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Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison

Anyone who has been around this blog for long will know that Eliot Pattison is one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers.  I look forward to new additions to both his Bone Rattler and his Inspector Shan Tao Yun Mystery series.  “Skeleton God” is the ninth in the Inspector Shan series, and it is perhaps the best one yet because of the depth that it plumbs into the Tibetan culture and psyche.

His protagonist, Shan Tao Yun, is a Chinese former police inspector from Beijing who has been banished to the hinterlands of Tibet for many years.  Shan has taken his banishment as an opportunity to get to know and understand the Tibetan people and their traditions.  Shan has been through a lot. He has spent time at hard labor in a Tibetan prison camp.  He has been a closely watched road inspector. He is now the police inspector for a small Tibetan town that has been partly repopulated by Chinese nationals. He now has the problem of getting the Tibetans in the surrounding community to trust him even though he now wears the uniform of a Chinese policeman.

The people that Shan wants to know better over the course of “Skeleton God” are the “ferals,” the Tibetan people who have refused to give an oath of loyalty to the Chinese government and have been forced out of their homes because of their lack of fealty to China.  These ferals are keepers of the ruins of old Buddhist shrines and monestaries.  One particular retired Chinese general, Lau, is dead-set on wiping out all of these ferals and taking any remaining gold or other treasure from these holy sites.  Shan is dead-set upon preserving as much of the old Tibetan culture as he can without forfeiting his own life or endangering the life of his son, who is now in the same prison Shan inhabited for many years.  Shan has somewhat of a protector in the form of Colonel Tan, the governor of Lhadrung County. Tan is a very complex anti-hero who is sometimes very helpful and at other times very cruel and thoughtless.

Skeleton God” provides the reader with much to think about: the cruel way Tibetan culture is being stamped out by the Chinese overlords; the corruption that goes on within the ranks of the Chinese rulers in Tibet; how the need for freedom serves as an enduring beacon of light for the human spirit in not only the Tibetan people but also many of the Chinese and many of the people from around the world who risk their lives to travel to that country.

I have spoken in the past with Eliot Pattison about his experiences in Tibet and I know that through his fictional characters and the situations that they find themselves entwined in, there is a lot of cultural accuracy and historical fact.  Pattison’s Inspector Shan series is important for anyone to read who has an interest in Tibet and the Tibetan people–and that should be all of us!

Skeleton God” is highly recommended.

Reviewed with a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Baker Street Irregulars edited by Michael A Ventrella and Jonathan Mayberry

When I read something I think is just “so-so” I often don’t bother to write a review.  There just isn’t enough interesting to say sometimes to make a review worthwhile. That applies in my opinion to “Baker Street Irregulars,” a group of short stories that all take off on the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Most of these stories go too far-afield for my taste.  The authors seem to vie for who can make the most macabre, weird or different Holmes and Watson. I’m more about the story than the character and I did not see enough meat in any of the stories to keep my interest.  There was lots to hate about many of the characterizations of Holmes and Watson– but then maybe I’m a purist when it comes to the great detective Sherlock Holmes.

We see Holmes as Shirley Holmes in the first story, the Great Investigator of the planets of the great star Alpha Ganston in the second, a more familiar Holmes in the 3rd story, a vampire Holmes in the 4th, a robot Holmes in the 5th, and so on.

I long for the neurotic bachelor Sherlock Holmes of 1890’s London and mystery stories based on his fantastic powers of observation.

But, again, I’m old fashioned.

I give “Baker Street Irregulars” a thumbs down even though I am sure there are some who would find some of the stories very funny and original.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon

After 8 years of writing mystery and thriller reviews I felt a need for a rest.  My mother died in late February and work to do to setter her affairs.  There were taxes to complete and also a new business to start so my reading time was curtailed for a couple months.  When I finally emerged with enough time to read books again I found a challenge that was not exactly in the mystery genre, although there are murders, mysteries and swashbuckling thriller plots throughout.  I took up the challenge of reading all 8 of the books in Diane Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series– not a small task as most of her books in this series are over 1000 pages in length.

