Book Review: One For the Money

Book Review: One for the Money by Janet Evanovich

Disclaimer: I received this book (and the DVD of the movie) as part of a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.

One for the Money

Stephanie Plum is an unemployed lingerie buyer in Trenton, New Jersey.  Her mother pressures her to take an office job at her cousin’s bail bond business.  Turns out that job’s already taken, but there’s a bounty hunter position open.  Having nothing better to do, Stephanie goes for the assignment.

As the first book in the series, this holds together pretty well. Stephanie Plum makes some believable rookie mistakes (but unlike some other hardboiled mystery protagonists, does *not* have sex with the suspect) while also showing some flashes of qualities that would make her a decent bounty hunter once she’s got some experience under her belt. As a solo book it’s a teensy unsatisfying, as there are some characters that are obviously setups for future volumes.

The movie is notably much “prettier” than the book, playing up the romantic comedy aspects. For example, movie Stephanie’s outfits are much less eye-hurting than the ones described in the book.  Also, book Stephanie’s apartment is pretty much down to the bare walls as she’s hocked everything for food and rent, while movie Stephanie’s apartment is tastefully decorated.   Updating it to 2011 does have the salutary effect of giving Stephanie a cell phone which cuts some tedious shenanigans with her landline in the book.

Book Review: Limestone Gumption

Book Review: Limestone Gumption by Bryan E. Robinson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Limestone Gumption

When Big Jake Nunn, former football star and big man around the sleepy town of Whitecross, Florida dies while diving the limestone caves of the Suwannee River, suspicion naturally falls on the man who was supposed to be diving with him, psychologist Brad Pope.  Brad, only recently returned to his hometown after years away getting an education and a reputation, had a motive for killing Big Jake, but he’s pretty sure he’s not the killer.  Could it be his stubborn Grandma Gigi and her Women’s Preservation Club, who definitely have something secret going on?  Or is it one of the other eccentric townsfolk?

This is the first fiction book by Mr. Robinson, but he’s written quite a few non-fiction books, and it shows in how polished the writing is for a first novel.  The story flows well, the characters are interesting (a couple of them perhaps a little too colorful, but I’ve certainly met people like them before) and there were a couple of twists I didn’t see coming.

Brad Pope manages to be a quirky protagonist without going over the top; like many psychologist characters, he has a number of issues from his past, and secrets of his own, not all dark.  The WPC take up a lot of the story with their eccentric ways, not the least of which is calling themselves “sisterfriends.”    Several reviews have mentioned humor; I found relatively little of that, except perhaps of the observational type, plainly writing down the foibles of the neighbors.

I need to issue a Trigger Warning for rape and physical, verbal and emotional abuse in the backstory.  One of the themes of the book is how the law enforcement around Whitecross has failed people, especially women.  (Though the protagonists wind up taking advantage of the same sort of thing by the end.)  There’s also some racism, including by the protagonist, to his shame when he realizes what he’s done.

The title refers to one character’s philosophy of life, which is first stated in a frontispiece to the story, but repeated several times within.  There are several recipes, supposedly from the Women’s Preservation Club, in the back, along with some guided questions for book club use.

Some readers might find the eccentric small town characters a bit thick, but I quite enjoyed the book.  Recommended for “cozy” mystery fans.

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink

Book Review: Strangers of Different Ink edited by Richard & Allen Okewole

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Strangers of Different Ink

This anthology of short stories appears to be primarily by authors in the Philadelphia area.  Other than that, there doesn’t seem to be a particular theme, and their genres vary widely.  The introduction by Tony Tokunbo Fernandez is a short modern poem.  I’m afraid I don’t get modern poetry.

