Book Review: The Poison Artist by Jonathan Moore

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Mariner Books, December 2016
ISBN 978-0-5448-1182-9
Trade Paperback

There are obsessions and there are fantasies.  And usually they don’t coincide.  But they do in this fascinating novel, which encompasses the elements of a serial murder mystery, a thriller and possibly a psychological analysis of a sick mind.  It is the story of Dr. Caleb Maddox, a brilliant San Francisco toxicologist studying the chemical effects of pain in the most advanced laboratory in the country.

After his live-in girlfriend walks out on him following an argument, he goes out drinking.  In a bar, he meets a beautiful woman named Emmeline. He becomes obsessed with her, and has to find her again. Meanwhile, he gets caught up in a serial murder investigation, helping his best friend, the Medical Examiner.  One of the victims turns out to be someone who also was drinking in the same bar as Caleb that night.  The detective  in charge of the case is aware of Caleb’s early history, and suspicion arises implicating him.

The novel is a complicated tale and is rather confusing until the author finally gets around to providing details on earlier history.  Until then, the reader remains in the dark and has to take everything at face value.  And the conclusion is somewhat offbeat as Caleb, perhaps, slips away from reality.

Written well, it is an unusual story well worth reading, and is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2017.

A Few Teeny Reviews

thrice-the-brinded-cat-hath-mewdThrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
A Flavia de Luce Mystery #8
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press, September 2016
ISBN 978-0-345539960
Hardcover
Audible
Unabridged Downloaded Audio Book
Narrated by Jayne Entwistle

From the publisher—

In spite of being ejected from Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is excited to be sailing home to England. But instead of a joyous homecoming, she is greeted on the docks with unfortunate news: Her father has fallen ill, and a hospital visit will have to wait while he rests. But with Flavia’s blasted sisters and insufferable cousin underfoot, Buckshaw now seems both too empty—and not empty enough. Only too eager to run an errand for the vicar’s wife, Flavia hops on her trusty bicycle, Gladys, to deliver a message to a reclusive wood-carver. Finding the front door ajar, Flavia enters and stumbles upon the poor man’s body hanging upside down on the back of his bedroom door. The only living creature in the house is a feline that shows little interest in the disturbing scene. Curiosity may not kill this cat, but Flavia is energized at the prospect of a new investigation. It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one’s spirits. But what awaits Flavia will shake her to the very core.

My favorite pre-teen sleuth (although this is not a series targeting young readers) is back home in England at her beloved Buckshaw but her return from Canada is not a completely happy one what with her father lying very ill in the hospital. At loose ends, Flavia goes in search of something to occupy her mind and a dead body is just the ticket. As precocious as ever, Flavia sets out to prove that this was murder but she’s unprepared for a shattering event. Not precisely a cliffhanger, this event makes me want the next book yesterday.

As always, narrator Jayne Entwistle is Flavia de Luce to a “T” and kept me captivated from beginning to end.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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michelangelos-ghostMichelangelo’s Ghost
A Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt Mystery #4
Gigi Pandian
Henery Press, October 2016
ISBN 978-1-63511-069-2
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

A lost work of art linking India to the Italian Renaissance. A killer hiding behind a centuries-old ghost story. And a hidden treasure in Italy’s macabre sculpture garden known as the Park of Monsters… When Jaya’s old professor dies under eerie circumstances shortly after discovering manuscripts that point to a treasure in Italy’s Park of Monsters, Jaya and her brother pick up the trail. From San Francisco to the heart of Italy, Jaya is haunted by a ghost story inexorably linked to the masterpieces of a long-dead artist and the deeds of a modern-day murderer. Untrustworthy colleagues, disappearing boyfriends, and old enemies—who can Jaya trust when the ghost wails?