I have just completed number six in the series, “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” and I think other than the first book, “Outlander,” this is my favorite.  “A Breath of Snow and Ashes” finds the entire Fraser family together on Fraser’s Ridge in the wilds of colonial North Carolina where Jamie has been granted a large range of land to parcel out to other Highlander settlers and eventually a variety of other pioneers.  The Highlanders all share something in common:  in order to be allowed to emigrate they had to swear allegiance to the British king.  The tenor of the times, 1767-1776, makes it increasingly difficult to keep up loyalty to the crown.  Claire and Jamie’s daughter, Brianna, and the man she meets in 20th century Scotland, Roger, like Claire, time travel through a Celtic stone circle in order to find Brianna’s father and her mother who traveled back in time earlier.  They need to warn them of a news clipping from 1776 that suggests Claire and Jamie will be killed in a fire in their home at Fraser’s Ridge in January of 1776 and they want to stop the disaster from happening.  Do they survive? You must read to the end of the sixth book to find out!

Meanwhile, there are a variety of heart-pounding narrow escapes, murder plots and mayhem to keep the incredibly detailed plot threads moving along so that it is very hard to put the book down, and especially this sixth novel in the series. Claire gets kidnapped by some militiamen who do not care for Fraser and his family.  She is accused of killing a young woman who serves as Claire’s apprentice healer, Malva Christie, and Claire is taken to New Bern to be tried.  Brianna, earlier in the book, is kidnapped by a smuggler and there is some question initially as to whether Brianna’s son, born 9 months later, is actually the smuggler’s or Roger’s.  There’s a mystery surrounding the appearance of a skull with a distinctly modern set of teeth and eventually that mystery is revealed by other time-travelers who demand Claire’s help in getting back to the 20th century.

As much as I enjoy reading about the amazing Fraser family, I am going to get back into reviewing newer mysteries and thrillers now.  A large number are still stacked up waiting for my attention.  But for those who are as hooked on the “Outlander” series as I am, and eagerly await the third season of the Starz drama (should coincide with the third book “Voyager“) I do particularly  recommend the sixth book “A Breath of Snow and Ashe” which is set in colonial North Carolina.

 

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Night Bird by Brian Freeman

Brian Freeman is a Minnesota-based author.  This is the second in his Frost Eaton detective triller series. Eaton is a handsome, single, cat-loving San Francisco police detective, a very likeable character.  The latest in the series, “The Night Bird” was just published February 1 by Thomas Mercer.

Night Bird” is a very scary psychological thriller about a serial killer who copies the techniques of a San Francisco psychiatrist, Francesca Stein, but with an evil intention.  Stein uses hypnosis and subliminal messaging to erase disturbing memories from patients and replace them with memories that will stop the phobias that developed around the trauma.  The psychotic maniac, instead, uses hypnosis and psychological and sensory torture to cause some of Stein’s patients to commit suicide upon command.  The killer wears a mask, which in San Francisco, does not cause a lot of notice.  He calls himself the “Night Bird” and uses all manner of technological tricks to spy on his victims and on Dr. Stein so that he knows what will trigger anxiety in the patients who become his targets. One of the songs he uses to trigger suicidal events in his victims is the song “Nightengale” by Carole King.  I don’t think I will ever be able to listen to that song again without thinking of this book!

It does not take long to get really sucked into this book.  One reason is the main characters all have interesting lives and stories built around their own unique situations so it became easy to feel empathy for some characters and disgust and revulsion for others. The characters are all memorable whether they are heroes or villains. One way or the other, the reader can picture these characters living and working in San Francisco.  The author appears to know the city well, even though he lives in Minnesota.

I am not totally convinced about the premise of the book that people who have been traumatized can be made to totally forget those traumatic experiences through hypnosis, drugs and subliminal suggestion, but I am willing to suspend my skepticism for the purposes of getting into the plot.  The premise is similar to that of the successful new TV show, “Blindspot.”  There are some nice twists to the plot as well that keep the reader guessing until the end.

Overall, Freeman has a winner with “The Night Bird.” It should be a hit with those who like to stay up late reading a real page-turner of a psychological thriller that will remain vividly in the memory bank for a long time to come.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

 

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An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

The Longmire series got another new addition last fall with “An Obvious Fact.”  The name is derived from a Sherlock Holmes quote, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” The setting is western South Dakota/eastern Wyoming around Hulett and the Devils Tower, an impressive shaft of igneous rock that shoots out of the plains unexpectedly, and the site of the nation’s first national monument.  The other major setting is Sturgis, SD, the site of the annual motorcycle meet.

The biking events and the general Wyoming/South Dakota Black Hills location affords the author a lot of colorful characters to populate this mystery and Henry Standing Bear is entered in some of the biker events while Walt Longmire helps the Hulett police investigate why a young member of one motorcycle gang and the son of one of Henry’s former lovers, has been run off the road.  The young man is in a coma at a hospital in Rapid City.  Tension mounts as Lola, the youth’s mother implies that Henry was the father some 30 years earlier.