  • “A Lot Can Happen in 26 Minutes” by Dennis Finocchiaro.  A college student counts smiles on a train.  The count is zero, until–a sweet story.
  • “Zadie” by Eric McKinley.  A young man discovers the true love of his life, which is not the title character, or the girl he thought it might be.  A turning point in life.
  • “Capeless City” by Roman Columbo.  The city of Philadelphia has no superheroes, and they’d like to keep it that way.  Unfortunately for Super Powers Investigator Dashiell “Dash” Cain, he may not be able to deliver on that.  This is the story that intrigued me enough to request the book.
  • “Historical Fiction of the Marquis DeSade and Rose Keller” by Cathy T. Colborn.   I’m not sure of the historical nature of Rose Keller.  A feisty young woman of Irish descent is intrigued by the writing  and mystique of the infamous Marquis, and accepts his invitation to visit him.  There’s a difference between romantic fantasy and the reality of relationships with a cruel man, though.  No onscreen sex.
  • “Icky” by Bruce Franchi.   A high school boy whose father is career military witnesses the disintegration of his parents’ marriage and his mother’s death.  There’s a sudden twist at the end which makes this story seem more like the first chapter or two in a young adult fantasy book.  As a result, it’s not quite satisfying.
  • “The Run” by Peter Baroth.   A law school student is pressured into taking some acquaintances to buy drugs.  It doesn’t turn out quite as planned, but is the outcome worse or better?
  • “The Death of St. Clare” by Jordan Blum.  This is an Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic, covering an incident that happened off-stage in the original book.  Augustine St. Clare was a relatively “good” slave-owner who had resolved to free Tom, but is killed in a tavern brawl, which leads to Tom being sold to Simon Legree.  It’s an interesting study of St. Clare’s character, and how slavery warped people’s thinking.   Period racism makes this an uncomfortable read.
  • “The Generous Bastard” by Solomon Babber.  A contrast of two couples, one long-married, the other just starting out in their relationship.  Based on a true story.
  • “The Barber of Suez” by K. Fred Mills Jr.  A mixed-race young man goes for his first barber visit (his father had cut his hair before that) and discovers a different part of his heritage.
  • “Choc” by Yohan Simpson.  A story based on true events.  Two children meet in Mumbai, with tragic consequences for both.  Trigger warnings for rape, physical and verbal abuse.  A grim ending for the book.

The stories that worked best for me were “Capeless City”, “The Death of St. Clare” and “Choc.”   “Icky” is probably the weakest story because it is so obviously meant as a first chapter, rather than a story in itself.  There’s a few typos, particularly in “Choc.”

This collection is probably of most interest to Philadelphia area readers, but when was the last time you read Uncle Tom’s Cabin fanfic?

Book Review: The Case of the Tiffany Killer

Book Review: The Case of the Tiffany Killer by A. R. Rampa

Disclosure:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Case of the Tiffany Killer

Peggy Hart is the best-dressed and most curious teenage girl in Pinewood, a lovely small town that’s probably in Ohio.  She’s put her curiosity to good use as a girl detective.  But lately,  her cases have been getting more and more sordid, and now there’s a killer that abducts teenage girls and returns bits of them in decorative gift boxes.

Can Peggy and her best friend Pickles find the culprit before one of them becomes the target?   And does this case tie into what became of Peggy’s brother Philly, missing this past year?

This is a National Novel Writing Month book, written over the course of a single November (but presumably polished afterwards.)  It’s a spoof of teen detective books, especially Nancy Drew.  I’d say it’s more like the recent Nancy Drew film, depicting the main character as slightly out of place in a modern milieu.

The first couple of chapters are anachronic, which is kind of confusing, but the book soon settles down to a more linear storytelling style.   There remains a bit of an issue with the narration switching point of view between paragraphs without warning.  There’s also a few spellchecker typos, two on one page being unusual enough words to catch my attention.

Good stuff:  The characters really feel like they’re using coping methods, and not always healthy ones, to control what feels like out of control circumstances.  Peggy’s rigid standards for clothing herself, for example.  There’s also some good descriptions that give color to the scenes.

Not so good:  The spoof elements and the morbid plotline really don’t work well together.   Treating it as more of a straight up mystery story might have been a better choice.   You might be able to guess the killer by genre savviness, but there isn’t really a fair play mystery here.  One plot thread remains dangling at the end; sequel hook, except that this is more of an “end of series” story.

This book was written in consultation with eighth graders, so is presumably a young adult book, but the gruesome subject matter (trigger warning for torture) may make it a poor choice for the lower age end of YA.

This might do well with fans of Nancy Drew pastiches.

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

Book Review: City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist

Full disclosure: I was sent this volume as a Firstreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it.   Also, my copy was an uncorrected proof, and small changes may have been made between it and the final product.

City of ScoundrelsLate July of 1919 was certainly a troubled time for the city of Chicago, and thus one ripe for interesting history. The book opens with an account of the Wingfoot disaster to hook the reader, then moves back to the beginning of the year to set the stage for the more politically oriented events. After the main narrative, there’s a summary of later events and finally a “where are they now” section.

The Wingfoot disaster involved an airship crashing into a bank, killing several people both in the Wingfoot and in the bank.  (After that, Chicago instituted flight restrictions.)  During the days that followed, Chicago was struck by a transit strike, a race riot and a sensational child murder that set off a massive manhunt.

