No Stone Unturned and Styx & Stone – An entertaining, engrossing mystery series – #bookreview

No Stone_cover

No Stone Unturned

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin

(Seventh Street Books - paperback, Kindle)

***

 Styx & Stone

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin

(Seventh Street Books - paperback, Kindle)

***

 Looking for a new mystery series and investigator to follow? Check out these two engrossing, entertaining novels from James W. Ziskin and Seventh Street Books.

Set in 1960, Styx & Stone, the series debut, and the recently published No Stone Unturned focus on Ellie Stone, a young reporter and photographer working for a small-town newspaper in Upstate New York. She’s struggling to hang onto her first professional job after graduating from the prestigious Columbia Journalism School.

It is a time well before women’s liberation, so Ellie is fighting both to stay afloat and advance  in a career that is still “a man’s world.” Yet, despite the nerve-wracking challenges and the men who fall over themselves as they try to get her into bed, she is glad to have work that doesn’t simply involve “shorthand and fetching coffee.”

Still, Ellie is tired of writing filler copy. She wants to get her hands on some real stories for a change. But she is competing in a male-dominated business and in a male-dominated town where everyone essentially knows everyone else. Thus, everything she does or says is scrutinized and subject to criticism by someone. And she sometimes has a tough time figuring out who really wants to help her and who is just trying to score enough points to make out with her.

Intrepidly, she pushes ahead. And she has a trait born of bravado and curiosity, as well as desperation to keep her job. She is not afraid to confront people and ask questions that others, including the police, have not thought of–or, more dangerously, have not wished to ask.

In Styx & Stone, Ellie leaves Upstate New York long enough to go back home to New York City after her estranged father, a famous Dante scholar and professor, is savagely beaten. The police think he was attacked by burglars, but Ellie is convinced it was a murder attempt and starts asking questions. Soon, another professor is killed, and a second attempt is made on Ellie’s father’s life. Later, he dies of his injuries.

Ellie is so thorough, demanding and even brazen in her probings that, at one point, Detective-Sergeant Jimmo McKeever of the NYPD, complains:  “Are you planning to solve every crime in New York during your stay?” Yet later, while helping her solve the murders,  he concedes a bit awkwardly: “If you were a man, you’d make a good detective.”

Meanwhile, in No Stone Unturned, Ellie is back in Upstate New York, at her newspaper job in the community of New Holland. She is wanting to prove to her boss and her fellow employes that she is a good journalist.

She intends to write  the main, front-page story about a newly discovered murder. But to beat the newspaper’s veteran (and male) crime reporter to the task, she must also solve the murder–quickly.

That means taking dangerous risks and hurriedly confronting powerful people in the community with sharp questions that create more enemies than friends. Along the way, she also must defend herself from being fired from her job. And she must find the inner courage to stick with her fledgling–though currently floundering–newspaper career.

James W. Ziskin’s Ellie Stone is an engaging, intelligent and ambitious young woman who knows both how to fight crime and how to fight her way through many of the historical, social and economic barriers that again restricted American women’s freedoms after World War II.

Si Dunn

Muerte en una estrella – Shooting Star: An excellent, disturbing novel in first English translation – #fiction #bookreview

 

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Muerte en Una Estrella – Shooting Star

Sergio D. Elizondo

English Translation by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatriz Pita

(Arte Público Presspaperback)

Available for the first time in English, this excellent and troubling bilingual novel imagines the dying thoughts of two Mexican youths after they were shot by Austin police in March, 1968, apparently while running away from a shouted order to “Halt!”

Originally published in 1984, the novel is a eulogy for Oscar Balboa, 16, and Valentín Rodriguez, 19, who were both unarmed and on leave from Camp Gary, a Job Corps training facility near San Marcos, Texas.

Their deaths occurred during a nationally troubled time that was rife with bigotry and racial discrimination. And Shooting Star gives some important insights into efforts and actions by the Chicano civil rights movement during that time period.

In the novel’s English translation, Oscar Balboa and  Valentín Rodriguez are described as “strutting icons of Raza manhood worthy of a guitar ballad.” And after they are shot, their dying thoughts cover a wide and often moving range of memories, thoughts and impressions. As one example, Oscar remembers coming north from Mexico to work in the fields, and he remembers taking part in farm worker protest marches with his father. Meanwhile, Valentín is not really sure if he has been shot or not, but he knows he cannot move, nor make Oscar hear him. And he feels what he thinks is dew on his back as he recalls some of his own life and his brief time with Oscar.

