Thursday, November 28, 2002
Banter between lead characters, a look at office politics and FBI procedures and the discovery of an unlikely hero all make Traps, the latest novel by FBI veteran Paul Lindsay, an enjoyable read.
FBI explosives expert Jack Kincade is a loser in many respects, but there is a sense of decency about him. Ben Alton, an agent on light duty, lives for the FBI, working to prove himself worthy each day.
Kincade and Alton rub each other the wrong way, yet each finds something admirable in the other.
Conrad Ziven's daughter Leah was kidnapped three years ago. The FBI let the case get cold. Ziven devises and executes a plan to get the FBI's attention: he is the only one with the code to the 800-pound bomb he planted under a jail that houses 15,000 prisoners.
His demands to the Feds are simple: find Leah and the bomb will be disarmed.
Kincade becomes the central agent in the Ziven case. Kincade supports his poker and drinking habit by "trapping" bank night depository slots. He is now the agent in charge of the recent flurry of bank robberies, and isn't concerned with getting caught.
Alton, an amputee due to cancer, is assigned the bank robbery cases that have gone nowhere, while Kincade moves to the Ziven case. Alton is sent to the seedy motel where Kincade lives with his border collie to get some background on the depository robberies.
Before either of them knows it, they are working together on the Ziven case.
Kincade and Alton solve the cold Ziven case quickly and the bomb is disarmed. It turns out Leah died three years ago, and her killer was murdered a few months later. Kincade is thrilled to go back to his bank trapping and poker games, but Alton has a nagging thought that the Ziven case couldn't have been one man working alone.
Together with Kincade, Alton discovers that Leah's psychopathic killer is still very much alive and has an enormous grudge against the FBI.
Kincade and Alton know who the psychopath is, but he has covered his tracks well and forcing him into a corner leads to a suspenseful, nail-biting countdown to save one of their daughters, who is now the latest kidnapping victim.
Paul Lindsay has written four previous books subtitled "A Novel of the FBI:" Witness to the Truth, Codename: Gentkill and Freedom to Kill feature Detroit FBI Agent Mike Devlin. The Fuhrer's Reserve and Traps are breaks from the series character.
Lindsay lives on the New Hampshire seacoast with his wife.
Author: Paul Lindsay
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Thursday, November 7, 2002
If I hadn't been asked to review Bubbles in Trouble I wouldn't have considered reading it. The title alone turned me off. The book jacket is pink, blue and yellow with a pair of spike-heeled leopard print shoes and a water pistol emitting yellow bubbles. My first thought was that it was a book about a monkey. When I ran the title by two male friends they assumed it was about a stripper.
As it turns out, Bubbles in Trouble is good for laughs, entertaining characters and well-worked story lines. Vermont novelist Sarah Strohmeyer weaves a good mystery. The whodunits, all three of them, had me guessing until the very end.
But the character names distracted me from the mysteries. Bubbles Yablonsky? Who would name a child Bubbles? Bubbles has dealings with Nimrod Oggledorp, a store clerk. Bubbles' man of the hour is Steve Stiletto. Her ex-husband is Dan the Man, who now goes by the name Chip. Her mother is LuLu, who lusts after Fast Car.
There is a definite Janet Evanovich feel to Bubbles in Trouble, right down to the prominence of TastyKakes. Strohmeyer mentions on her Web site that she once interviewed Evanovich and said she'd like to write similar books. The title for the first Bubbles novel, Bubbles Unbound, came from Evanovich.
Bubbles is a life-loving character with a big heart and determination to get the job done. She is beautician extraordinaire at the House of Beauty in Lehigh, Pa. She is very proud of her bleached-blonde big hair and her ability to gossip with the best of them. Bubbles is also supremely dedicated to makeup, high heels, a Valentine-red Super Wonderbra, and Saran-Wrap-tight tank tops and sweaters. She drives an old Camaro, her dream car.
Bubbles works part time as a newspaper reporter, which is what sends her off in search of answers in Bubbles in Trouble. The story is set mostly in Amish country. To read about Bubbles giving up her clothes, makeup, electricity and running water for undercover work is entertaining to the point of out-loud laughter. Furthermore, she is the first character I have come across whose IQ increases to genius level after ingesting marijuana.