Jaya Jones is one of the most appealing protagonists I’ve come across in recent years and each book is better than the last. She’s an academic, an historian interested in unique artifacts, and she loves chasing after treasures even though she’s usually reluctant at first. In short, Jaya is a modern-day Indiana Jones, just not quite as much over the top, and I love her for that. Adventure is just around every corner and I happily go along with her on every treasure hunt.  Of course, there’s a mystery or two or three to be solved, including the question of how her former professor died, and having her brother and his girlfriend along this time adds to the entertainment. Oh, and the cherry on top is the secret romance between Jaya and Lane, the man with a thieving past. All in all, Michelangelo’s Ghost is a tale not to be missed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

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the-stranger-gameThe Stranger Game
Cylin Busby
Balzer + Bray, October 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-235460-0
Hardcover

From the publisher—

When Nico Morris’s older sister mysteriously disappears, her parents, family, and friends are devastated. But Nico can never admit what she herself feels: relief at finally being free of Sarah’s daily cruelties.

Then the best and worst thing happens: four years later, after dozens of false leads, Sarah is found.

But this girl is much changed from the one Nico knew. She’s thin and drawn, when Sarah had been golden and athletic; timid and unsure, instead of brash and competitive; and strangest of all, sweet and kind, when she had once been mean and abusive. Sarah’s retrograde amnesia has caused her to forget almost everything about her life, from small things like the plots of her favorite books and her tennis game to the more critical—where she’s been the last four years and what happened at the park on the fateful day she vanished. Despite the happy ending, the dark details of that day continue to haunt Nico, and it becomes clear that more than one person knows the true story of what happened to Sarah. . . .

There isn’t anything more devastating than the disappearance of a child, the not knowing and the endless questions, but how much worse is it when a family member is not entirely sorry that child is gone? Nico is a normal young girl who misses Sarah and yet can’t help feeling relief that she doesn’t have to contend with her sister’s bullying and meanness anymore but, of course, that natural reaction is loaded with guilt. How Nico and her parents cope and her feelings of inadequacy because she can’t fill the gaping hole are an engaging study in how the ones left behind handle…or don’t…such a terrible scenario. When Sarah miraculously returns, Nico’s search for the truth ratchets up the tension and leads to almost unbearable suspense.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, December 2016.

Book Review: Blood Ties by Nicholas Guild

Blood TiesBlood Ties
Nicholas Guild
Forge, May 2015
ISBN  978-0-7653-7845-3
Hardcover

A manhunt for a monster, a police procedural and a love story all wrapped up in a thriller sums up what this novel is all about.  Its characters are fascinating, beginning with a serial killer who probably has murdered hundreds of women by torturing them to death in his decades-long career.  More important is his rationale for doing so:  putting them out of their misery (just life on this old planet, a living hell in his view).  The murders were committed all over the country, but the most recent took place in the San Francisco area, where homicide detective Ellen Ridley and her partner, Sam Tyler, become the lead investigators on three related murders (and possibly five all together).

Ridley at first suspects Stephen Tregear, a highly intelligent, charming computer genius and code breaker for the Navy, as a suspect, but soon eliminates him, learning instead that it is his father who is the ogre.  The two form a relationship and with his help the story moves on until father and son confront each other.  It is a study really of psychological insights into each character and what motivations led them to act as they have.

Among the themes that contribute to these manifestations are growing up in an abusive home and why one family member turns out to be a brutal serial killer, while another becomes a highly educated, intelligent person with admirable values who risks his life to save those of others.  The story is well-presented, and moves along at a steady pace, and the reader becomes totally absorbed in a beguiling plot.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, May 2016.

Book Review: The Fall by John Lescroart

The FallThe Fall
John Lescroart
Atria Books, May 2015
ISBN: 978-1-476-70921-5
Hardcover

John Lescroart has written 25 previous novels, many of them with superb courtroom drama featuring Dismas Hardy.  This novel, however, highlights the introduction of his daughter, Becky, just two years out of law school, as the lead attorney in an unusual murder trial which ordinarily would test the talents of the equivalent of an F. Lee Bailey.