Shooting Star definitely is worthy of its praise as “a classic” in Mexican-American literature. This excellent first English translation will introduce the author and the book and its insights to many more readers.

Si Dunn

 

The Valley – Estampas del valle: Now in bilingual paperback for the first time – #bookreview

The-Valley-350x550

The Valley / Estampas del valle

Rolando Hinojosa

(Arte Público Press - paperback)

The long-turbulent Texas-Mexico border is in the news once again. So this is a timely moment to introduce or reintroduce readers to the famed Klail City Death Trip Series, fifteen books written by Rolando Hinojosa. The series is in a mythical Texas county on America’s southern frontier, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

The first book in that series, The Valley, introduces readers to life in Belken County, where Anglo Texans and Mexican Texans live side by side, and people die, or encounter death, on nearly every page. Their stories of everyday events, including love, weddings, births, friendships, affairs, discrimination and dying, are told mostly in short, well-written vignettes that cover the time period generally from World War I to 1970.

Arte Público Press recently has published the first bilingual, English-Spanish edition of The Valley, which initially appeared as Estampas del Valle in the early 1970s. And this is a noteworthy literary event for fans of both Hispanic literature and American literature in general.

Rolando Hinojosa’s fictional Belken County has been compared very favorably with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and with Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional city, Macondo, in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Klail City is just one of several fictional towns in that appear as settings in Hinojosa’s imaginary county.

Hinojosa has spent his entire–lengthy–writing career bringing new characters, situations and locations to the Death Trip Series. And his books have won numerous prestigious writing awards, including The National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award and, in 1976, the most prestigious prize in Latin American Fiction, Casa de las Américanas, for the best  Spanish American novel. He is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas in Austin.

Si Dunn

 

Enemies at Home: A Flavia Albia Novel – A cool detective procedural set in ancient Rome – #mystery #bookreview

 

Lindsey Davis Enemies at Home

 

Enemies at Home

A Flavia Albia Novel

Lindsey Davis

 ( Minotaur Books, hardback, Kindle )

Can a 29-year-old widow make it as a private detective in first century A.D. Rome?

Flavia Albia has some friends in semi-high places. And she has one very important family connection: She is the adopted daughter of Marcus Didius Falco, one of Rome’s best-known “private informers,” the ancient equivalent of a modern private eye.

Flavia has taken over her father’s office, and she keeps needing new cases.  But in the private informer business, it’s “no win, no pay.” So,  she is always on the lookout for a case she can both win and profit from, in a legal system where women have no rights in matters of law and where she must compete with male private informers who do have rights.

Unfortunately, the case that suddenly lands in Flavia’s lap in Enemies at Home does not seem to hold much promise:

“Even before I started, I knew I should say no,” Flavia states at the book’s beginning.

“There are rules for private informers accepting a new case. Never take on clients who cannot pay you. Never do favors for friends. Don’t work with relatives, Think carefully about legal work. If, like me, you are a woman, keep clear of men you find attractive. The Aviola inquiry broke every one of those rules, not the least because the clients had no money, yet I took it on. Will I never learn?”

 Not yet. She meets up with a magistrate, an aedile, named Tiberius Manlius Faustus, with whom she has worked before and finds attractive. (Can “Manlius” be viewed as a Latinized pun on “manly”? Yep.) Faustus has just been assigned to deal with a very complicated case within his jurisdiction, and he needs Flavia’s help to try to sort things out.

A man and his wife have been brutally murdered and robbed, apparently by intruders, and the couples’ slaves have fled to the Temple of Ceres, desperately hoping to get asylum so they can save their lives.

“The slaves got wind of their plight,” Flavia informs us. “They knew the notorious Roman law when a head of household was murdered at home. By instinct the authorities went after the wife, but that was no use if she was dead too. So unless the dead man had another obvious enemy, his slaves fell under suspicion. Whether guilty or not, they were put to death. All of them.”

Flavia’s task, of course, is to attempt to help exonerate the slaves. But Roman law literally is a vicious beast, sometimes. Criminals and those merely suspected of a crime can be thrown to the lions or sewn into large bags along with dangerous animals and dropped into the sea. And that’s just two of the many ways capital punishment can be meted out in the Roman Empire.

Flavia is the slaves’ only hope. And she is armed with nothing but curiosity, questions and bluster, plus some occasional help from the aedile, Manlius Faustus, as she goes where no woman typically has gone before, at least in recent years, in Roman society.

Enemies at Home features a very big cast of characters (spanning two pages at the front of the book). And it is somewhat easy to grow confused by (and a bit wearied of) virtually every male name ending in “-us” and almost every female name ending in “-a.”

