Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian London’s most heinous true crime.

Sherlock Holmes vs Jack the Ripper

A KNIFE IN THE FOG by Bradley Harper goes beyond the familiar Sherlock Holmes construct with a truly unique set-up: all of the main characters are real-life historical figures who influenced Victorian society. The book rings with authenticity and the historical elements are executed faultlessly.​​​​​

The narrator is Arthur Conan Doyle himself.

In the summer of 1888, Doyle is a practicing doctor in  Portsmouth and has published A Study in Scarlett, the story which introduced Sherlock Holmes. His wife is pregnant with their first child and his future looks to be that of a general practitioner and family man, writing stories on the side to augment his income and amuse himself.

Doyle receives a summons to London from the office of former prime minister William Gladstone, whose secretary has read Doyle’s story and wishes him to become a paid consultant to find the killer terrorizing London’s East End.  Doyle agrees on condition that his former mentor, Professor Joseph Bell, joins the effort.  Bell, a Scottish surgeon and lecturer at the medical school of the University of Edinburgh and widely regarded as the real-life inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes, soon joins Doyle in London.

A third real-life figure joins Doyle and Bell. Margaret Harkness is an investigative journalist and social commentator whose writings expose London’s poverty and social injustices. Often using the pen name John Law and disguising herself as a man, Margaret will be an invaluable guide and ally.

By giving Doyle a voice of his own, author Harper has created a character as appealing as Holmes. Doyle is considerate and charming, with the formalities and vocabulary of the British gentleman of 1888. Doyle draws the reader into his confidence as the three develop a working relationship, navigate Victorian social rules as well as London’s dark and dangerous passageways, and encounter Jack the Ripper’s missives and victims. Margaret is tireless and Doyle’s growing feelings for her provide a quiet complication.

With deductive reasoning worthy of Sherlock Holmes, the three encounter danger and deceit on the way to identifying Jack the Ripper. The end is a heart-stopper.

DUST AND SHADOW by Lyndsay Faye delivers a more familiar construct in which Dr. John Watson narrates an investigation conducted by the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Watson, as in the Conan Doyle stories, is the perfect everyman foil to his brilliant friend. Faye amps up the legendary Holmes formula, however, immersing the reader in the details of life with Holmes: his moodiness, restlessness, investigative prowess, the many trials of Mrs. Hudson the housekeeper. Holmes’s dialogue crackles with acerbic personality and sharp wit. I swear I heard Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice in my head.

An investigative trio is also formed in DUST AND SHADOW when Holmes hires Mary Ann Monk, the friend of one of the Ripper’s victims. The investigation initially turns on the whereabouts of an Army man supposedly seen with an early Riper victim.

Warned by his Baker Street Irregulars—the group of street urchins that provide Holmes with intelligence—Holmes and Watson are able to arrive first on more than one murder scene. When Holmes is stabbed in pursuit of the Ripper, the gutter press begins to question if he is the killer.  With his credibility strained and vigilantes out to get him, Holmes goes undercover to ferret out the Ripper. Mary Ann and Watson carry on until the three reunite for a stunning and wholly believable climax.

If you are a Sherlock Holmes fan or a student of the Ripper’s crimes, both A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are unmissable treats. The only spoiler I’ll reveal is that the identity of the Ripper is different in each book. Both are highly recommended.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

7 Life-changing books to read right now

7 Life-changing books to read right now

Fall is here. Our New Year’s resolutions petered out long ago and the holidays, with overspending and family drama, loom on the horizon.

In this season between what-might-have-been and what-will-overwhelm-us-soon, dive into one of these life-changing books. You’ll get a dose of creativity, a box of life tools, and a new mantra.

Let’s face it. We all need a new mantra.

 

Carmen's must-read books

 

THE CREATIVE HABIT by Twyla Tharp

Twyla Tharp is one of America’s best known choreographers, lauded for her collaborations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Joffrey Ballet, and ballet theaters across the world. She offers up essays and exercises designed to sharpen and apply your creativity. Tharp uses dance to illustrate her points in an amazingly effective way. I plan to re-read this book at least yearly

 
Takeaway: Keep honing your expertise, don’t let it get stale. Keep scratching at a concept until it is ready for production. Any creative endeavor has to have a central “spine”—the thing that keeps it from being ad hoc bundle of ideas.

 

FAIL UNTIL YOU DON’T by Bobby Bones

If you are not a fan of country music you might not know that Bobby Bones—whose real name is Bobby Estell– is host of a hugely popular syndicated morning radio show in the US. From a difficult childhood in rural Arkansas, Bobby rose to become one of the most powerful people in radio broadcasting. The book is organized around his mantra of “Fight. Grind. Repeat.” He is definitely compulsive about many aspects of his life and driven by an unrelenting fear of poverty, but his perspective on achievement felt like a wake-up call.

 

Takeaway: Are you fighting for big goals? Are you grinding it out day to day? There’s no time to sulk over failure. There’s no need to waste time. Don’t stop. Just Fight. Grind. Repeat.

 

THE 10x RULE by Grant Cardone

Grant Cardone is a salesman and he coaches salesmen, but this book is for everybody. If Bobby Bones gives us the mantra, Cardone teaches about level of effort. Basically, the “fight” is probably going to take 10x the effort that you estimated. According to Cardone, most people don’t fail, they simply give up too soon. The book is occasionally pithy, but that’s okay; Cardone is in coach mode and there are a ton of ideas and worksheets. Also, there is a chapter entitled “There is No Shortage of Success” that is like a Super Bowl pep talk.

 

Takeaway: This is how you hustle, this is why you hustle, this is how you outhustle whatever you need to outhustle. Get a paperback and highlight the heck out of it.