At the least, I expected the book would be a quick read and mildly entertaining. At the most I hoped that I was completely wrong with my first impressions and I would be turned on to a new novelist.
I'm not persuaded to go back and read the first "Bubbles" book, but I'll keep it in mind if my library runs short.
Sarah Strohmeyer is a former journalist who grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives near Montpelier, Vt., with her family. Her first Bubbles book, Bubbles Unbound, won the Agatha Award.
Title: Bubbles in Trouble
Author: Sarah Strohmeyer
Thursday, October 3, 2002
Do intelligent people have better lives? Do more opportunities come their way? Do they get into better schools?
If you could give your child straight white teeth, would you? If your child needed plastic surgery to be accepted on the playground, would you have it done? If your child were falling behind in the classroom, would you do anything to help him become smarter?
Gray Matter is a page-turner by Northeastern University professor Gary Braver that asks these questions. I literally could not put this book down until I was finished.
Rachel Whitman has everything going for her: she's young, beautiful, and wants for nothing. Her husband is CEO of his own company. They've just moved to an upscale Boston suburb with their 6-year-old son Dylan.
Dylan is enrolled in DellKids, a kindergarten on the grounds of the Dells Country Club. Dylan isn't having an easy time. He's not as quick to learn as the other kids and is harassed by the star pupil.
His IQ is below average. Rachel struggles with the fact that her child has a learning disability and, due to past use of a drug that's now known to be dangerous, she may be to blame for his condition.
Not all is bad with Dylan. He may pronounce "Mrs. MacPhearson's Jaguar" as "Mrs. M'Phearson Jagger," but he has a fantastic singing voice and can remember songs as soon as he hears them. Still, Rachel worries that if he's already behind, he'll be picked on more as he gets older and that he won't be able to follow in his father's footsteps.
Then Rachel learns of an "enhancement" procedure that can increase a child's IQ threefold. Should she and her husband put up all their money now so that Dylan will have a chance at a successful life? As Rachel gathers information, she questions whether the procedure will be worth it to Dylan in the long run. The decision has to be made soon; the doctor won't perform the surgery if the child is more than 6 and a half years old.
Gray Matter is a must read for any fan of medical thrillers, mysteries, science fiction, or just damn good writing.
Gary Braver is the pen name for Gary Goshgarian. His first thriller, Elixir, about finding the fountain of youth, was published in 2001. He teaches creative writing and popular culture, and lives with his wife and two sons outside Boston.
Title: Gray Matter
Author: Gary Braver
Publisher: Forge Books
Thursday, September 19, 2002
Still Lake, the newest romantic mystery from Vermont writer Anne Stuart, is a fast-paced novel centered around three 20-year-old murders.
Of the 60-plus novels Stuart has written, this is the only one set in her hometown of Greensboro, Vt.
Stuart works in three genres: historical romance, romantic suspense, and series romance. All have similar elements, usually with a dangerous man and a woman in jeopardy.
Still Lake presents 30-year-old virgin Sophie Davis living with her mother and half sister at Stonegate Farm in Vermont. Sophie's dream is to turn the abandoned farm into an inn and live an idyllic New England life.
But twenty years earlier, the body of one of three murdered teenage girls was found at the farm. The murderer, a teenage drifter, went to jail and was later released on a technicality.
The role of dangerous man in Still Lake goes to John Smith, who moves into an old house at the edge of the property just before Sophie's grand opening. Smith's mysterious need to get in to the closed-off hospital wing of the house to find any remaining evidence of the murders leads to intrigue and danger for all residents at Stonegate Farm.
"Spacey" Gracey is Sophie's 60-year-old mother, who was lively and active until relocating to the farm. Since then she has lost touch with reality. Or has she? Is her early morning stroll into Smith's house part of her dementia, or did she know where she was going?
Will "Spacey" Gracey get her wits back? Will Sophie remain a virgin?
