Book Review: A Stone’s Throw by James W. Ziskin

A Stone’s Throw
An Ellie Stone Mystery #6
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, June  2018
ISBN 978-1-63388-419-9
Trade Paperback

A Stone’s Throw strikes me, for some reason, as more indicative of the 1940s or 50s than of the 60s. Lordy, Lordy, didn’t people just smoke, then? Or at least the characters in this book do. But that’s only a small, amusing detail in a book with a heroine as downright cool as Ellie Stone.

A Jewish “girl reporter” –yes, I’m reminded of Lois Lane–who is determined to make it in a man’s world, Ellie is Johnny-on-the-spot when a fire destroys a rundown barn on an abandoned property. The property used to be the center of a horsebreeding operation, until a long ago fire put an end to it. Owned by the wealthy, and politically important Shaw family, the barn is deemed to be no particular loss until Ellie walks through and discovers two bodies, both burned beyond recognition, in the ashes. Who are they? Ellie is determined to find out.

Even then the sheriff isn’t terribly concerned, and it isn’t until Ellie starts investigating that secrets are revealed which will involve many in the horse racing community of Saratoga Springs, New York. Owners, trainers, jockeys, and bookmakers all have something to hide, and it will take Ellie and a cadre of quirky friends to discover the truth.

The writing is good, the dialogue snappy, the setting appropriate. Most of all, the subject of horse racing, which is dear to my heart, a hoot to visit. I’m worried about Ellie, though. Her lovelife is a bust and I’m afraid she may have a drinking problem, although a full bottle of Dewars proves a godsend. A fun read.

Reviewed by Carol Crigger, August 2018.
Author of Three Seconds to Thunder, Four Furlongs and Hometown Homicide.

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Book Review: Heart of Stone by James W. Ziskin

Heart of Stone
An Ellie Stone Mystery #4
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books, June 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63388-183-9
Trade Paperback

Ellie Stone is in the Adirondacks visiting her aunt for the month of August. She is lounging on the dock while her aunt swims (nude) when the sheriff comes  and after hassling her aunt for nude swimming asks Ellie to come with him to photograph a death scene. He needs her to do this because Ellie has an expensive camera and the sheriff has no camera at all. She goes. There is a high cliff that dare devils use to dive from into the lake below. It is not the wisest sport as there is rocky ledge that juts out which divers have to miss. From the looks of things, these two did not miss the shale shelf. Ellie notices some oddities at the scene such as the way the two are dressed and the station wagon parked so close to the edge of the cliff. When the state police become involved they find even more odd things. While one of the victims is a stranger to the area, the other is a young man staying at the music camp. It seems more than a little odd that these two would be stunt diving together.

Ellie is in a good position to investigate which as a newspaper reporter she is inclined to do. Ellie has spent time in the area most of her life and knows many of the people who are staying at the nearby arts camp. She also has an uncanny ability to snoop out the truth.

This is the fourth Ellie Stone book and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I like the mystery presented in Heart of Stone a great deal. I also enjoyed Ellie on vacation, away from her job. On the other hand, the author has a tendency to be overly wordy. In the previous books, I found that this added to the atmosphere of the book. It gave the books a feel of more substance. It seemed to me that  in this book he ramped up the wordage even more. More than once I wanted to shout, “just get on with it!”  The overuse of language was just annoying.

In spite of the language, it is still Ellie Stone who is a most likable protagonist. I would recommend the book and hope that Ziskin can curb the need to use more words when fewer will suffice.

Reviewed by guest reviewer Caryn St. Clair, March 2018.

Book Review: How Will I Know You? by Jessica Treadway

How Will I Know You?
Jessica Treadway
Grand Central Publishing, August 2017
ISBN: 978-1-4555-5409-6
Trade Paperback

From the publisher:  On a December day in upstate New York, the body of high school senior Joy Enright is found in the woods at the edge of a frozen pond.  An autopsy reveals that her death was not simply a tragic accident – – the teenager’s body shows unmistakable signs of murder.  The discovery upends an otherwise quiet small town.  As the investigation unfolds, four characters tell the story from widely divergent perspectives: Susanne, Joy’s mother, tries to reconcile past betrayals with their painful consequences; Martin, a black artist, faces ostracism when blame is cast on him; Tom, a rescue diver, doubts both the police and his own perceptions; and the hopelessly awkward Harper, Joy’s best friend, tries to figure out why Joy disappeared from Harper’s life months before she actually went missing.  As a web of deceit comes to light in a tiny community where there are few secrets, How Will I Know You? explores how easily boundaries can be breached and how seemingly small choices can escalate – – with fatal consequences.

In fascinating manner, the book’s sections are separated into “Before;” “After;” quite near the end of the novel “During;” and, about a dozen pages before the final page, “After – – The Last,” June 9, 2014.  “Before” (initially May 14, 2009, then jumping to September 7th, then to October 22nd and then the 31st) and “After,” initially December 7th, quite obviously, refer to the time periods before and after Joy’s murder, on the 1st Sunday of December; “During” describing, in manner to keep the reader glued to the pages, the murder itself.  The reader doesn’t discover the significance of the book’s title until nearly one-third of the way through the book:  It was apparently Suzanne’s question of her husband, Gil, before their first date.

