Monday, May 30, 2011

Evidence of Murder

Evidence of Murder
Lisa Black
Kirkus 2008

Really, really good!
More to come...

Occult mystery series -- this time tarot

Hanged Man
David Skibbens
St. Martin's Minotaur
ISBN: 0312377835
Publication Date: Apr 2008

A few weeks ago I read Murder in the 11th House by Mitchell Lewis and mentioned its similarities, in some ways to Skibbens' tarot series. In fact, I felt the need to revisit the Skibbens series. Both have mysteriously good looking, babe magnet middle aged occult operators who rely on their thinning charms, with complicated lives, families, and plenty of midlife crisis toys. There the similarities end.

Lewis' protagonist is a kind of fantasy, a barely disguised autobiographical astrologer who can tell you anything from a detailed chart and drives a fantasy, climate and scenery changing limo. Skibbens' guy is clearly fictional. He's a former Weather Underground fugitive hiding out in the persona of the tarot card reader, whose readings sometimes seem all too real. Long story short, while both are pretty fun reads, I think Skibbens writing is more interesting, his characters and dialogue better drawn and more amusing, and his background (Bay ares vs. Lewis' NYC) better drawn. And he drives a cool motorcycle.

Hanged Man, fourth in the Warren Ritter tarot series, features a tour of the SMBD (do I have to spell it out?) underworld, both creepy and kind of compelling. Personally I'll stick with the "vanilla" as one character describes the non-SMBD encounter but it makes for an interesting backdrop.

The first, Eight of Swords was very, very good. This one is still very readable but the plot a little thin, the characters could use a little more something, and I'd like to hear more about Weather. It is a kind of cozy despite the noiresque backdrop where everyone
(including the guy's shrink, girlfriend and all known relatives) gather for dinner and a few laughs as in any TV detective drama, a little silly.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Snow Angels -- DNF

DNF= Did Not Finish (no pun intended)

Started reading Snow Angels (2010- now in paperback) by James Thompson, a new series featuring Finnish detective Kari Vaara. This novel is set at Christmas in Lapland, a time of crushing cold and darkness that I've only read about in the Snow Queen fairy tales. The story is well-written but the crime is so gruesome and horrific I'm sorry I read long enough to read its description. And the well-drawn setting so claustrophobic I couldn't read any more of it.

This is one time I'm glad not to be a professional reviewer.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Trace of Smoke

A Trace of Smoke
Rebecca Cantrell

Another story about a woman reporter in the early twentieth century but they could not be more different. Think Cabaret, think Christopher Isherwood, this story of murder and the rise of Nazis combined with gay clubs, "boot girls" or prostitutes catering to a rough trade, drugs, lost people, hunger, money worth nothing. This is the world of Weimar Berlin in 1931 at the brink of the Nazi takeover of Germany. Ernst Rohm, the gay leader of the Sturm Abteilung (the SA or brownshirts) shows up as a character.

The main character, Hannah, is barely surviving and is at the edge of desperation as she bravely tries to help Jewish friends to America while trying to protect her beautiful gay performer brother. The atmosphere of this novel is near perfect, the exhilarating yet terrifying days in Berlin come alive in this tale. Not for the faint hearted.

Poison Pen # 2-- Escape Artist

Ed Ifkovic
Edna as a young reporter in Wisconsen
Escape Artist
Forthcoming, June 2011
Poison Pen

A prequel to an earlier novel, Lone Star, that also featured novelist Edna Ferber as a detective (Appleton Library's Info. about Edna), this tale is set in early 20th century Appleton, Wisconsen where Edna (Ed) began her career as a "girl" reporter in a time when women did not usually work. The 19-year-old daughter of Jewish Hungarian immigrant storekeepers, her beat is lady's luncheons, teas, and the best fabrics to use for a shirtwaist. But her natural curiosity and verve lead her into trouble, first interviewing Houdini, then to investigate the murder of former classmate. Appleton is also the former home of Harry Houdini, who is home for a performance and provides Edna with a lot of good advice and a solution to the locked door murder mystery. Edna really did interview Houdini in 1924: Interview and Appleton apparently has a museum to both Ferber and Houdini.

