‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ – Characters in a mystery novel that is being rewritten find themselves in conflict in a world that keeps changing – #bookreview

 

 

 

Woman with a Blue Pencil

Gordon McAlpine

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

What if the characters in a mystery novel are alive in some other universe, and their world keeps changing, because their book, unknown to them, is being edited and rewritten?

And what if one of those characters is trying to solve a murder, but almost everything he knows or remembers, in his version of 1941 Los Angeles, keeps changing or vanishing? What if the people to whom he has been close suddenly cease to exist or no longer know who he is?

Woman with a Blue Pencil is well-written and cleverly structured. It can make you laugh with pleasure when you realize how the story will unfold along two tracks. And you can get engrossed in the actions and motivations of both main characters as their separate tracks begin to merge, and they come into conflict.

This is an intelligent murder mystery with a heart, a message and a poignant, surprise ending. It is set just before and after the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath, including the now roundly condemned, racism-driven mass roundup and internment of Japanese-American citizens living on the U.S. West Coast.

Behind the two tracks of story in this tale is an ambitious young Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) writer who has been trying to get his first novel published. Now, suddenly, he has been relocated to one of the internment camps. And the woman with the blue pencil is his book editor in New York. She keeps trying to help him come up with a new plot that replaces his now-unsalable Japanese protagonist with a Korean-American one, plus create a strong, Western-sounding pseudonym that the author can hide behind once his book goes to market in World War II America.

One word sums up this novel-within-novel: Brilliant.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

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Idyll Threats: In 1997, a small-town police chief must solve a murder that can expose his deepest secret – #bookreview

 

Idyll Threats

Stephanie Gayle

Seventh Street Bookspaperback, Kindle

Recent and seemingly rapid changes in American society may make some potential readers of this book wonder why it is a big deal that a police chief would try to hide being gay.

However, America was a much different world in 1997, when this series-debut novel is set. And society today is still not so open and accepting in many of the nation’s smaller towns, as recent news events have shown.

Police Chief Thomas Lynch loves his new job, but after leaving the New York Police Department following the death of his partner, he is having to adjust to being in a town where serious crime almost never happens. When a murder suddenly happens and Chief Lynch discovers he recognizes the victim, he knows he is now caught up in a very difficult situation for his career.

If he reveals how and where he saw her just hours before she was killed, he will have a lot to explain, and his sexual orientation immediately will be revealed. So he must try to solve the case mostly on his own, amid increasing pressure from the mayor and rising suspicions among some of the police officers he oversees.

Author Stephanie Gayle writes clear, concise, short sentences that flow smoothly and create detailed pictures in the reader’s mind. And, by setting the series opener in 1997, she has left herself plenty of room to develop her complex main character as American society, at least in some areas, gradually becomes more open and accepting in the background.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

THE RELUCTANT MATADOR: Can you have too many good things in one novel? – #mystery #bookreview

 

The Reluctant Matador

A Hugo Marston Mystery

Mark Pryor

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

I have been a steady Hugo Marston fan since the debut novel for the series, The Bookseller, appeared in 2012. But I will be honest about this fifth book. As much as I like and admire Mark Pryor’s mystery fiction, I am a bit reluctant to recommend The Reluctant Matador as your first encounter with his excellent investigator, Hugo Marston, head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris. The Reluctant Matador moves at a slower pace and with more subplot distractions than I prefer in stories where the good guy supposedly is racing against the clock as he (or she) chases down the bad guys.

If you are looking for a new investigator series to take up, I heartily endorse Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston. Thus, get The Reluctant Matador and keep it handy. But start reading earlier in the series first. The Bookseller and The Button Man remain my two Hugo Marston favorites. And there is plenty to like in The Crypt Thief and The Blood Promise, as well. (Actually, “start at the beginning” often is a good approach for taking up any mystery series).

It is always possible, of course, to have too much of a good thing. And this is what I think slows The Reluctant Matador down a bit, at least for me: Too many interesting characters and too much interesting detail within a very interesting and apparently very laid-back city: Barcelona. (And why, really, are we in Spain now? Isn’t Hugo supposed to be helping keep our Paris embassy secure?)