For the most part, however, this second Flavia Albia novel is fun and informative reading. Lindsey Davis is a master at moving her characters about in ancient Roman settings. She keeps them both human and limited by the pace, technology, laws and social mores of the Roman Empire (during the reign of the allegedly paranoid emperor, Domitian). Her dialogue often is wickedly sharp and funny, and, except for an occasional Latin word here and there, no effort is made to have the characters speak in any tongue other than modern lingo.

If you have been hoping Falco will reappear and have a cameo role in this new book, be prepared to wait for the next novel in the series and see if he shows up there. Flavia Albia is now her own woman. She emerges strongly from her father’s shadow in Enemies at Home and demonstrates why she also deserves to be known as one of the very best public informers in first-century Rome.

Si Dunn

Matzo Frogs – A hopping-good children’s book about acts of kindness – #bookreview #children’s books

Matzo Frogs

Sally Rosenthal (author) and David Sheldon (illustrations)

(NewSouth Books - hardcover)

Matzo Frogs is a fun tale, delightfully told and superbly illustrated. It tells and shows how one act of kindness can lead to another:  “Mitzvah goreret mitzvah.”

The book has been created for children and for parents of children who are still learning to read. But adults also need to be reminded about the special powers of kindness and working together. Matzo Frogs can help with that task, too.

Matzo Frogs tells the story of kind-hearted Minnie Feinsilver. Her favorite cousins are coming over for Shabbat dinner, and Minnie is up early, fixing matzo ball soup. Unfortunately, Minnie has an accident and spills the soup. And she doesn’t have time to prepare a new batch. She has promised to spend the day helping a friend who is bedridden with a broken leg. So she goes off to do that good deed.

Her next-door neighbors, a colony of frogs living in a pond, know what has happened to Minnie, and they decide to help, to do a mitzvah, by preparing a new batch of matzo soup in her kitchen.

David Sheldon’s artwork brings the cooking adventure to hilarious life as the frogs hop into action, opening the recipe book, gathering the special ingredients, making the matzo balls, cooking the soup and jumping back home just before Minnie returns home to her surprise.

Minnie realizes that while she was out helping her friend, someone else has helped her by saving her Shabbat dinner for her cousins. And, when she finally figures out who did the mitzvah, she thanks them in a kind and special way.

The book’s author, Sally Rosenthal, is an Emmy Award-winning documentary film producer. Matzo Frogs is her first book. The illustrator, David Sheldon, has created artwork for more than 80 children’s books.

By the way, if you are hungry for some matzo soup but don’t want to gather  up and cook the ingredients or wait for kind frogs to fix it for you, here’s a link to a well-known packaged mix.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

River of Angels – An excellent tale of two families and their divided city: Los Angeles – #fiction #bookreview

 

River of Angels

Alejandro Morales

(Arte Público Press, paperback )

 

This third novel by Alejandro Morales is a compelling, evocative portrait of  two very different families whose lives become intertwined through their children, in ways both loving and tragic.

Set in the 19th and 20th centuries, River of Angels is also the story of a burgeoning U.S. city divided by a dangerous river yet   linked by bridges and marriages, as well as shifting economic, cultural and racial balances.

Los Angeles today is divided by many ethnic, political and financial lines. And these divisions have been defined not only by major currents and undercurrents in California and American history but also by the river powerfully described in Morales’s book:  El Río de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula, “The River of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.”

The completion of a bridge over that river in 1887 provided a more convenient way for people to cross from either side, the author makes clear. But the bridge also helped set discriminations into easier motion.

“Most of the Los Angeles residents and people in neighboring communities were soon enjoying the convenience the bridge offered,” Alejandro Morales writes. “Laborers who worked on the west side of the river used the bridge every day to return to their dwellings on the east side. On certain days and hours during the week, it seemed that only workers moved back and forth across the river. Mexicans, blacks and Chinese had settled in the center of the city around the old plaza. However, that was changing, and [after the bridge was built] there was a deliberate and obvious push to house Mexicans on the east side of the river. The City Council made it easier for Mexicans to buy property and build houses on the Eastside.”

Some years later, a savage storm and flooding washed away the first bridge, and two more were built. Meanwhile, as this tale of families makes clear, the growth of Los Angeles’ Anglo population continued to push and squeeze minority groups, including Mexicans, African-Americans, Chinese and Japanese, out of their homes and businesses and into other areas of the city.