This novel is by turns sweet, sad, and funny. The characters both real and fictional are fresh and true, the early twentieth century setting of Appleton is nicely presented and the plot is twisted and convoluted, maybe goes on a bit too long. I knew nothing about Edna Ferber before but her presentation here as the feisty but not pretty girl reporter is fun. It has a serious side, exploring such things as child and spousal abuse, her father's illness, sibling rivalry, the role of women, and anti-semitism, while following a sad murder of a local girl. The writing is not preachy though and seems to offer insights to this time so close yet so remote from us. I really enjoyed this novel.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

New titles from Poison Pen # 1

Murder in the 11th House
Mitchell Scott Lewis
In stores Sept. 2011 (netgalley)

This amusing and fast paced "unusual detective" story is the first entry in the David Lowell "Starlight Detective Agency" series. Apparently Lewis is a famous astrologer, "astro-economist," and author of newsletters "Living by Starlight," or "Trading by Starlight" who predicted the Wall Street meltdown, but I have to say that I had never heard of him or his predictions. Personally, I don't believe in astrology at all but the detailed discussions of personal charts, houses, ascending planets and the rest added an air of verisimilitude to the story. There seems to have been some note of autobiography in the story. Well, write what you know,right?

It is set in NYC and has some nice notes of realism - traffic, cabs, restaurants, trips to Rikers - and an interesting although farfetched plot about a thwarted conspiracy to get a conservative judge elected president. One off note for me was how women were terribly attracted to this guy. He is rich but I think Lewis was getting a little carried away with the wonders of his alter-ego. Also he goes on a Jane Austin style "just a novel!" rant about the incredible track record of astrology and the idiocy of the non-believers. His grasp of police procedure and the justice system seemed a little spotty in these CSI days.

This series reminded me a little of the well written and much less polemical David Skibbens Weather Underground/tarot card reader detective series. And Skibbens is not trying to convince the reader that tarot is real.

Despite these caveats, it was a fun read, briskly paced, with unusual and well-developed
characters, fun futuristic elements, and not bad dialogue. I enjoyed it and will look for the next one.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Where Shadows Dance
C. S. Harris
NAL Hardcover

ISBN # 978-0451232236
List Price: $24.95

Love this series about a Regency lord who hunts murderers and the impressive period detail that C.S. Harris/ aka Candice Proctor brings to what could be a rather ordinary Regency mystery/romance. It has many of the trappings but Harris is always after something new.

I've yet to  ready any fiction that captures the feeling of the period the way the incredible and well researched biography Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman does. I mean the book, not the weak and inaccurate Keira Knightly vehicle. The duchess was a leading female politician, the Hilary Clinton of her day, who still  had many of the vices of her time like constant gambling, heavy debt,  and numerous affairs but she was still incredibly influential on the Whig politics of the day. A lot of Regency novels, (the immortal Jane Austen's among them), do not touch on the reality of the complex Regency Period wars and politics but Harris does, at least somewhat. As novels of the Regency period, Harris' St. Cyr mysteries are well done and richly imagined. Candice Proctor is a scholar of the French Revolution (as well as the author of several  other genre novels) and it shows in the level of detail and the research.

In the latest, Sebastian (Viscount St. Cyr) has to help anatomist Paul Gibson hunt for a murderer when it is illegal to even have obtained the body in the first place. At the same time, he has to get Hero Jarvis, his reluctant bride, to the altar. So it is in part police procedural, part Regency romance, and part historical fiction about the dark days of the Regency,  the Napoleonic wars, and the intrigue and treachery of those times. I must say I like Hero as a character much better than his old flame Kat Boleyn; Hero is much more a modern woman and pretty tough as well. Enjoyable from start to finish.
London circa 1800