Will the inn open as planned, and what about the old murder evidence? And what is it about John Smith? Sophie welcomes him with muffins but still feels uneasy.
Still Lake moves along quickly with point-of-view shifts from Sophie to John Smith to the murderer. Mystery fans will probably figure out "whodunit" early but will keep reading to figure out why and how.
Romance fans will find the tension between John Smith and Sophie Davis intriguing from first page to last.
Still Lake is not about a lonely woman swooning over a mysterious man. It's about an independent woman who doesn't back away when love beckons.
Title: Still Lake
Author: Anne Stuart
Thursday, August 1, 2002
Killer Waves is the fourth novel in the Lewis Cole mystery series by New Hampshire native Brendan DuBois. Its premise comes from an article DuBois saw in the Boston Globe a few years ago about a German submarine brought to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at the end of World War II containing uranium for a nuclear bomb. The uranium was unloaded from the sub and hasn't been seen since.
Lewis is a former Department of Defense research analyst who lives in Tyler Beach, N.H., and writes for magazines. He tries daily to forget about his time with the DOD. His house, job, and paycheck are courtesy of the government in exchange for his silence about what he experienced in the desert a few years ago. Lewis was the only survivor of a secret mission that went horribly wrong.
As Killer Waves begins, he is out on his deck overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at 1 a.m. The space shuttle Endeavour has just lifted off from Florida and he sees it through his binoculars. Lewis is about to head back to bed when he notices flashing lights at a park next to his house. Curious, he walks over and finds police officers and EMTs standing near a single car. There is a dead man in the car, apparently shot in the head. Soon three dark LTDs arrive carrying five men and a woman who takes control of the scene. Lewis is happy enough to leave, but is curious as to who these people are and why they won't identify themselves. He has a nagging feeling they are federal agents but ignores it because he doesn't want his bad memories of the DOD to surface.
Unfortunately for Lewis, life isn't that simple, and he is drawn into the work of a federal agent kicking and protesting, because the government makes him an offer he cannot refuse.
The first three Lewis Cole novels are less cloak-and-daggery than Killer Waves. In the earlier books Lewis pursued cases based on his own need to see justice served. In Killer Waves, government agents lie and use any means to get their jobs done, including forcing Lewis to do investigative work.
The storyline itself seems a bit far-fetched, but it kept my interest because of its basis in New Hampshire's history. It's a great mystery, with many plot twists and red herrings, if the secondary story of new management at the local newspaper wanting tabloid stories instead of real reporting doesn't sidetrack the reader.
Lewis Cole novels are set in fictional Wentworth County, which is based on New Hampshire's Rockingham County. Towns outside the county are real: Manchester, Boston, Concord, Portland. Readers will find Tyler Beach similar to Hampton Beach. Fictional Samson's Point resembles Rye's Odiorne Point. But don't drive up and down Route 1-A looking for Lewis Cole's house. It doesn't exist.
I enjoyed the first three Lewis Cole mysteries much more than the fourth, but I like all of them because of their setting. The fifth Lewis Cole novel, Buried Dreams, is expected next summer. His third suspense-thriller novel, Betrayed, is due out next spring.
Title: Killer Waves: A Lewis Cole Mystery
Author: Brendan DuBois
Publisher: Saint Martin's Minotaur
Thursday, July 18, 2002
Fans and first-timers to Janet Evanovich, the nationally bestselling mystery writer who lives in New Hampshire, will find the eighth Stephanie Plum novel, Hard Eight, great entertainment.
Stephanie Plum is Trenton, New Jersey's favorite bounty hunter.
She's not the best at what she does, but she provides lots of entertainment for the local police department. Luck is not on her side most of the time. She relies on common sense and talks her problems over with her hamster.
Hard Eight mixes terror-filled action with humor and charm. After a few scares involving various creepy-crawlies, Stephanie tells the bad guy that she's more a fluffy rabbit sort of girl. She soon finds herself attacked by a testosterone-driven man in a pink rabbit suit and his sidekicks Bear, Nixon, Clinton, and The Bag.