The atmosphere in San Francisco where the novel takes place is charged with public and political outcry after the trials of a series of perpetrators of criminal acts against black victims do not result in convictions or, even worse, not even an arrest, much less even finding a suspect.  So, when a 17-year-old black female is murdered, the police and DA rush to find a viable suspect and bring him to trial.  A chance meeting between Becky and Greg Treadway, later charged with the murder, leads to her representing him as his attorney.

Give “the Beck” (her nickname) credit for showing a great deal of legal expertise and just plain acumen far  beyond what one would expect from a neophyte attorney in a maiden trial, one for murder no less.  But then, she’s the offspring of Dismas Hardy.  Needless to say, the trial takes on a life of its own, giving the author the opportunity to exhibit some arcane legal principles.  More important, Mr. Lescroart once again demonstrates his ability to twist and turn the tables on the reader in a most unexpected way.  Although the book is interesting as a whole, it is especially recommended just for the unusual ending.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2016.

Book Review: Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore

Secondhand SoulsSecondhand Souls
Christopher Moore
William Morrow Paperbacks, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-06-177979-4
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

In San Francisco, the souls of the dead are mysteriously disappearing—and you know that can’t be good—in New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore’s delightfully funny sequel to A Dirty Job.

Something really strange is happening in the City by the Bay. People are dying, but their souls are not being collected. Someone—or something—is stealing them and no one knows where they are going, or why, but it has something to do with that big orange bridge. Death Merchant Charlie Asher is just as flummoxed as everyone else. He’s trapped in the body of a fourteen-inch-tall “meat puppet” waiting for his Buddhist nun girlfriend, Audrey, to find him a suitable new body to play host.

To get to the bottom of this abomination, a motley crew of heroes will band together: the seven-foot-tall death merchant Minty Fresh; retired policeman turned bookseller Alphonse Rivera; the Emperor of San Francisco and his dogs, Bummer and Lazarus; and Lily, the former Goth girl. Now if only they can get little Sophie to stop babbling about the coming battle for the very soul of humankind . . .

Way back in my bookselling days, I was perusing a catalogue one day when I came across a title that stopped me in my tracks—Island of the Sequined Love Nun. I’ve always been a pushover for eye-catching titles so I did a little rummaging around about this author, Christopher Moore, and found such wonders as Practical DemonkeepingThe Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove and Bloodsucking Fiends. I was sold and I hadn’t even read any of these books so I ordered for our shelves everything Moore had written up to that point and never stopped till the day we closed the shop. This author some might call crazy or just plain nuts turned out to be one of our bestsellers for his new titles and his backlist and I was right in there with our customers, devouring everything. One of his titles—Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal—still holds a place in my top 5 favorite books 14 years after it came out.

Now, the thing about Christopher Moore’s books is I find them nearly impossible to review, at least in the normal way. How do you get across the pure joy of reading about a guy who becomes a soul collector because, if somebody doesn’t do it, the really bad guys will take over the world? Or that said soul collector is now himself dead but his own soul is trapped in a 14-inch high makeshift lunchmeat doll of sorts while his Buddhist nun girlfriend tries to figure out how to get him in a real body? For that matter, how to explain a 7-year-old who’s guarded by a pair of hellhounds named Alvin and Mohammed while she claims to have dominion over the Underworld?

The fact is I can’t do it all justice so I’ll just say this….I never read these books in public because I can’t help snorting out loud, sometimes bringing myself to tears of glee. ‘Nuff said 😉 If you haven’t read anything by Christopher Moore and you have a weird, snarky sense of humor, get yourself to a bookstore right now and start anywhere. As for Secondhand Souls, you’ll enjoy it even if you haven’t read the first book, A Dirty Job, but I suggest you start with the first one and then go right into the second. You won’t be sorry either way!

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.

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Purchase Links:

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About the Author

Christopher MooreChristopher Moore is the author of fourteen previous novels, including Lamb, The Stupidest Angel, Fool, Sacré Bleu, A Dirty Job, and The Serpent of Venice.