As always, this chapter in the Longmire saga is full of sage wisdom from the Indian philosopher, and hard fighting from both Henry and Walt. “An Obvious Fact” a sufficiently fast-paced page-turner to please fans of the Walt Longmire series and could win over new fans because of the colorful setting and interesting situations Henry and Walt continue to get involved in.

I continue to be a Longmire fan of both the books and the TV series.

Liz Nichols

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Shattered by Death by Catherine Finger

Shattered by Death” is the second in the “A Jo Oliver Thriller” by Catherine Finger.  The protagonist is small town police chief, Jo Oliver, who is locked out of the investigation of the brutal killings of her estranged husband and his girl friend in a double homicide.  Oliver finds them in the boat house of the property she and her husband still own together.  Oliver’s close friend and budding romantic interest, FBI agent Nick Vitarello, presents evidence to clear Oliver of the crime, against the police chief’s will.

Many women will identify strongly with Oliver.  She is generous with her time in that she volunteers at a couple of women’s shelters.  This fact she wants to keep secret to protect the identies of the battered women who are sheltered, even though security tapes from the shelters will prove here whereabouts during the murders. She is in the process of adopting a child, even as she fights a contentious divorce. She is bull-headed, full of self-doubt about her worthiness to ever be loved (doubts Nick constantly tries to assuage), and she is a born-again Christian who frequently calls on God for guidance and support.

The identity of the serial killer who tries to frame the Chief is not a particular surprise to me, but the twists and turns that lead to the ending keep “Shattered by Death” a suspenseful read.  Two thumbs up.

Review copy was provided.

Liz Nichols

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Two Mysteries About Fracking and Sex Slavery

I recently completed two novels with very similar themes, “Black Hills” by Franklin Schneider and Jennifer Schneider, a brother-sister writing duo, and “Coyote” by Kelly Oliver.  Both focus on the fate of exploited native women and Indian reservation communities in boomtowns where oil workers are forcing oil out of the ground through fracking.  Apparently, the authors of both books used similar source material and reached many of the same disturbing conclusions.

Both books were pretty rough to read because they pull no punches about what happens to sex slave workers in these oil boomtowns, the mountains of synthetic drugs (“dust”) that is consumed, and the fraud and murder that occurs in order to keep the people involved in business.

The heroine in Oliver’s “Coyote” is a philosophy graduate student from Montana who returns home for the summer to work at Glacier Park, Jessica James.  Her roommate is a member of the Blackfeet tribe who is distraught that her younger sisters seem to have been kidnapped by sex slavers.  Jessica takes a Glacier Park bus to help her roommate, Kimi Redfox, to find the missing sisters, and to investigate the death of her cousin, Mike, in a lumber mill accident.  They are assisted by a Russian emigre named Lolita, who seems to know her way around the big-shots in the community who own the fracking and lumber mill businesses.  “Coyote” is a straight-forward detective and mystery story with a likeable amature sleuth.

The heroine of the Schneiders’ “Black Hills” is Alice Riley, a Brooklyn Private Investigator hired by the wife of an employee of the fracking company in Whitehurst, South Dakota, to investigate why he has been taken into custody for assaulting a prostitute.  Alice befriends the Native American prostitute girlfriend of the man who has been jailed and they go after the truth together.  Neither Alice nor her friend, Kim, are innocents in this story.  They both partake in plenty of drugs and sex in their effort to gain information and take down the CEO of the fracking company.  The fracking company, they learn, is also behind a huge drug operation, the sex trafficking in the area, and nearly everthing else that is killing Native American people and their heritage.

“Black Hills” is a strong literary achievement by Franklin Schneider, who is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but many will also find the unrelenting drugs and sex and the very dark take on the fracking business to be disturbing.

I’m glad I read both “Coyote” and “Black Hills,” despite their strong thematic and character similarities.  They both leave a very concerning message about fracking and the companies and communities swallowed up by that business.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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The Highwayman by Craig Johnson

Johnson’s “The Highwayman” is a modern-day ghost story by one of the country’s foremost storytellers.  This novel is part of the series “A Longmire Story.”

Sheriff Walt Longmire of Wyoming’s Absaroka County receives a request to assess the credibility of a highway patrol officer’s reports of ghost radio messages while the officer is patrolling near a series of three tunnels that had been the scene of a searing accident that killed another highway patrol officer over 30 years before.  Reportedly, the message that an officer was in need of assistance came from that deceased HP officer.  When some of the same messages were received in Walt’s presence he and his side-kick, Henry Standing Bear, attempted to explain the phenomenon by determining who might be breaking into the HP’s radio frequency.  Things get a little scarier when the distraught HP officer falls into the raging Wind River and Walt is helped to grab her out by a mysterious stranger who also seems to be dropping 1888 Morgan dollars, the same Morgans the long-dead HP officer was accused of hi-jacking.