Readers can enjoy Hard Eight without having read any of the earlier Plum books. All pertinent information is repeated in each book, such as who Ranger and Morelli are and what they mean to Stephanie, who Stephanie works for and how she got the job, etc. Reading the series in order mainly provides a sense of pace and a deeper understanding of how wacky Stephanie really is.
In Hard Eight, Stephanie reluctantly does a favor for her mother's neighbor, Mabel Markowitz. Stephanie knows she's probably accepting a job beyond her abilities, but she wants to help Mabel. Mabel bakes when she's upset, and her baked goods are overrunning Stephanie's parents' house.
Mabel's granddaughter, Evelyn, has taken a sudden vacation with her 7 year-old daughter and Mabel is worried that something or someone sinister is behind their departure. It could be Evelyn's nasty ex-husband. It could be the bail bondsman who tells Mabel her house is at risk because it was collateral for Evelyn's child custody bond.
Those people worry Stephanie, but they pale in comparison to war-game psychotic Eddie Abruzzi, who owns Evelyn's building and wants something Evelyn has.
Hard Eight has all the usual characters. On-again-off-again fiancÈ cop Joe Morelli appears whenever Stephanie needs a shoulder to lean on. Luscious and mysterious bounty hunter mentor Ranger keeps Stephanie supplied with cars and simply chuckles when Stephanie calls to tell him his car has exploded or been stolen by a young man she was driving to a hotel. Grandma Mazur gets quite a surprise in a donut shop parking lot this time around. Stephanie's sister Valerie is so depressed about being unable to hold a job, being a failed lesbian, and not having a man, that Stephanie helps her get a job with Evelyn's desperate lawyer, who has attached himself to Stephanie as a bounty hunter in training.
As in the previous seven novels, Stephanie continues her innocent destructive streak; it isn't her fault people keep blowing up her cars.
She also maintains her tendency to have numerous bad guys break into her apartment, follow her around, and cause her a lot of grief.
The bad guys even break into her parents' house, harassing Grandma Mazur and forcing Stephanie's mom to get violent.
What is Stephanie's ultimate reaction to all this?
"Things could be a lot worse. I could be living in New Hampshire, where I would be forced to mail order Tastykakes."
Unlike Stephanie, who is extremely happy living in the state that makes Tastykakes and thinks New Hampshire is this side of purgatory because of its lack of junk food, author Janet Evanovich and her family live in Hanover, N.H. Evanovich's husband manages Evanovich, Inc.; her son is in charge of finances, and her daughter is responsible for the extensive Web site www.evanovich.com.
A Stephanie Plum Christmas novel, Visions of Sugar Plums, is due in stores in November.
Book nine in the Stephanie Plum series is expected next summer.
Title: Hard Eight
Author: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Friday, July 5, 2002
Sitting Up with the Dead is a travelogue and journal of writer Pamela Petro’s trips through the southern states to find storytellers willing to share tales of the Old South. In the prologue, Petro explains the spark for this novel. It was a kneejerk reaction she had to a line Tony Horowitz wrote in Confederates in the Attic. “The South is a place. East, West, and North are northing but directions.” She chose to seek out oral tales because they “are a plural endeavor; they’re the products of generations and geography and weather and all the other ligaments that bind a community together.” Once Petro knew what she wanted her project to be, she worked with friends who gave her contacts, history buffs, and the Internet to track down and meet some of America’s best storytellers.
Every chapter is about a storyteller. Not all chapters actually have a story. The people Petro meets along her journey are unique and interesting whether they share a story or not.
Petro divides the book into four sections, one for each of the four journeys she took to collect stories. Upon opening Sitting Up with the Dead, the reader stands beside Petro who “was wedged into the aisle of the plane, waiting impatiently to exit when a fellow passenger whispered uncomfortably close to my ear, ‘They say that when you die, you have to change planes in Atlanta to get to heaven.’” Petro shares her observations and realizations of her journey, as well as her thoughts and insights about each person she meets and each story she hears. With the opening “Akbar’s Tale” she describes “Listening to the slide show in the dark, empty room I had been aware of a white voice condensing and interpreting [Joel Chandler] Harris’s life. Now, here in his parlor, where Harris had been too pathologically shy to tell stories even to his own children, a black voice was conjuring new life from the briar patch for the children of strangers.”