The central figure is colorful mayor “Big Bill” Thompson, but space is made for the stories of others, including a ordinary Chicago woman, Emily Frankenstein, who happened to keep a very good diary. There are copious footnotes, a full bibliography, and an index.

The book is written in clear, understandable language and was a quick but not insubstantial read. I would have liked a bit more information on Chicago’s dealing with the “moron” problem after the events covered, but was otherwise satisfied.

Be aware that as a race riot is part of the history, there are quotes from racist people–and some early 20th Century sexism.

I’d especially recommend this book to high school history students looking for an interesting subject not as yet overdone.

Book Review: Board to Death

Book Review: Board to Death by Amy Barkman, Debbie Roome &  Gretchen Anderson

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the Firstreads giveaway program on the premise that I would write a review of it.

Board to DeathAs the subtitle says, this is a set of three mystery stories linked by the theme of games. It’s double-spaced with fairly large type, so the book was a fast read.

The protagonists are all older women (“baby boomers” as the blurb puts it) and the stories double as romances as each of them finds love as well as danger. The stories are competently written, although only one of them is a “fair play” mystery that the reader can solve with the given information. The links between the stories as the games go from one person to another might seem a bit too “cute” to more cynical readers.

Which leads to the next thing I should talk about. All of the protagonists, like their authors, are practicing Christians. This leads to rather more God-talk than most cozies contain. I was comfortable with this, but I know many readers might find it intrusive or off-putting.

A peculiarity of the stories is that there’s only two religion settings for characters: practicing non-denominational Christian and entirely secular.  This is pointed up by one of the secular characters calling people who go to church of a Sunday and pray at appropriate moments “religious fanatics.” Clearly, she’s never met any real religious fanatics…such as those who would ban board games from their homes for leading to gambling.

And a generally conservative worldview predominates. The motive for one of the deaths caught me by total surprise because it was old-fashioned, almost quaint.

I’d recommend this book most to Christian “cozy” fans, and older romance literature fans.

Book Review: Cell 8

Book Review: Cell 8 by Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom

Disclaimer: I received this advanced reading copy from the publisher as part of the Firstreads giveaway program on the assumption that I would review it.  Minor changes may be present in the final version.

Cell 8

“Cell 8” is part of the Scandinavian thriller/mystery fad currently going on and appears to be the second book featuring Swedish police detective Ewert Grens.

Grens’ surprised when a minor scuffle on a cruise ship turns into an international incident.  It seems the perpetrator was convicted of murder in the United States–and is supposedly dead!  Now the U.S. wants him back so they can execute him properly, but Detective Grens and his team aren’t keen on the prospect.

I’m going to go right into SPOILERS here; this is less of a mystery book (though there is a mystery) than a soapbox. The authors don’t like the death penalty and were clearly itching to write about how much they don’t like it. Problem is, Sweden doesn’t *have* the death penalty, and hasn’t for quite some time. So, the story requires some elaborate and contrived setup to get our Swedish police officers involved with an American death penalty case.

The convict in question is extremely sympathetic and the case against him is suspiciously thin, even before later revelations, while the main spokesperson for the pro-death penalty viewpoint is an extremely unlikable nutcase.

Truth be told, Grens and the other Swedes don’t actually have much to do here; some subplots are advanced, but in the end, both the start and resolution of the central plotline are in far-off Ohio, where our main characters never go.

As for that resolution, it is, to say the least, outlandish and requires some serious suspension of disbelief that the killer’s plan never once went off-track, relying on, as it does, literally hundreds of people acting *exactly* as predicted.

The good news: For a soapbox, it’s quite well written, and I liked Grens and his colleagues (even the annoying ones.) The authors have clearly done their research on the physical “how” of execution, even if they gloss over the difference between American states’ attitudes towards the death penalty.

I suspect that the translator is more used to British than American English, based on a small slip of naming towards the beginning. Also, several words are italicized unnecessarily. I suspect they were in English in the original, and someone overlooked the transliteration issue.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, but if you liked Three Seconds and want more of Ewert Grens, or are very tolerant of soapboxing, it’s not a bad novel.

Book Review: Until Thy Wrath Be Past

Book Review: Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson

Disclaimer: I received this as a prize in a Goodreads giveaway (the first one I ever won; I’m reprinting my old reviews until I can finish a new book), and reviewed it on that basis. Also, this was an advance proof copy, and minor changes may occur between my reading copy and the final product.