Find out more about Christopher at his website, connect with him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.

Secondhand Souls isn’t a book you savor. …This is a binge-reading book, a crazy, fast-paced trip that leaves you satisfied, a little sleepy, and ready for the next installment. I mean, I can’t wait to see what happens when Death goes through puberty.” (Dallas Morning News)

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Book Review: The Right Wrong Thing by Ellen Kirschman—and a Giveaway!

The Right Wrong ThingThe Right Wrong Thing
A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery #2
Ellen Kirschman
Oceanview Publishing, October 2015
ISBN 978-1-60809-154-6
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Hesitate or Respond—Either Choice Can Lead to Disaster

Officer Randy Spelling had always wanted to be a police officer, to follow in the footsteps of her brothers and her father. Not long after joining the force, she mistakenly shoots and kills Lakeisha Gibbs, a pregnant teenager. The community is outraged; Lakeisha’s family is vocal and vicious in their attacks against Spelling. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and filled with remorse, Randy is desperate to apologize to the girl’s family. Everyone, including the police chief, warns her against this, but the young police officer will not be dissuaded. Her attempt is catastrophic. Dr. Dot Meyerhoff, police psychologist, plunges herself into the investigation despite orders from the police chief to back off. Not only does the psychologist’s refusal to obey orders jeopardize her career, but her life as well, as she enlists unlikely allies and unconventional undercover work to expose the tangled net of Officer Spelling’s disastrous course.

There have been tragic shootings by police in recent years that have garnered much attention, usually appropriately but sometimes, right or wrong, tempers rage and accusations are made. The events that turn out to be malicious in some way are terrible, no doubt, and the suffering of the victims and their survivors is very real but the news media rarely pays attention to the emotional and mental fallout the police officer faces when the shooting truly was validated by the circumstances. Equally if not more difficult are the repercussions when the shooting was accidental.

And so we come to know Randy, a young and mostly untried police officer who has a moment of panic that causes mistrust among her fellow officers, especially her partner. The police psychologist, Dot Meyerhoff, shepherds Randy through this difficult time but disaster strikes when Randy, back on duty, makes a horrible mistake and kills a pregnant girl. The awful repercussions are certainly not unexpected but Randy makes things far worse when she attempts to apologize, against all advice, and Dot steps back in to try to help this girl as well as her fellow officers, finding herself in a situation that’s as potentially deadly to her as it is to the officer. When murder happens, Dot is compelled to find answers without official police approval.

Dr. Meyerhoff is a brilliantly-drawn character which is no surprise considering the author’s own background as a police psychologist. Not only does Dot have the knowledge to do her job but she does it with kindness and candor, two attributes that don’t always mix well. It’s easy to see why police officers often resent being required to see a psychologist (if the books I read and the TV shows I watch are accurate on this point) but, if I had to see one, I’d want Dr. Meyerhoff. This woman brings a strong sense of stability and caring to fragile situations.

Randy is another character I came to have strong feelings for, if not quite so positive. This girl is a painful mess and not helped any by the male-dominated world she has chosen to be part of or by her acute need to prove herself to her colleagues and to her own family. Randy is not well-suited to cope with this kind of pressure and that makes her career choice a real problem.

I won’t say much about the plot because it would be difficult to avoid spoilers but I will say this—Ms. Kirschman knows how to write a story full of suspense, the kind that makes me start to feel the hairs rising on the back of my neck. I’m really glad I’ve been introduced to her work and I’ll be picking up her first Dot Meyerhoff book, Burying Ben, as soon as I can.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, November 2015.