The very first story is about Tar Baby. Remember that story from childhood? Brer Fox and Brer Bear are out to cause trouble for Brer Rabbit. Although the story is familiar, hearing it from someone who knows its origins makes it more entertaining and more poignant. For instance, the Brer Rabbit stories were “passed on within the confines of slavery from one African-American to another, these stories held a kernel of the revolution: they conveyed strategies, allowed for vicarious victories, and promised that organized systems could be overcome by cunning….Intelligence allows him [Brer Rabbit] to chose freedom by whatever means available, if he wants it badly enough: a message of hope, heartbreaking in its moral ambiguity.” The tale is entertaining for children, thought-provoking for adults.
The storytellers in Sitting Up with the Dead expertly draw you into their tales. The master storytellers are able to weave facts handed down to them through time with their own lives and make the audience believe that the entire tale is true. The storytellers are almost actors, but not quite; a few dress up in the characters they are portraying, but it’s more to preserve the persona of the character than to put on a show. The stories, no matter how incredible they sound, contain much more than a thread of truth to them. Petro “asked each teller for a story or a tale that revealed something of the nature of life in his or her corner of the American South.”
Sitting Up with the Dead is not a quick read. You’ll want to spend time with each chapter to reap the full flavor. Some stories are written in the storyteller’s speech. A great example is Ray Hick’s speech in “Ray’s Tale”: “An’ da-yoon yander then, ‘nother time, I’s a-comin’ up th’ ole’ mawntain road.” One entire trip that Petro took was to get Ray Hick’s story. He is a National Heritage Fellow. It took her two trips to find his house, as it is in a holler within the mountains of Boone, North Carolina. His house is located by a “hedgerow of junk” on an old gravel road. His story takes some time to get through, because it is in his own voice, but the Southern voice adds a sense of time and place to his story. Petro could have re-written his and many other stories in clean English, but by choosing to leave the stories in the speaker’s voice, she’s giving the reader a unique and memorable reading experience.
Although Sitting Up with the Dead is full of tales of the South it does include a link to New England: one storyteller had a “Yankee grandmother from Nashua, New Hampshire.” Petro discovers that the South is different from the rest of the country. Southerners are predisposed to storytelling because families there tend to stay put. It isn’t uncommon for kids in the South to grow up with their great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents all in the same house or very close by.
Sitting Up with the Dead is an educational, entertaining, and exciting journey through the South. It’s a great history lesson as well as an introduction to people with lots of stories to share. Pamela Petro lives in Northampton, MA, where she works as a full-time writer. Her first book, based on her personal history, Travels in an Old Tongue: Touring the World Speaking Welsh was published in 1997. She has written for the travel section of the New York Times as well as published in Atlantic Monthly, Islands, and Forbes.
Title: Sitting Up with the Dead: A Storied Journey through the American South
Author: Pamela Petro
Publisher: Arcade Publishing
Thursday, May 23, 2002
David Grand's second novel, The Disappearing Body, is an intriguing, well-written piece of 1930s crime fiction. It's a tale of murder, union busting, corruption and chaos on both sides of the law. It has everything you would expect in a post-Prohibition crime story set in fictionalized New York City: busty beautiful women, crooked newspapermen, grizzled tough guys, the politician with a shady past threatening to surface, hard-nosed detectives on both sides of the law, drugs, guns, mysterious voices on the phone, murders passed off as suicides, and unfortunate losers who are surprised by days when they aren't beaten up or shaken down.
There is also the daughter following in her reporter father's footsteps. She is drawn into a story that turns out to be the same story her father was researching when he ended up eating a bullet 20 years ago. She never felt he could have committed suicide, even though he left her a note, and now with the help of her father's old source she can learn the truth, if she can evade the bad guys long enough.
The storylines move right along and nothing is predictable. It's somewhat like a boxing match-when you think the story is going to go left, it goes right; when you're confident of a knockout, you get an unexpected twist.
