Book Review: Proof Positive by Archer Mayor

Proof PositiveProof Positive
A Joe Gunther Novel #25
Archer Mayor
Minotaur Books, September 2014
ISBN:  978-1-250-07473-7
Hardcover

A typical Joe Gunther novel has him and his team slogging along attempting to put a picture together to solve whatever crime they’re investigating.  In this novel, the Vermont Bureau of Investigation team Joe heads is involved in looking deeply into the death of a semi-recluse, Ben Kendall, who served as a photographer in Vietnam.  Joe is asked to look into the death, which does not appear to be suspicious, by his girlfriend, Beverly Hillstrom, the state’s medical examiner, who is a cousin to the dead man, who was a hoarder very much like the storied Collyer brothers who gained fame many decades earlier in New York City.

Almost as soon as Joe starts looking into the situation, Ben’s ex-wife is murdered in Philadelphia, where Ben originally came from.  From that point, a full investigation proceeds, complicated by additional deaths and kidnappings and the fact that Beverly’s daughter is cataloguing and photographing Ben’s photos and junk and might be the next victim.  The problem is that no one knows what Ben may have brought back from Vietnam or what the instigator of all the crimes is looking for.

Like the previous novels in the series, the police procedural descriptions are straightforward and logical, and the characters play their accustomed roles, especially Joe’s colleague, Willy.  One quibble:  The conclusion strikes a manufactured false note affecting the usual high quality of a novel in this series.  ‘Tis a pity, because the Joe Gunther novels are as good a series as there is today.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, April 2015.

Book Reviews: Dog Gone, Back Soon by Nick Trout, The Ashes That Remain by A.M. Griffin and The Whispers by Lisa Unger

Dog Gone, Back SoonDog Gone, Back Soon
Nick Trout
Hyperion, April 2014
ISBN 978-1-401-31089-9
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

When Dr. Cyrus Mills returned home after inheriting his estranged father’s veterinary practice, The Bedside Manor for Sick Animals, the last thing he wanted was to stay in Eden Falls, Vermont, a moment longer than absolutely necessary. However, the previously reclusive veterinarian pathologist quickly found that he actually enjoyed treating animals and getting to know the eccentric residents of the tiny provincial town-especially an alluring waitress named Amy.

So Cyrus is now determined to make Bedside Manor thrive. Not an easy goal, given that Healthy Paws, the national veterinary chain across town, will stop at nothing to crush its mom-and-pop competitor. And the rival vet practice isn’t Cyrus’s only competition; a handsome stranger shows up out of nowhere who clearly has a mysterious past with Amy. To top it off, Cyrus finds himself both the guardian of a very unique orphaned dog and smack in the middle of serious small town drama.

 

I’m a pushover for veterinarian stories, fiction or nonfiction, no matter where they take place, and Dog Gone, Back Soon filled the bill quite nicely indeed. It’s funny; I know I’m going to get essentially the same tale every time but that never feels same old same old like it does in other books. I include country (human) doctor and small town minister stories in the same bag—they’re all what I call comfort fiction and nonfiction and, basically, they can do very little wrong in my eyes. When it comes to veterinarian authors, James Herriot is the gold standard for me, and Nick Trout has followed in his footsteps in a lovely way.

The cynical Cyrus is a guy I could relate to, feeling guilt over the way he and his father spent recent years but intent on bringing his dad’s practice back from the brink of failure without destroying its appeal to local animal lovers. I found myself rooting him on in his efforts, especially as he begins to realize how much it means to him and that he really does love this small town and its four-legged and two-legged citizens.

A bit of romance is not out of order and there’s a gentle humor about the troubled path of love between him and Amy. Still, it’s Cyrus’s battles against the “evil” conglomerate and his growing attachment to a Labradoodle service dog named Stash that truly drew me in.

I hold out my hand in front of Stash’s mouth. “Stash, lick.” Nothing. “Stash, lick.” Not a flicker in his eyes. Either this is not in hisrepertoire or, more likely, I’m using the wrong language.

“Stash, pucker up.”

No dice.

“Stash, kiss.”

The world goes black as sixty pounds of dog leaps onto my chest and begins coating every exposed surface of my skin with a shellac of saliva from a serpentine tongue.

“Stash, sit, Stash, sit.”

It’s as if the feeding frenzy never happened, Stash calm and distant, me dripping drool and panting.

