

When you pick up a Gabriel DuPre book, you’re going to think it needed an editor⏤at first. Commas are in the wrong place, you think. And then, after a couple pages, it all makes perfect sense. As you read the words, you begin to hear the cadence of the characters’ voices. I love it. It’s some of the most compelling dialogue I’ve ever encountered.

Beyond that, DuPre is a character who comes to life under author Peter Bowen’s sure hand. From his old Police cruiser that he routinely drives over the speed limit, to his roll-his-own smokes, to his fiddle and his music.

He’s not the only fine character. Bart, Booger Tom, Madeleine, the many grandchildren. Even Eustace, the musk-ox, and Father Van Den Heuvel, the clumsy priest come to life in the book. And never forget Benetsee, who seems able to change shape.

The dialogue is crisp and often funny, especially when it concerns Booger Tom or the grandchildren.

I, for one, hope there’ll be many more DuPre mysteries.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, April 2016.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder and Four Furlongs.