Early on, in the pages after December 7th, and then again in the earlier time frames of May 14, 2009 and, later, October 22nd and 31st and later still, in the “After” pages, the tale is related for long stretches in first person by Martin Willett, the black man initially arrested in the case   (At one point during these pages, in mid-November, he muses “. . . now that I’ve come to the end of it, I’m no closer to understanding what might have happened than I was when I began.”  Abut mid-way into the novel, p.o.v. is that of Tom, son-in-law of the [interim] police chief, Doug, thought of by many as “Tom Carbone, the dumb jock, married to [Alison,] a teacher,” and the kindest way in which Doug thought of him.  And towards the very end, in the “During” section, p.o.v. is that of Joy, most interestingly.

The characters presented in these pages are each very well-drawn, regardless of their generation or race.  I found Martin most fascinating, as well as his art:  I had never before even been aware of “hyperreal art” or the work of “high realists.”  The pages seemed to fly by, until one has reached the end and realize how perfectly the author has brought the suspenseful tale to its conclusion.  The novel is, obviously, recommended.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, September 2017.

Book Review: No Good Deed by Goldy Moldavsky

No Good Deed
Goldy Moldavsky
Point, May 2017
ISBN: 978-0-545-86751-1
Hardcover

Imagine Carl Hiaasen collaborating with Alan Sherman and you’d be on your way to understanding this book. Gregor Maravilla met his idol, Robert Drill, at a book signing when he was fourteen. The tech guru and philanthropist’s words inspired him to come up with a way to save the world. He settled on feeding all the hungry kids. He’s also read Drill’s autobiography nine times. Sandwiched between a nerdy and really rude older brother who plays Minecraft constantly and is raking in bucks from ads accompanying videos of him doing so online and a younger sister who’s a perfect speller, Gregor’s desperate to find his own niche

When he learned that Robert Drill is sponsoring a summer camp for humanitarian teen activists, he applies, expecting to be turned down because the competition is intense. Surprise! He’s selected and even the humiliation heaped upon him by his brother, sister, parents and grandfather on the ride to camp in upstate New York can’t completely dampen his enthusiasm.

His growing awareness that all is not as it seems, begins when he starts meeting the other campers and starts him not only down a road of introspection, but one of gradual cynicism about his plans for saving the world. Everyone there has a cause, including teen movie star Ashley Woodstone (imagine Luna Lovegood channeling some of the ditzier heroines in 1980s Rom-Coms), whose thing is convincing everyone to eat dirt. Add in a men’s rights activist, a boycott camp activist, a teen artist who can’t speak a word of English, an anti Styrofoam activist and dozens more who are equally oddball and you have the recipe for a perfect storm of sniping, backstabbing and cutthroat competition.

While the party line is that everyone’s there to promote a better world, the realization that there are various types of competitions to earn points toward an internship to be awarded to the camper with the highest total, turns any hope of cooperation into a free for all. Gregor’s constant insecurity and self-doubt put him in the fish out of water category, so much so that every time he opens his mouth, he’s nibbling his own toes.

Despite his attempts to avoid Ashley, they seem to be thrown together at every turn and as the summer insanity progresses, their conversations become the sanest part of his day. It takes a virtual war between the guys and gals at the final competition, a frightening experience involving Ashley and some hard looking in the mirror for Gregor to realize what’s truly important, not only in terms of saving the world, but in terms of how he sees others.

This is a funny and wacky story, but make no mistake, under all the goofiness beats a very strong heart.

Reviewed by John R. Clark, MLIS, July 2017.

Book Review: Two Summers by Aimee Friedman

two-summersTwo Summers
Aimee Friedman
Point, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-545-51807-9
Hardcover

Fifteen-year-old Summer Everett is set to fly off to the south of France for a visit with her artist father and a chance to see his painting, Fille. Her father’s painting of his daughter as a young girl hangs in a museum there, and Summer has never seen it in person. Summer’s divorced mother discouraged the visit from the beginning, and Summer waits at the boarding gate with a heavy heart because of the terrible quarrel with her mother just before her best friend picked her up to drive her to the airport.

Just as she’s about to hand over her boarding pass and walk onto the plane, Summer’s cell phone rings. It’s a number she doesn’t recognize. From that point, we are swept into the story of two possible summers. In one, she ignores the call and goes to France. In the other, she answers the call and stays home in Upstate New York. In both, she breaks from her normal life, learns about herself, and must process changes in her life that include her best friend breaking bonds and a devastating family secret.

We learn about these scenarios through Summer’s first person descriptions, actions, and thoughts. Sometimes her inner thoughts sound profound, more like mature reflection on her actions, and sometimes her thoughts are childish. Altogether, she’s split, like her summer, thus becoming realistic and worthy of our concern.