As always, this Longmire story is an engrossing and well written western mystery/ghost story.

The Highwayman” is recommended, especially for the many Longmire fans out there.

Liz Nichols

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Bright Midnight by Chris Formant

Chris Formant is a life-long student of classic rock and roll and a collector of rock memorabilia. He holds a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Rock and Role Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  “Bright Midnight” is his first novel and it will be a crowd-pleaser for all the baby boomers who love classic rock and all those conspiracy theorists who believe in the “Myth of 27.”

For the uninitiated, the  “Myth of 27” hypothesizes that there is simply too much coincidence around the fact that so many rock stars, and particularly during the height of rock and roll post-Woodstock, died of mysterious causes at the age of 27– too many for it to simply be coincidence.  While Formant’s work is fiction, he has thoroughly researched each of the artists who died within a few years of each other in  the late 1960s and early 1970s including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Ron McKernan, Peter Ham, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Al Wilson.  Formant uses modern forensic analysis techniques to combined with clues from research of memorabilia and historical records to pose plausible explanations as to why all these deaths were not just accidental deaths or suicides, and how they were related.  Certain sinister aspects of the rock and roll record industry seem to have doomed some of the more rebellious and independent artists to short lives.

The protagonist is a classic rock editor for Rolling Stone, Gantry Elliot.  He is an aging “has been” struggling to keep up with the the changes in rock music until he begins to receive anonymous tips about the rock stars of the 1960s and 1970s who all died at age 27.  The tipster maintains that all of these artists were murdered and presents clues with each package to support the claim.  By the time Gantry has received several of these packages he takes the evidence to the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit who, after expressing initial doubts, decides to take on the cold cases and involves associates in Scotland Yard and the French National Police to take the lead on solving the deaths that occurred within their jurisdictions. Gantry involves his boss, the editor of Rolling Stone and eventually gains his full support.

There are fascinating details about the music industry, and modern day forensics.  It turns out that as good as technical forensics is now, old-fashioned interviewing of former associates of the dead and people who might shed light on the commonalities between all of the victims is what actually breaks the case.  The closer Gantry gets to breaking some of these cases, the more dangerous the international crime thriller gets for Gantry and the people who open up to him and the FBI.

Bright Midnight” is an inventive read sure to please those who are nostalgic for the Age of Aquarius and its rock legends and those who enjoy speculating on conspiracy theories such as the “Myth of 27.”

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols

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Downfall by J A Jance

Once again J.A. Jance has produced a suspenseful and timely police procedural in the “Brady Novel of Suspense” series.  “Downfall” is about an investigation by Sheriff Joanna Brady and her Cochise County (AZ) Sheriff Department into a double homicide that appears to be instigated by a high school teacher’s statutory rape of one or more teenage boy student.  The reactions of the parents and students to the realization that a pedophile has been teaching at the school for years and getting away with seducing teenage boys run the gamut from parents blaming the boy more than the teacher to outrage and a desire to sue the school for not doing something to stop this behavior.  Some parents wish they had gotten to the teacher first before her actual killer.

This story about a teacher pedophile takes place amid Joanna’s own personal tragedy in that she has just lost her mother and step-father to a highway sharp-shooter and is also several months pregnant with a baby girl. She is supposed to be taking time off to plan and host a funeral service for Eleanor and George when the deaths of two women who appear to have been pushed off a cliff occurs.  The book contains some poignant moments where Joanna comes to a better understanding about her mother and the reasons why Eleanor has always been so hard on her ambitious tomboy of a daughter.  Longtime readers of the Brady series will appreciate the closure Joanna is able to put on this complex relationship with her mother and will also admire the ingenuity Brady and her staff use to solve the mystery of the double-murder and Joanna’s own kidnapping.  To add to the complexity there is another murder in the mix, the death by golf club of a man who appears to also have been poisoned with arsenic by his wife.  That investigation raises the question of how far the DA should go to offer a reduced sentence just to settle when it appears likely the murder was premeditated.  Unfortunately, there is little the sheriff can do once the police have turned the case over to the DA, other that to offer her two-cents worth.

As always, the action is so suspenseful it was hard to put down “Downfall” until the very last page.

Highly recommended.

Liz Nichols

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