Stash probably should be on the cover but the English Mastiff, Tallulah, is his first patient so that’s OK. My other favorite stars of the show were an obese cat named Marmalade Succabone , a cow named Ermintrude and a taxidermied dog named Crispin. I was also more than a bit fond of a pair of teens named Charlie Brown and Gabe Stiles and office manager Doris.

Dog Gone, Back Soon is the sequel to The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs. Since I now have to claim Dr. Trout as one of my favorite authors, I’m heading over to get Patron Saint just as soon as I can.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

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The Ashes That RemainThe Ashes That Remain
Cimmerian Moon #2
A.M. Griffin
Three Twenty-One, August 2014
Ebook
From the author—

We’re at war against the aliens that have invaded Earth, fighting the only way we can—by surviving. I have more than most people do, but although I know it’s stupid to hold on, I can’t let go of what might have been—can’t help dreaming of something more. No matter how I tell myself it would be easier to do what everyone else wants me to, there’s a part of me that can’t give in.
Making the best of the situation is one thing. Settling, even to make other people happy, is something else.

Then we hear the alien mother ships have disappeared. Of course we have to go and investigate. What we find lands us in a huge mess that we somehow have to clean up and, as our little enclave is rocked to the core with even more changes, I’m learning a hard lesson.

The more things change—for the better or the worse—there’s no fighting human nature, and building on the ashes that remain will take everything we have. And maybe more.

 

I mentioned in my earlier review of Against the Darkness that worldbuilding was somewhat lacking but that didn’t impede my enjoyment of the novel. The same lack continues in this second book but it mostly revolves around not knowing what the aliens are really here for; we know much more this time about how our small band of humans is surviving, actually thriving in some ways.

Time hasn’t passed much since we left Sinta and her companions at the end of Against the Darkness but there has been a distinct change in the teens, a maturing that only dire circumstances can bring about. Sinta and Mia are still thick as thieves and Ian, Wade, Jason and MJ are as likeable as I remembered them but their travails have turned them into thoughtful and self-reliant young adults who have melded into a community with little trouble. in fact, were it not for the aliens, Iife would be fairly decent. However, the lizards are still around and, when disaster strikes, some of the crew sets out on a rescue mission fraught with peril from rats and the cold as well as the lizards. Most puzzling is the recent news that the alien population may be thinning out.

Romance plays a much larger role in this second book but an amusing passage about the Sinta-Wade-Jason love triangle with 10-year-old Brook and teens Lexi, Sinta and Mia in the cafeteria helps make said triangle a little more palatable. Mia makes fun of the drama, as I have done in my own thoughts, and Brook gazes off with her dreamy musings about an “older man” named MJ.

As with the first book, it’s unfortunate that this book is riddled with construction errors, primarily typos and incorrect word choices, but I’m still completely engaged and am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, In Danger’s Embrace, coming this winter.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

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The WhispersThe Whispers
A Whispers Story #1
Lisa Unger
Pocket Star, October 2014
ISBN 978-1-4767-9778-6
Ebook

From the publisher—

It’s a day like any other for Eloise Montgomery—until tragedy strikes. While she is recovering from a horrible accident that takes the lives of her husband and oldest daughter, and as she works to help her younger daughter move forward, Eloise experiences her first psychic vision. Though she struggles to understand her newfound gifts, Eloise finds a way use them to save lost women and girls—for whom her help may be the only way out…

 

Lisa Unger is one of my go-to authors when I’m in the mood for a thriller, something intense and nail-biting, a book that will keep me up at night. She does it so very, very well  😉 but The Whispers really doesn’t fit  the mold. The first of three short stories that comprise a novella, this is more of the psychological suspense sort and I was not the least bit disappointed.

After the tragic deaths of her husband and elder daughter, Eloise is nearly crushed emotionally and, yet, she’s strong enough to stay focused on her younger daughter, Amanda, who may not be suffering physically but is just as wracked with survivor’s guilt. When Eloise begins to have psychic visions, she’s naturally confused and disturbed but she’s driven to pass the information about these missing girls and women on to the authorities. Why is she hearing whispers and “seeing” these people in extreme distress? We don’t really know—perhaps more answers will be forthcoming in the next two short stories—but the true essence here is how the four lived a life of love and normalcy and then what’s left after the accident. It’s a compelling tale and I’m looking forward to the second story, The Burning Girl, due out in late November.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, October 2014.