The novel opens with a two-page list containing 47 character names and a brief description of each character. Scary stuff. This almost persuaded me to put the book down. If an author has to list the characters and describe them before chapter one there are probably too many characters. (I did need to refer to the list to get my bearings after having put the book down for a period of time.)
There are two disappearing bodies in the novel. One is a staged disappearance. The other is a Russian painting called "The Disappearing Body" that surfaces in the art world after having disappeared from a crime scene many years before. The painting is the image of the painter's suicide. He painted how he was going to kill himself and when the portrait was done, he didn't waste any time bringing the scene "to life." The person who removed the portrait from the crime scene is now in the United States trying to sell it.
There are violent scenes in the story that sometimes sneak up on the reader without preamble: physical beatings, torture, and painful deaths.
The Disappearing Body has interconnected storylines presented from various points of view, and each character within each storyline is somehow related to or affected by at least one character in another storyline. The reader is always in the action thanks to Grand's clean prose, which makes the reader feel like she is walking along with the characters or looking over someone's shoulder, always eavesdropping. Grand attended NYU's Creative Writing Program where he was awarded the Creative Writing Fellowship for Fiction. His first novel, "Louse," published in 1998, launched into the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, the New York Times Notable Books, and the Los Angeles Times Best Books of the Year.
The Disappearing Body is a great read if you like mysteries, mobsters and surprise twists. The novel flows well with continuous action and exciting characters. Don't expect another book like this from David Grand, at least for a while. He isn't ready to choose a niche yet. Grand's next work is about the 1950s movie studio system censors that made up the Motion Picture Association's infamous Production Code.
Title: The Disappearing Body
Author: David Grand
Thursday, May 16, 2002
First Light is an entertaining collaboration between two crime novelists who know Martha's Vineyard well. It is a slow-paced novel but a quick read if you don't get confused by which character is narrating. The first-person narration alternates between the two protagonists for the entire book. Their voices are similar, and a few times I had to refer to the beginning of the chapter to see who was talking, because the timeline between chapters shifts. One chapter does not necessarily pick up where the last one left off.
Author Philip Craig lives on Martha's Vineyard, as does his character J.W. Jackson. The character and the setting have been in 13 previous Philip Craig novels. Author William Tapply of Pepperell, Mass., has written 18 Brady Coyne novels. This is the first collaboration between these two authors.
Retired cop J.W. Jackson lives on the Vineyard with his wife and their two children. In First Light he's been asked to look into a year-old missing person case that a reputable investigation agency has been unable to solve. J.W. isn't looking for work, but the amount of money he is offered persuades him to at least see what he can find out about the missing woman. J.W. is so uninterested in working that he has to keep reminding himself he has a case to solve. He squeezes questioning in between his real priorities of building a tree house with his kids, fishing in the annual Vineyard derby, and helping his wife run the house.
Boston lawyer Brady Coyne is his fellow protagonist in "First Light." Brady plans to mix the business of preparing a will for an elderly client with the pleasure of fishing in the annual Vineyard derby for the first time. Like Jackson, his mind is more on fishing than business. But when Coyne's client has a debilitating stroke two days after he arrives, his business with her must wait; Coyne doesn't call into his office for four days because he's enjoying the late night/early morning fishing and sleeping late into the day.
If you love mysteries and fishing, First Light is for you. J.W. prefers surfcasting, while Brady is a strict fly-fishing fan. J.W. catches fish for meals, while Brady enjoys the sport and does not keep his catches. The contradictions are entertaining and keep the friendship interesting. Fishing at four in the morning sounds on the edge of crazy, but when you realize how beautiful and calming it is to be on the water's edge at "first light," you can at least appreciate the attraction.
First Light is a mildly suspenseful soft crime novel. The mystery of who did it and why lasts for most of the book, because working isn't either character's main focus. I finished the book feeling like I had spent more time with people fishing than solving a mystery. The tale is not edge-of-your-seat gripping, but it's a great way to see Martha's Vineyard without fighting the crowds.
Title: First Light: The First Ever Brady Coyne and J.W. Jackson Novel
Author: Philip R. Craig and William G. Tapply