I couldn’t put the book aside for long without wondering what would happen. How would the two summers (Summers) fit together and become whole? This is an imaginative coming-of-age story, or two stories, that include beautiful descriptions of a picturesque French village in Provence, exciting New York City, and a tranquil small town in New York State. There’s as much here for an adult as there is for a teenager.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 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: Never Look Down by Warren C. Easley and What Waits in the Woods by Kieran Scott

Never Look DownNever Look Down
A Cal Claxton Mystery #3
Warren C. Easley
Poisoned Pen Press, September 2015
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0464-7
Hardcover

Cal Claxton is a liberal-minded lawyer practicing in a small town outside of Portland, Oregon. His practice and his interests bifurcate his activities and he spends a good deal of time bouncing back and forth between the two locations. He’s also a dog owner. Caxton, who propels this series of legal mysteries, is a former Los Angeles prosecutor who has moved over to the defense realm, although he doesn’t spend much time in court.

This story penetrates one of the highlights of cities like Portland, which attracts a vibrant subculture, in this case, the often homeless artful youth who find their kicks as taggers, writers, graffiti artists and other scribblers. Like all cultures, there are subcultures, one of which is usually called climbers. They are the daredevils who place their often elaborate art high on buildings in places which seem impossible to reach. One such who calls herself K209 is gaining notice for the quality and her risky locations.

One dark night from four stories up, she observes the murder of a woman. K209 escapes and the hunt is on. The killers and the cops seek to capture the elusive youngster and we reads many chapters in her anguished clever head.

As Cal Claxton is drawn into the case, the author uses his ongoing character to consider some aspects of the gun culture in our society. The characters and the novel are nuanced, balanced and worth every bit of their space. Portland is nicely evoked, the writing is strong and the plot develops higher and higher tension as it progresses.

If the story line is flawed at all, it is due to the frequency of Claxton’s travel between the town of Dundee where he is trying to expand his small practice and his office in Portland where similar efforts command his attention.

It is a minor flaw. I recommend this novel as an enjoyable and thoughtful experience, whatever your personal attitudes are toward gun control.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2015.
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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What Waits in the WoodsWhat Waits in the Woods
Kieran Scott
Point, April 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-69111-6
Hardcover

On the very first page of this YA suspense novel, the terror begins. This first unseen threat is scared away, but it’s only the beginning of many frightening episodes Callie must suffer during her camping trip into the woods of upstate New York. She doesn’t want to be there. Camping and hiking are not her things. She’s more interested in reading great books and writing stories. But Callie is new to her small community and goes along to bond with her two new BFF’s. Besides, her boyfriend will be part of the group, and it will only last for four nights.

From the start, though, strange events make the outing more than just the endurance of a few days spent with bugs, brambles, and sleeping three girls to a tent. The alpha female taunts the others, they lose their way, unexplained figures appear and disappear, a beheaded doll is found fireside, and a charismatic young man shows up and volunteers to help. Will that flirty, macho individual help them survive, or is he going to kill them all with the woodsman’s weapons he carries? Tensions common to teenagers complicate the dynamics further, and everyone in the group becomes a suspect.

I would rate this PG-13 for the violence and five stars for the page-turning thrill and the emotional and rational growth of the teenaged protagonist.

Reviewed by Joyce Ann Brown, October 2015.
http://www.joyceannbrown.com
Author of cozy mysteries: Catastrophic Connections and Furtive Investigation, the first two Psycho Cat and the Landlady Mysteries.

Book Review: Stone Cold Dead by James W. Ziskin

Stone Cold Dead ZiskinStone Cold Dead 
An Ellie Stone Mystery #3        
James W. Ziskin
Seventh Street Books
ISBN: 978-1-63388-048-1
Trade Paperback

Ellie Stone is a girl reporter, hanging tenuously to her job on a small town newspaper in upstate New York. Its winter, 1961 and girl reporters are rare and unusual creatures. Ellie Stone is an unusual young woman in the bargain. In her early twenties, she has few scruples about hopping into bed with attractive males, regardless of how involved they might be with her current assignment. She also drinks heavily on occasion.

Her current assignment is to explore the disappearance of a local teen-aged farm girl, Darleen Hicks. Has she been murdered, or run off after disagreements with her parents, teachers at school and a couple of reform school meatheads?

The novel is replete with odd and unusual characters from parents to cops to teachers to colleagues at the newspaper and the narrative is enlivened by conflicts at the newspaper and among other characters. Apparently there’s little to do in the town of New Holland except drink and have sex and squabble. But it is a cold winter and the author makes sure readers are kept aware of it. There are a number of scenes that will stretch readers’ credibility, but idiosyncrasies aside, and in spite of considerable sexist pressure, Ellie struggles on.

I particularly like the way this author handles clues as the investigation proceeds. Some information is discovered, processed and eliminated or stored for later analysis. Other facts seem to jump at one. The variation adds to reader enjoyment. Logical development, slow at times, is always brought eventually to bear on the main plot until we all reach a satisfactory conclusion, if a little too sedately.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, June 2015.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.