Book Reviews: The Last Death of Jack Harbin by Terry Shames and Broken Strings by Nancy Means Wright

The Last Death of Jack HarbinThe Last Death of Jack Harbin
A Samuel Craddock Mystery
Terry Shames
Seventh Street Books, January 2014
ISBN 978-1-61614-871-3
Trade Paperback

I confess to being put off by first person narrators, but after a few pages, Samuel Craddock got inside my head in a very comfortable way. I also look askance on crime fiction written in the present tense, but here the author has pulled it off in fine fashion. By the end of chapter 1 I was well and truly hooked into following a fascinating cast of small town characters to see how they all end up. Jarett Creek, Texas, is a lot like small towns everywhere, except perhaps for Texans’ almost-rabid fixation with their local high school football teams and endless gossip.

Craddock is the retired chief of police of Jarett Creek and he still fondly pokes his nose in almost everywhere. At the least he pays attention and he wonders about what he sees and hears. He’s a sharp dude and can put clues together to find truth.

The novel rambles some, and the cast of characters is long and interesting. The overall pace is good, the writing is excellent and this is just a fine cogent novel. On the plus side, author Shames shines a clear light on some troubling social ills, such as the neglect and treatment of our veterans, casual gambling and gunplay. Still, as I noted above, this is a strong, modern, well-written novel worth every penny and I recommend it.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

 

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Broken StringsBroken Strings
Nancy Means Wright
Enigma, May 2013
ISBN 978-0615743554
Trade Paperback

What would you do if one of your friends died and the autopsy showed she had been poisoned? Fay Hubbard decides to investigate her friend’s murder.

At the time of her death, the dead woman was in the middle of a puppeteer performance. Fay is a divorced goat farmer in her 50’s. She is also foster mother to three young children. Most of the characters in Broken Strings are related by family, foster or adoptive. There are a lot of them and their relationships to each other can be complicated. You’ll want to keep track.

One of the things I especially liked about the book was that their lives didn’t necessarily focus around the murder. They were very busy people, just like real life. They had disorderly lives with issues and problems before the murder ever happened.

Personally, I would have liked the ending to be clearer with more definitive resolutions. There were various theories, but in the end, none of them were actually confirmed.

Still, it was a fun read, with interesting characters and I read the book quickly.

Reviewed by Constance Reader, January 2014.

 

Book Reviews Ted Feit-Style

Iron River
T. Jefferson Parker
NAL, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-451-23242-7
Trade Paperback,

A temporary assignment to an ATFE task force for Deputy sheriff Charlie Parker to stem the tide of illegal arms and money flowing across the U.S.-Mexican border gives rise to eerie insights into law enforcement from San Diego to Corpus Christie and, in addition, how cutthroat the drug lords can be, as well as how unscrupulous legal and illegal gun dealers are.

To begin with, a stakeout on a gun deal goes wrong, and in the shooting of a perpetrator which ensues, the son of the ruthless head of a cartel is killed, resulting in a vengeance kidnapping and torture of an AFTE operative, leading in turn to a rescue mission by Charlie and his new associates.  Then that operative is kidnapped a second time from the hospital by a rival organization, and Charlie again has to go to Mexico to ransom him and bring him back across the border, dodging the first drug lord’s minions.

The title is derived from the corridor running along the southern border, from California to Texas.  Up to 90 per cent of the guns in Mexico, where about 15,000 persons have been murdered, are said to come from the United States.  This is hardly the ideal for a Good Neighbor Policy. Mr. Parker has thoroughly researched the subject, which brings back Charlie Hood for a third and welcome appearance in a well-written and exciting novel.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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The Confession
John Grisham
Doubleday, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-385-52804-7
Hardcover

The author is on the Board of Directors of the Innocence Project in New York and is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Innocence Project at the U. of Miss.  A well-known attorney and best-selling novelist, the conviction and scheduled execution of an innocent man fall within his purview in these various activities.  It is too bad, however, that the resulting novel is not up to his usual standard.

The arrest, jailing and eventual execution of a young innocent Texan sets the stage for a long, dry story, filled with stereotypes: the less-than-ethical police detective, the corrupt DA and his lover, the judge, and the real murderer, among others, including the defense attorney. Unfortunately they do not add up to an accomplished novel. Nor do the long harangues and long-winded diatribes, which obviously belong more in a legal brief than a novel.