“The residents of the original Mexican colonias in Los Angeles proper–near La Placita and other sections newly designated as Anglo-only–were evicted and forced to relocate to the immigrant quarters of Los Angeles that were thought of as Mexican reservations,” Morales writes. “The city’s Anglo population needed the Mexicans for labor. The Mexicans had to live near, but not among, the Anglo families.”

That segregation sets up major tensions and drama within this engrossing novel as two families from widely separate realms are forcibly pulled together.

River of Angels delivers a unique and vivid portrait of Los Angeles at some of its worst and best. At the same time, Alejandro Morales skillfully illuminates racial, cultural, political and economic tensions that can be found today in virtually any other American city, whether a river runs through it or not.

Si Dunn

Confessions of a Book Burner – A novelist and poet’s engrossing journey to find her creativity and strength – #bookreview

 

Confessions of a Book Burner

Lucha Corpi

 (Arte Público Press – paperback )

 

In the Mexican state of Vera Cruz, a school teacher who knew the Corpi family let little four-year-old Lucha come to class with her older brother and spend each day sitting quietly at the back of the room.

As Lucha watched and listened, she soon began learning how to read and write and also how, literally, to blend into backgrounds.

These skills later would serve her well at a pivotal moment in her adult life, when she suddenly found herself a divorced young mother living in a foreign country, the United States, with a young son to support  while surrounded by racial bias.

Confessions of a Book Burner is a well-written collection of personal essays and stories that reflect on Lucha Corpi’s journey to becoming a novelist, poet and teacher, and then, breaking out of her in-the-background comfort zone, becoming a San Francisco Bay-area activist for bilingual education, women’s rights, and civil rights.

“Throughout my life, no matter where I’ve lived, silence and melancholy have been my friends and allies,” she writes in her memoir. “They’ve aided the internalization of feeling and the introspection necessary to find the variety of incongruent elements in my conscious and subconscious mind that eventually come together to form [a] poem” or other written work.

“Teaching, writing and motherhood, all-consuming aspects of my life, hardly allowed me time to wallow in self-pity or regret,” she adds.

Lucha Corpi is now an internationally recognized novelist, poet, and author of children’s books. Among her works are four novels in the Gloria Damasco Mystery series, which she began after reading “many mystery novels as well as author interviews on the writing of crime fiction….”

She continues: “Every road taken in my search for the reason Chicanas do not write mysteries kept leading me back to the reading corner. Sin lectura no hay ni escritura e literatura–there is no literature without reading and writing.” Her informal surveys of Chicanas and Latinas convinced her that these readers turned away from mysteries because they don’t like stories about crime and guns and women as victims and seldom have read them.

To that, she writes: “I can…assure any Chicana who is now contemplating penning a mystery novel that the writing of crime fiction, when one respects one’s art, is as legitimate as any other kind of writing; that exposing the machinations of a ‘justice system’ which more often than not stacks the deck against women, especially women of color, is not only all right; it is also a way to obtaining justice  for those who won’t or can’t speak for themselves.”

Si Dunn

The Nature of Truth – Sergio Troncoso’s intelligent thriller is now in paperback – #bookreview

The Nature of Truth

Sergio Troncoso

(Arte Público Press – paperback )

 

Yale graduate student Helmut Sanchez is a man unsure of who he really is.  He feels “neither American nor German nor Mexican.”

Indeed, as this absorbing, intelligent, world-wise thriller unfolds, Helmut is wrestling with a question “that had tormented him all his life,” Sergio Troncoso writes.

“Helmut Sanchez had always hoped his Mexican blood would save him from a free-fall into his German heritage. Yet certain parts of this heritage also captivated him, especially German philosophy and poetry. So instead of saving him outright, these mixed legacies confused him. He had never really felt at home with German culture, but in the many ways he harbored the same doubts about American culture.”

He is, in short, stuck with the vague feeling that he is “neither here nor there.”

Suddenly, amid his graduate school academic research, Helmut makes a startling discovery about one of his professors. It is a finding that unsettles both his life and his views even more. Soon afterward, when the professor is killed, Helmut finds himself drawn into a murder investigation where the borders between good and evil and right and wrong quickly get fluid and murky.

The Nature of Truth, first published in hardback in 2003 by Northwestern University Press, is now available for the first time in paperback, from the University of Houston’s Arte Público Press. Sergio Troncoso, who lives and works in New York City, has won numerous awards for his writing. He is now a resident faculty member of the Yale Writers’ Conference.

Troncoso’s previous books include Crossing Borders: Personal Essays, From This Wicked Patch of Dust, and The Last Tortilla and Other Stories.