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Purchase Links:

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Praise for Ellen Kirschman & the
Dot Meyerhoff Mystery Series:

“Ellen Kirschmann’s Dot Meyerhoff is the most intriguing character in contemporary fiction. Her narrations remind me of a cabbie I had in Istanbul. He drove too fast, took me down dead ends and through dangerous neighborhoods. He yelled at pedestrians and cursed at dogs. And just when I finally decided he was hopelessly lost, he delivered me safe and sound to just the place I wanted to be and left me on the sidewalk, shaking and smiling.”
—J. Michael Orenduff, award-winning author of the “Pot Thief” murder mystery series

“Ellen Kirschman is a no-nonsense writer. She manages to set the scene smartly, populate it with sharply drawn personalities, and pour the story over us without wasting a word. Her confident wit, energetic prose, and special insight into the workings of the human mind make The Right Wrong Thing an outstanding read. In this timely novel of strained community relationships, where police department psychologist Dr. Dot Meyerhoff is held hostage in a way, there’s no relief from the suspense and the exciting journey into the motivations of people on both sides of the law. But even as Dot is pushed to the limit, she’s determined to do the next right thing, no matter the cost.
—Camille Minichino, physicist and award-winning author of the Periodic Table mystery series

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About the Author

Ellen KirschmanEllen Kirschman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in independent practice. She is a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the Society for the Study of Police and Criminal Psychology, the American Psychological Association, and the International Association of Women in Law Enforcement. She is the recipient of the California Psychological Association’s 2014 award for distinguished contribution to psychology as well as the American Psychological Association’s 2010 award for outstanding contribution to the practice of police and public safety psychology. Ellen is the author of the award-winning I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know, I Love a Fire Fighter: What the Family Needs to Know, and lead author of Counseling Cops: What Clinicians Need to Know (2013). Her debut novel, Burying Ben: A Dot Meyerhoff Mystery (2013) is about police suicide told from the perspective of the psychologist. Ellen and her husband live in Redwood City, California.

Please, note, in no way does Ms Kirschman condone unjustified brutality at the hands of police. She offers insight into the other side of a possible situation. The possible outcome is very moving, and thought provoking.

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Giveaways

(1). To enter the drawing for a signed hardcover copy of
The Right Wrong Thing by Ellen Kirschman, leave a
comment below. The winning name will be drawn
Friday evening, November 6th, and the book will be
sent after December 12th. Open to residents of the US.

(2). This is a giveaway hosted by Partners In Crime Virtual
Book Tours for Ellen Kirschman & Oceanview Publishing.
There will be 1 winner for this tour. The winner will receive
1 Oceanview Publishing Thriller each month for 1 year. This
giveaway is for US residents only. The giveaway begins on
November 1st, 2015 and runs through December 2nd, 2015.

Enter the drawing here.

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Book Review: The Body Snatchers Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

The Body Snatchers AffairThe Body Snatchers Affair
A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery #3
Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Forge, January 2015
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3176-2
Hardcover

In this historical mystery, San Francisco private detectives Sabina Carpenter and her partner, John Quincannon are working separate, but closely related cases. Sabina has been hired by a wealthy society matron whose husband’s body has been stolen from their private mausoleum and held for ransom. John is searching for a woman’s husband whom she suspects has fallen victim to Chinatown’s notorious opium dens. Strangely enough, his case also connects to a body snatching, that of a recently deceased Chinese tong kingpin. The danger in John’s investigation becomes severe when not only the husband is murdered, but John, too, is almost killed.

Meanwhile, complications between the detectives are ongoing as Sabina is dating an eligible bachelor from a prominent San Francisco family and John, who desires Sabine for himself, is terribly jealous. Add in an enigmatic Englishman who insists he’s Sherlock Holmes and the whole affair becomes even more mysterious.

The book is competently written as you would expect from these writing partners, but having read other Carpenter and Quincannon stories, this one seems to fall a little short. I could’ve solved Sabina’s case from the moment she first met her clients, and John’s investigation, though interspersed with more action, was almost as easy. Sherlock Holmes was, and remains, the biggest mystery, while the romance in the book seems forced.

I do love the setting and all the impeccably researched historical aspects. The reader gets a real sense of how old San Francisco used to be, not only as a background setting, but as to how people went about their lives in those days.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2015.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder.