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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Historical Fiction Review – Leaving Independence

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

Leaving Independence by Leanne W. Smith

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I am always in the search of a great western.  Leaving Independence is a story of Abigail Baldwyn’s journey on the Oregon Trail with her children.  Abigail believed her husband Robert was killed in the Civil War but when she finds out he is alive and intentionally didn’t come back to his family, her grief changes to anger and then to resolve to find him.  While taken aback by the tone of her husband’s letter, she uproots herself and her children to travel west to, hopefully, be reconciled and reunited with him

Leaving Independence is full of the usual western genre suspects: the mysterious stranger, the strict religious believer, the rough cowboy, the damsel(s), etc.  But what category does Hoke Matthews fit in?  Hired to lead one of the companies during Abigail’s trip on the Oregon Trail, Hoke seems to be a man of integrity with loyal friends and the respect of the others; however, he is very secretive and generally keeps to himself.  Abigail and her children soon bond with Hoke and as the trail gets closer to Abigail’s husband,  Hoke begins to realize he has developed feelings for the family. But what will happen when Abigail and Robert are reunited?

Much of Leaving Independence is rather predictable.  In addition to the usual cast of characters, there are the usual trail complications: dangerous water crossings, weather difficulties, snakebites, illness, etc. Smith provides a story with characters that were fun to read about but the story left me a little unsatisfied with the quick conclusion.  I’m not sure this will make it on to my list of great westerns, it was an enjoyable read. 3 out of 5 stars.

 

 

 

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Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Silent Partner

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The Case of the Silent Partner by Erle Stanley Gardner 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

The 17th Perry Mason mystery, published in 1940, is a must-read for all Mason fans. The reason is that Lt. Tragg makes his debut as Mason’s astute adversary.  Gardner explicitly puts Tragg at the same age as Mason, something that may disconcert fans who have always pictured Tragg as Ray Collins who was almost 30 years older than Raymond Burr.

Another curious point is that Tragg interviews a person of interest without Mason in the scene even after Mason has been introduced into the story. Usually Gardner places Mason in every act, every scene. Gardner has Tragg get the person of interest to reveal unwittingly what is on her mind while ostensibly giving her a word association test. Gardner does not want even the dullest reader to miss that the wily Tragg knows psychology whereas his hard-charging predecessor Sgt. Holcomb spells “psychology” starting with an “s.”

Our expectation that a Mason novel always climaxes with a rousing preliminary hearing scene leads to the third uncommon point. The climax is a civil trial. Mason does make the opposing lawyer look silly, however.

Because Tragg gets a lot of space, there is less Paul Drake. He is not introduced until about half-way through the story. His role is small. Fans of Della Street will be happy to know that she plays a very active role in the story. This, by the way, is why the novels are much better than the TV series. In the TV shows Della rarely did little beyond answering the phone and taking notes.

As usual, too, Gardner expresses his support for womankind, being about as much a feminist as we can expect of a man of his generation. He sympathizes with the female owner of a small chain of flower shops, emphasizes that she has to be twice a tough and canny as men in business but still be available to be caregivers to aging relatives.

 

 

 

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Fiction Review – Small Great Things

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

I love Jodi Picoult’s novels because of her deft tackling of ethical and moral issues that face our society.  I have been a fan since I read The Pact many years ago.  When I saw that Jodi was going to be in Kansas City during her promotional tour of Small Great Things I immediately purchased tickets and it was a wonderful event!

According to Jodi, she started a book about race relations many years ago but set it aside when she felt it wasn’t her place to bring up the issue.  Given recent events in the US, she felt it was time to tackle a story about racism and our societal and learned attitudes about race.  Picoult described her in depth research, from meeting with former white supremacists, talking medical jargon with nurses, and meeting with a group of African American women to discuss Ruth’s voice and language.  One thing that cannot be denied through reading this novel is that Picoult did her absolute best to write with authenticity.

Small Great Things is the story of Ruth Jefferson, an African American labor and delivery nurse with over twenty years’ experience. During another regular day, conducting a regular check of a newborn in the ward, Ruth’s life is turned upside down.  She is told the parents, who are white supremacists, don’t want her treating their son.  When there are complications after a routine procedure and the baby dies, the parents accuse Ruth of killing their child. In the aftermath, Ruth questions the choices she has made throughout her life, how she has raised her son, and if her career will recover.

In true Picoult style of telling the story through various points of view, the author draws the reader into the gripping, misunderstood and complicated lives of all of the characters.   What do we each know about other races and what different roles does privilege play in society that we may have not even considered before?  What creates hate in our society? Picoult has given us a book that holds a mirror up to our faces and forces us to look honestly at ourselves, our words, and our actions.  Small Great Things earns 5 solid stars.

Mirah gets a book signed by Jodi Picoult

Mirah gets a book signed by Jodi Picoult

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mystery Monday – Red Harvest

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Personville, a city of forty-thousand in Montana, grew because a company developed mines. The mine owner had called in thugs to push back workers and their troublesome union organizing. The workers were duly crushed but the thugs didn’t leave since the pickings from vice rackets were so sweet. The town government was corrupted by the owner and the thugs. The mine owner gave his son a local newspaper to woo him back from Europe. Trouble was stirred when the son started a reform campaign and called in an operative from the Continental Detective Agency to provide facts to fuel the reform. The Continental Op(erative), who has no name, hits town and the son is shot dead in the street.