Si Dunn

 

 

South, America – Action, mystery and gritty Southern noir – #bookreview

South, America

A Jack Prine Novel

Rod Davis

(New South Books – paperback, Kindle)

Here’s one way to get yourself into deep trouble: Try to perform a simple act of kindness.

Jack Prine, the central character in this gritty, well-written new mystery novel, reluctantly tries to help a young woman understand what has happened to her brother. And from there, the favor quickly goes downhill, to fear, violence, threats, gunfire and the need to make quick escapes.

Prine lives in New Orleans, and he is, in his own words, “trying to figure out a line on my future….”

As he tries to sort out just what that “line” might be, he has been “doing some freelance writing and the occasional unlicensed PI investigation for a divorce lawyer/ex-Army buddy….”

Early one Sunday morning, Prine has nothing much on his mind except his hangover and a strong need for some Guatemalan coffee. But as he is walking to get the cup of coffee, he discovers a dead body. A man has had the back of his head bashed in. Prine dutifully calls the police and answers the investigator’s questions. Later, Prine gets a phone call from the victim’s sister, Elle Meridian. Reluctantly, he agrees to meet her, so he can tell her more about what he saw and show her where her brother died.

Once they do meet, their attraction for each other develops fairly quickly. And as Jack Prine’s relationship with Elle grows, he soon finds himself drawn into circumstances and dangers he could never have imagined when he first heard her voice on the telephone.

Suddenly, the “unlicensed PI” is having to be a hard-boiled detective. And he and Elle wind up on the run from the vicious and tenacious Dixie Mafia. They race through Alabama and Mississippi on their way back to New Orleans– where no safety awaits them.

South, America is an engrossing tale alive with Southern landscape, thugs, family secrets, voudou, art treasures, racial tensions, sex…and love. And the book’s ending offers an excellent setup for the next Jack Prine novel, hopefully coming soon from Rod Davis.

Si Dunn

 

The Troubles Trilogy: Adrian McKinty’s Northern Ireland crime novels are powerful, engrossing reading – #bookreview

In the Morning I’ll Be Gone

Book Three: The Troubles Trilogy

Adrian McKinty

(Seventh Street Books, paperback)

I wish I had discovered The Troubles Trilogy and Detective Sean Duffy much sooner than Book Three. I really don’t like reading trilogies in reverse.

But Adrian McKinty is an amazingly good crime novelist. And now that I have also read his two other books in ThTroubles Trilogy,  I can honestly say that it is pleasingly easy to read these works in any order you wish.

In the Morning I'll Be Gone cover

Yes, Book One: The Cold Cold Ground and Book Two: I Hear the Sirens in the Streets are tied together by some of the same characters and settings found in Book Three: In the Morning I’ll Be Gone. Each novel, however, stands solidly on its own.

Detective Sean Duffy is an Irish Catholic cop working for the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s decidedly unpopular police force. The three novels unfold during the early 1980s, amid some of the most violent times in a small-scale but deadly civil war that has been raging for decades. On one side are the mostly Protestant Unionists and Loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the  United Kingdom. On the other side are the mostly Catholic Nationalists and Republicans who want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland again.

Duffy, caught in the middle and working for a mostly Protestant police force, must try to solve grisly murder cases while not getting blown up by Irish Republican Army car bombs–he never goes anywhere without first looking beneath his vehicle–or killed by bullets fired by snipers on both sides.

There are neighborhoods where it’s deadly to be a Protestant or a Catholic and neighborhoods where it’s equally deadly to be one of Her Majesty’s cops, or “peelers,” in the local argot.  (Sir Robert Peel, a 19th century British prime minister, is credited with creating the concept of a metropolitan police force. As a result, police officers became known as “bobbies” in England and “peelers” in Northern Ireland.)

Sometimes, in pursuit of leads and suspects, Duffy finds himself on streets that are British territory on one side of the center line and Irish territory on the other. And, a classic tough-guy detective, Duffy seldom hesitates if he needs to sneak into Ireland, where he has absolutely no jurisdiction except his fists and his guns. Also, he sometimes crosses that dark, ill-defined border between good cop and bad cop, in the name of justice as he defines it.

Adrian McKinty has been compared, deservedly so, to Raymond Chandler and a few other leading crime novelists. He is a native of Northern Ireland, and his taut, well-written, realistic prose makes excellent use of that region’s cultures, languages and longstanding sectarian tensions. He draws you in quickly and doesn’t let you escape –not until after gritty Detective Sean Duffy finally has tracked down and confronted the killer face to face.

Si Dunn