In The Reluctant Matador, the 19-year-old daughter of an old friend has gone missing in Paris, so Hugo Marston agrees to try to help find her. The sparse clues left behind soon lead him to Barcelona and the realization that the young woman’s life definitely is in danger and the clock is ticking. But there also is a murder and other terrifying issues to complicate the plot and the urgent quest. And the young woman’s father, meanwhile, has taken things into his own hands and gotten himself jailed in Spain. And the Barcelona police and underworld have some interesting characters. And Hugo Marston’s investigator buddy, Tom Green, an ex-CIA agent, is supposedly helping out but also being a bit of a drunken, obnoxious lout. And several women want to sleep with Hugo. And…

And, inexplicably, I began thinking about The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress about two-thirds of the way through The Reluctant Matador. We keep ambling forward in our quest, picking up more and more characters and their stories as we go.

Many readers, of course, likely will be charmed by Mark Pryor’s mini-portraits of Barcelona. It  does comes across as a very appealing locale. But, is there really time for some sightseeing and a siesta and some bantering with the locals when the hours and minutes rapidly are running out on a life held in deadly captivity?

If you are already a Mark Pryor fan, definitely read The Reluctant Matador. There is much to like in this book, and the writer clearly has put plenty of effort, creativity, research and talent into producing it. On the other hand, if you are new to Hugo Marston and want a fast-paced mystery thriller, you might think this one moves too slowly and decide to ignore the four other books in Pryor’s series. Don’t do that. Read the others and read this one. But read at least one of his earlier works first.

Si Dunn

 

STONE COLD DEAD: In this third Ellie Stone mystery, the ‘girl reporter’ digs deeply into a dark case – #mystery #bookreview

 

Stone Cold Dead

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin 

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

Ellie Stone is a skilled investigator at a time when women are still expected to mainly stay home and take care of their families. The year is 1961, and local citizens call Ellie as “that girl reporter.”She works for a small newspaper in a mill town in Upstate New York.

When someone is murdered or disappears, Ellie often is sought out by relatives of the dead or missing, especially when they think the local police may not be giving their loved one’s case enough attention.

Indeed, in the first two novels of the Ellie Stone series, the “girl reporter” has been gaining a reputation as a good investigative reporter and crime reporter, as well as amateur detective. That story line continues in Stone Cold Dead, James W. Ziskin’s well-written third Ellie Stone mystery.

Despite her local fame, however, Ellie remains a clear victim of gender discrimination in the news room. Her editors keep trying to assign her to stories involving bake sales, society happenings, Scout meetings, weddings and other “women’s news” events. And Ellie keeps pushing back against the long-traditional male dominance of “hard news” reporting. Sometimes she resists to the point that her job is put in jeopardy.

Of course, job attitudes hardly matter at all when you have asked one too many questions and suddenly talked your way into a life-threating situation. Ellie is good at this. Her curiosity, her probing and her desire to keep showing she can compete with the guys sometimes gets her too far out in front of safety and common sense.

James W. Ziskin is an excellent storyteller who offers up more detail and dialogue than many other mystery writers provide. He also lets his “I” character have more time for introspection and internal debate than is common in investigator stories. This lets us see more deeply into process of how Ellie solves a case.

Ziskin also writes convincingly about what life was like in the newsroom of a 1960s newspaper and out on the small-town streets. I worked as a young reporter for several small-town newspapers in the mid-1960s. And there was a very clear gender divide. Women covered “women’s news,” while guys got to cover the “cop shop” and sheriff’s department, prominent murder trials, fatal car wrecks, plane crashes, shootings, fires, and other “big”news events.

Stone Cold Dead spans 313 pages in paperback. A 15-year-old girl slips out of her junior-high school bus while it is stopped and disappears. Clues left behind point to the likelihood she has run away to be with a young lover. But as Ellie keeps questioning people and piecing together a trail, she realizes that several darker outcomes are becoming possible. And her own life is in danger, too.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new mystery from Terry Shames: ‘A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge’ – #bookreview #mystery

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge

Terry Shames

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

The title may be a bit too folksy and over the top for a few hard-core mystery lovers. But the Samuel Craddock investigative series by Terry Shames does an excellent job of capturing the sights, sounds, speech patterns, customs, mannerisms and values of many people in contemporary East Texas, an area of the state that identifies more closely with the Deep South than with the Wild West. And her central character, Samuel Craddock, is both a retired small-town police chief and someone people still quickly turn to for help when there’s trouble.

Even in bucolic East Texas, trouble is always brewing somewhere nearby. And, despite his age and a bad knee, Samuel Craddock can be counted on to try to help, whether it’s defusing bad-blood tensions between two people or two families or, central to each book, tracking down a killer. He knows many people and knows something of their histories. But he is frequently surprised by what happens within the undercurrents that flow through seemingly tranquil small towns and their surrounding countryside.