All this is not to take away from Mr. Grisham’s ability to tell a tale and write it well.  But, unfortunately, over-all, at least to this reader, he should have relied more on his ability as a novelist, than as an advocate for a cause.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Red Herring
Archer Mayor
Minotaur Books, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-38193-6
Hardcover

This long-running series featuring Joe Gunther and his team at the Vermont Bureau of Investigation has been consistently excellent.  And this, the 21st entry, is of similar high quality with an inventive plot:  Three murders are committed, seemingly with no connection, except for a single drop of blood.  The victims are apparently unrelated and the evidence at each scene appears to be, at best, confusing, as if the crime scenes were deliberately arranged so that forensics would not be particularly useful in the investigation.

The Vermont forensics department, with limited resources and funds, is unable to process the few items of interest, but the suggestion that the Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York’s Long Island might have the ability to find clues is followed, resulting in a series of possibilities that, with  old-fashioned police work, lead to common threads.

Once again, the author’s love of the Green State, its environment and people, provides a human touch to an otherwise macabre tale. Descriptions of the countryside are adept.  And insights into antagonism between politicians, the public, the media and cops are vivid and insightful.  Written with a deft touch, the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Collusion
Stuart Neville
Soho Crime, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-56947-855-4
Hardcover

This follow-up to the highly praised The Ghosts of Belfast deserves the same reception.  It picks up where the earlier noir ended, carrying forth the characters and events, and, presumably, planting the seeds for a third novel which hopefully will develop into a full-blown series.

Jack Lennon, a Catholic detective in an otherwise Protestant police force in Northern Ireland, is warned off investigating the deaths of three persons associated with the massacre of numerous criminals and politicians at Bull O’Kane’s farm in Belfast.  But having knowledge of the event, at which his girlfriend, Marie McKenna, and their young daughter, Ellen were present, pressures him to continue pursuing knowledge of the murders and their relationship to the past.  Marie was whisked away from the massacre by the notorious killer, Fegan, and into hiding, promising to return whenever she needed protection.  He leaves for New York City for adventures of his own.

O’Kane has a grudge against Fegan and employs The Traveler, a killer of equal stature to Fegan, to kill the three victims as well as his nemesis, who was responsible for a gut wound which incapacitated the gangster.  When Marie comes out of hiding to visit her dying father, she and the child are abducted, serving as lures to draw Fegan out of hiding and resulting in an unlikely collaboration between Lennon and Fegan to rescue Marie and Ellen.

The novel develops the characters in more depth than was exhibited in “Belfast,” and the pace is steadier.  But the writing is the same tense hard-driven prose which made the first so highly readable.  It is a graphic tale of the corruption between the politicians, criminals, British authorities and others in the fraught Northern Ireland of the era.  It is powerful and tragic, with intense violence and deep insights into a country still affected by long-continued terror.  It is highly recommended, and we look forward to the hoped-for sequel.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.

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Skin
Mo Hayder
Grove Press, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4517-8
Trade Paperback

There are all kinds of protagonists, but the two featured in this novel (after first appearing in Ritual) are very different.   Jack Caffery and Phoebe (“Flea”) Marley carry pretty heavy baggage from their past, but they get the job done somehow in this thrilling police procedural, despite their individual quirks and iconoclastic attitudes.

DI Caffery is engaged in two separate investigations which somehow become intertwined with an escapade in which Flea is involved.  As a result, he has to weigh whether or not to expose Flea’s efforts or to keep silent.  One case involves a series of strange deaths, initially thought to be suicides, although Caffery believes them to be murders. Another has to do with a missing person, a woman who may or may not also be such a victim, but no body has been found.

Marley is a police diver and the descriptions of her efforts, especially in the opening scene, are especially gripping, as Flea is seeking the body of the MisPer in a flooded quarry, diving deeper and deeper beyond recommended depths and apparently seeing a supernatural sight.  Both she and Caffery think there is a “Tokoloshe” in the area, a creature out of African witchcraft.

This sequel is so tightly written and absorbing one can hope that the author can follow up with more such unusual efforts in the future. Recommended.  [It should perhaps be noted that the author’s newest book, Gone, was published simultaneously by Atlantic Monthly Press in hardcover.]

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2011.