With his client dead, the Continental Op makes a deal with the mine owner to find the killer and by doing so shake up the bad guys that run the town. The Op does find the killer but the owner backs off reform. The Op does not let up. The Op employs deceit, brutality, and bad guys killing bad guys, among other low tactics, to clean the town up.

The Nobel Prize-winning author André Gide called the book “a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror.” It is not for faint-hearted readers. After all, Hammett coined the phrase “blood simple” which inspired the Coen brothers call their first movies, an experiment in noir, Blood Simple. Also challenged will be readers that are wary of convoluted plots and large casts whose names have to be remembered.

Strangely, the book is not grim – its high spirits are irresistible.

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Mystery Monday – Trouble is My Business

Monday, January 9th, 2017

 

Trouble is My Business by Raymond Chandler 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

There are various editions of this book. I read the Vintage Crime trade paperback ISBN 0394757645, published in July of 1988. The attraction of this edition is that it contains Chandler’s introduction in which he mulls over writing for the pulps and the place of crime fiction in popular literature.

It contains these short stories which were originally published in the late 1930s in pulp magazines like “Black Mask” or “Dime Detective.”

Killer in the Rain
The Man Who Liked Dogs
The Curtain
Try the Girl
Mandarin’s Jade
Bay City Blues
The Lady in the Lake
No Crime in the Mountains
Trouble Is My Business
Finger Man
Goldfish
Red Wind

 

The last four in the list are stories featuring, Phillip Marlowe who was Chandler’s series hero. The first couple of stories, Chandler recycled into sections of late Marlowe novels such as the immortal The Big Sleep.

Suffice to say, this is genuine classic fiction. Great mystery writers from Ross Macdonald to Loren D. Estleman were influenced and inspired by these stories to write hardboiled detective fiction.

My approach to short stories is to read one at a time and then go do something else to think about it. I think if a reader gulped down these stories one after in one setting, Chandler’s metaphors and dialogue (not to mention artifacts like smoking stands and Marmons) might seem corny.

I didn’t read Chandler for a long time because I thought his prose rather overwrought and prolix. Older and wiser now, I read these stories with much pleasure.

 

For more Chandler, see also my review of the late novel Playback .

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Mystery Monday Review – Over My Dead Body

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

Over My Dead Body by Rex Stout

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Published in 1939 after being serialized in The American Magazine, this is the seventh of the series that starred rotund PI Nero Wolfe and his more active assistant and sidekick Archie Goodwin. Wolfe has enough eccentricities for three people: indolent, orchid-fancying, woman-hater in the old-fashioned manner. But he is as brilliant as Sherlock Holmes. Archie is the archetypal American: athletic, brash, wise-cracking, and a hit with the fair sex.

Nero Wolfe confronts consequences of his own decisions made the last days of the troubled Hapsburg empire and its unhappy seething possessions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. That is, he adopted a baby girl, left her with people he trusted, but lost touch with her when they were killed for their revolutionary sympathies by the secret police.

The situation gives Archie a chance to tease Wolfe:

“I’m resigning as of this moment.”

“Resigning from what?”

“You. My job.”

“Rubbish.”

“No, boss, really. You told the G-man you have never married. Yet you have a daughter. Well,” I shrugged. “I’m not a prude, but there are limits —”

The daughter does not necessarily want contact with the famous rotund agoraphobic PI in Manhattan, but a spot of trouble brings her to Wolfe’s brownstone seeking help. Later two murders occur. They revolve around a fencing school where the daughter, her friend Carla, and the odd Miss Vorka work.

This mystery has the right amount of plot and character. Stout includes a number of scenes full of high-jinks. The reveal of logical and plausible. Unlike the other novels, Manhattan itself does not play a major role, but this is a quibble. Storm clouds of World War II hang over novel, reminding us that writers are canaries in the coal mine.

 

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Fiction Review – All the Little Liars

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

All the Little Liars by Charlaine Harris

Review by Mirah W. (mwelday)

Aurora Teagarden is back! Charlaine Harris has returned to her series about the librarian and amateur sleuth after more than 10 years.  I was very excited to meet Charlaine during her promotional tour of All the Little Liars.  Listening to her describe her career as a writer and her writing process was so interesting.  Charlaine was very down to earth and approachable. I would describe her personality as Southern charm meets Southern sass.  I think Charlaine was absolutely delightful!

Mirah and Charlaine Harris

Mirah and Charlaine Harris

But back to the book….

Aurora (Roe) is now married, pregnant, and her brother Phillip is living with her and her husband Robin.  Roe and Phillip have developed a close relationship and he is excited about being an uncle soon.  In the days before the Christmas holiday, four teenagers go missing and Phillip is one of the missing.  It seems understandable that two of his friends are also among the missing, but why would an 11-year old be with them?  What was her connection to what was happening?  The cops are trying to find out what is going on but, in typical fashion, Roe is determined to get involved, as well.  In her own investigation she uncovers school bullying, gambling debts, and serious family dramas.

While I enjoyed All the Little Liars, it did not seem to be as tight in the delivery as the earlier books in the Aurora series; there were some consistency issues and it felt a little incomplete in regards to the mystery. I like the characters in the Aurora series and I’m glad Harris wrote this book as if the past years really had passed, trying to pick up where things left off would have felt awkward. Overall, this installment wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped after my long Aurora drought but I’m glad she’s back and I hope Charlaine writes more.   In the end, I give All the Little Liars 3.5 out of 5 stars for being enjoyable but not quite polished…but I give Charlaine 5 out of 5 stars for being a class act!

 

 

 

 

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