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge is the fourth novel in Ms. Shames’s fast-expanding series. Her previous Samuel Craddock mystery,  Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, was published just six months ago (October, 2014). And it saw Craddock coming out of retirement to take over again, temporarily, as Jarrett Creek’s police chief.

In Deadly Affair, Craddock is still on the job from which he previously retired. And now he is having to go out of his jurisdiction to investigate a complicated case involving a death and a very close friend who isn’t telling him the whole truth about her background.

Terry Shames grew up in East Texas and knows how to make her fictionalized settings and characters come alive.  If you are looking for a new, different and engrossing investigator to follow, slow down, relax a bit and mosey along with Samuel Craddock as he sets out to solve yet another mysterious death.

Si Dunn

 

Little Nation and Other Stories: A noteworthy collection with focuses on key Chicano themes – #fiction #bookreview

Little Nation

 Little Nation and Other Stories

Alejandro Morales

Translated from the Spanish by Adam Spires

Arte Público Press – paperback

At least four key themes infuse the well-written short stories in this important collection: identity, injustice, marginalization, and the Chicano community’s seemingly endless search for space it can comfortably call “home.” The stories’ author, Alejandro Morales, has penned several novels, including River of Angels, and is a professor at the University of California at Irvine.

In an excellent essay that precedes the collection, translator Adam Spires explores both the long writing career of Morales and Morales’s strong focus on economic inequality, borders and “the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country–a border culture….”

Spires writes that “nowhere is the economic imbalance more ruthless than at the border itself, where multi-nationals set up their interim maquiladoras to exploit a disadvantaged Mexican workforce. Arguably,” Spires contends, “the only thing worse than poverty is poverty surrounded by abundant wealth: high-tech wealth, drug cartel wealth and the alluring Gringo wealth on the other side. The social costs at the margins of the global economy are staggering, and it is here that Morales fixes his gaze and takes up his pen, chronicling the extremes of injustice in a body of work distinguished by its poignant portrayal of spatial dynamics and social disparities.”

Morales also is a master at portraying everyday people and situations within a Chicano community in Los Angeles County. Some of his stories are warm and gentle, such as “Mama Concha,” in which a young boy enjoys what his grandmother is teaching him about loving the land and the fruits and vegetable it can produce. Other stories in the collection deal with troubling situations. And some deal head-on with shocking violence.

Overall, however, Little Nation and Other Stories is infused with currents of hope for the future of Chicano communities and appreciation for the people who live there.

Si Dunn

Bendición: The complete (and excellent) poems of a Manhattan Puerto Rican poet – #poetry #bookreview

Bendicion Covers qx_5.5

Bendición

The Complete Poetry of Tato Laviera

Arte Público Presspaperback

Before his death in 2013 at age 54, Manhattan poet Tato Laviera achieved fame both for his excellent performance poetry and for his strong advocacy of Puerto Rico as an important part of American life and culture.

Laviera was born in Puerto Rico and had some of his early schooling there. But he spent much of his life living and working in New York City. He had several books published, including Enclave, winner of the American Book Award. And a number of his plays were produced in New York City and Chicago.

Bendición is an excellent tribute to Laviera’s writing skills and style. His poems often are in English, but sometimes in Spanish, and sometimes in delightful mixtures of English and Spanish.

Laviera believed that being positive has important powers, even as he stood up strongly and vocally for those in racial and economic minorities in America.

“If there is anyone conspicuously absent from Tato’s cosmology,” writes Nicholás Kanellos in his preface to Bendición, “it is those New Yorkers who reign in board rooms and penthouses, the ‘one-percenters’ who ignore or disdain the lives that command Tato’s and our attention and compassion. Tato focuses fifty stories below to his fellow street-level survivors, hailing from all parts of the world and struggling to eke out a living in cramped sweatshops, dank factories, steamy kitchens or in the cacophony and miasma of the streets.”

But Laviera also was “a poet of love” and a very good one, indeed, Kanellos emphasizes.

Along with being a “complete” collection of published works, Bendición contains a number of Tato Laviera’s previously unpublished poems.

If you like poetry and American poets, this book can be a real eye-opener. How did you previously miss Tato Laviera’s fine, clear voice that is edged with very some mixed roots: Puerto Rico and its American possessor, plus Africa and Europe?

Si Dunn