Until thy Wrath Be Past

A young diver is found under the ice in a river in northern Sweden, but forensic evidence indicates that she drowned elsewhere.    Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson finds herself literally haunted by the case, while police inspector Anna-Maria Mella learns that Sweden’s dark past  may have more to do with the murder than was immediately apparent.

Scandinavian mystery/thriller fiction appears to be “hot” right now. This one is from Sweden, and falls more towards the latter than the former. The story is narrated by the ghost of a murder victim, who can sometimes read people’s thoughts. This takes quite a bit of the mystery out of the proceedings. There’s some nice descriptive bits, but the story could quite easily be rewritten to eliminate said ghost and leave certain occurrences vague as to their origin.

A lot of the characters are “broken” one way or another, and two of them bonding about their brokenness is crucial to the climax of the story.

The northern Swedish setting seemed homey to me with its resemblance to the hinterlands of Minnesota, though the place names sometimes threw me.

The fact that it was not a finished product showed in some missing spaces, almost all near proper names. I hope that will be fixed in the published version. Less likely to be altered are some ill-timed transitions between third and first person.

I should also mention a couple horrific scenes of domestic violence, for those who are triggery about that.

Overall, a good read, but I’d go with borrowing it from the library rather than buying.

Book Review: Washington Masquerade

Book Review: Washington Masquerade by Warren Adler

Disclaimer:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Washington Masquerade

When Adam Burns, a vitriolic newspaper columnist who savaged the U.S. President at every opportunity, is found dead under suspicious circumstances, the media immediately picks up the “government conspiracy” theory and runs with it.  Washington, D.C. cop Fiona Fitzgerald must solve the case before the administration goes up in flames.

This is the eighth Fiona Fitzgerald book; I have not read the previous ones.   The first chapter is told from the perspective of Mr. Burns, explaining some of his motivations.  This may be a standard format for the series, but in this case I think the reader would be better served by skipping the chapter to enjoy learning the information along with the police officers.  I figured out the solution to the mystery far too soon.

That said, this is a pretty solid police procedural with some high-octane political content.  It’s transparently clear that the president is supposed to be Obama, but names of most high government officials are never given for reasons that will become obvious.   Fiona’s gimmick is that she was born into DC society, so can move in higher circles than most cops.  For this story, she’s given a new partner, Isadore Silverman, a black Jewish man who uses Talmudic reasoning to help him solve crimes.

There’s some scattered rough language, but towards the end there’s a lot of it and some slut-shaming coming from one of the characters.

There are a couple of proofreading errors, and a few instances of dialogue that can’t be tracked to a specific speaker in the conversation because of poor paragraphing.

Overall, a decent enough mystery, recommended for those who like the Washington political setting.

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Hunting Season

In 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was murdered by a group of teenagers in Patchouge,  New York.  They had been looking for “Mexicans” to beat up in that suburb of New York City.  This shocking crime made headlines, and exposed a lot of raw nerves about immigration issues in America.

Mirta Ojito is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and briefly talks about her own experience as a Cuban refugee.

Much of the book is taken up by short biographies of the people involved in the case one way or another, from the victim to the killers to the mayor of Patchouge.  (None of the people convicted of the murder consented to be interviewed for the book, and only two of their parents, so some biographies are very short.)

There’s a look at the various circumstances that combined to make the incident happen:  demographic shifts, a changed pattern of immigration that brought unassimilated migrants straight to suburbia instead of the inner city, racism, economic woes, portrayal in the media of immigrants as “invaders”, small town boredom, and a poisonous political atmosphere.

The mayor of Patchouge, Paul Pontieri, comes off pretty well.   He was late realizing that there was a problem with anti-immigrant violence in his town, but actually had plans for dealing with it just before the killing took place.  The tragedy accelerated those plans.

By comparison,  Steve Levy, county executive of Suffolk County, comes off pretty badly.   He campaigned on fairly heavy anti-immigration policies, even co-founding a group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform that seeks local ordinances to restrict undocumented immigrants further than they already are.  But he never specifically called for violence.

As well as the effect on Patchouge of immigration issues and the murder, the book looks at the effect these have had on Lucero’s home town of  Gualaceo.  The money sent home by migrants has allowed the town to become prosperous again after years of economic depression, but at the cost of its hardest-working and most ambitious citizens

As the book points out, this was neither the first or last time an immigrant was killed by Americans for the sin of not being “one of us”, but perhaps we can learn lessons here to lessen future violence, and find new ways of incorporating immigrants into our society.

Recommended for true crime readers, and those interested in immigration issues.  Check it out at your library.

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