 

SUBMERGENCY by Scott Kimbro

This slim volume by Scott Kimbro, a finance executive and network marketing professional, identifies three types of urgencies in our lives: the obvious, the optional, and the hidden. If you go through life only addressing the urgent, then you are basically living in reaction mode with someone else in the driver’s seat. Optional urgencies are opportunities we can choose to take or not, while submerged or hidden urgencies (hence the title) are the opportunities we should seek out in order to live and die without regret. Kimbro illustrates his message in a conversational manner with song lyrics, personal anecdotes, and meaningful quotes.

 

Takeaway: There is a very personal Christian dedication, but the book’s main message is universal. Wake up, smell the coffee, and seek out opportunities to live fully.

 

TOOLS OF TITANS by Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss has a hugely popular interview podcast. This 705-page book (get a hardcopy, please) offers the best bits from these interviews, grouping them into 3 categories–Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise. You can read the morning routine of Jocko Willink, former SEAL unit commander, then skip to director Robert Rodriguez’s thoughts on failure (“not durable”) and then learn what quote changed the life of professor Brené Brown. It is all absolutely fascinating stuff, punctuated with self-help tips like how to sleep better, soundtracks for success, and other golden nuggets culled from the minds of high achievers.

 

Takeaway: This is THE bible to grab whenever you need motivation or new ideas. The back of the book says  “Fitness, money, and wisdom—here are the tools.” Yep.

 

THE SUBTLE ART OF NOT GIVING A F*CK by Mark Manson

Manson, a NYC-based blogger, has written the ultimate guide to being a mature adult. His clarity of thought and expression allows him to delve deep without being either preachy or academic. The basic theme is that resilience, happiness, and freedom come from knowing what you value, while unhappiness and denial come from taking action based on what you really don’t. But that is just the starting point; this book is loaded with pivotal insights, using Manson’s own experiences, social science findings, and historical research. If you only read 7 non-fiction books this year, let this be one of them. Note–be prepared for lots of the f-word.

 

Takeaway: Social media and hyper-commercialism has led to unrealistic expectations of a trouble-free, entitled, and exceptional life. Real happiness comes from solving problems.

 

LIFE CODE by Dr. Phil McGraw

This book is last on the list for a reason. We’ve learned how to be habitually creative, fight and grind to achieve goals, hustle for success, grab opportunities, understand our values, and use the tools of high achievers. Now Dr. Phil gives us the key to identifying the people who stand in our way and are willing to trip us up AND what to do about it. This book really resonated with me because of an experience I had several years ago; I was far too slow to recognize such a person and the damage they were doing to me and the others around us.

 

Takeaway: Gutsy, honest, and probably the most helpful book when it comes to dealing with people on a day-to-day basis, especially when you are putting forth 10x effort. Be savvy and memorize the danger signs of destructive people.

 

What books are on YOUR life-changing list?

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Department Q and The Keeper of Lost Causes

Department Q and The Keeper of Lost Causes

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES, the first Department Q novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, has toppled Jo Nesbo from the top of my Nordic Noir favorites list.

And I didn’t even know I wanted to go to Denmark.

Some series take a few books before all the pieces are properly in place but Department Q comes at us with all elements fully formed: everyman hero with a wry inner voice, an intriguing sidekick, and an investigative style that relies heavily on pulling threads, connecting dots, and spotting liars.

Detective Carl Mørck returns to work in the Copenhagen Police Department’s  homicide unit after being ambushed and shot while investigating a murder victim killed with a nail gun; a backstory that promises to spool out over the life of the series. One of Carl’s close colleagues died in the ambush and another was left a quadriplegic, who together with a silly ex-wife, hippie stepson, and the guy who rents part of Carl’s house, populates Carl’s appealing inner circle.

In short order, Carl is banished to the police station’s basement with a “promotion” to head up Department Q, a political stunt to sooth public concerns over cold cases. Carl plans to use his new lair to nap and play computer solitaire but real work is expected. Carl quickly realizes he’s a staff of one and corners his boss into giving him help. Enter Assad, a Syrian immigrant hired to mop floors.

Out of all the old files heaped on his desk, Carl picks the disappearance five years ago of an up-and-coming Danish politician, Merete Lynggard. The assumption is suicide, but the case was handled sloppily and there are still leads to run down. While hiding his own past, Assad proves to be uncannily observant and resilient, helping Carl piece together clues and get out of tight situations.

Carl’s point of view alternates with that of kidnapping victim Merete. Clues for Carl are deliberately out of sync with Merete’s experiences, creating a tempo that simply rocks throughout what is a fairly long book.

THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES is the start of an addictive series. Over the next few books, Carl’s tiny Department Q basement empire grows in fits and starts, his quadriplegic former colleague offers pivotal insights, and investigative techniques hinge on probing questions and seemingly innocuous details. Carl’s often humorous reflections are counterbalanced by the inner voices of both villains and victims. Assad remains an enigma.

Start with THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES and keep going. Department Q needs you.​​​​​​​

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

Book Review: FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell

FOOLS AND MORTALS by Bernard Cornwell sets the standard for historical fiction with a touch of suspense and a healthy dose of Shakespeare.

But before I gush about how good the book is, let me say that Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. First, in 2014 when I wrote a blog series on bookstores vs ebooks, he took the time to answer my email. Second, he’s the author of the Richard Sharpe series. Apart from being some of the best historical fiction EVER, the Sharpe books were turned into a miniseries starring Sean Bean. We actually have the DVDs (still) and the board game.

The narrator of FOOLS AND MORTALS is Shakespeare, but not the one you’re thinking of. Richard Shakespeare is William’s younger brother, a crafty and likeable neer-do-well who wormed his way into Will’s acting troupe and steals when he can. He’s young and good looking. Typically cast as a woman, given that only men were allowed to be actors in Elizabethan time, he demands that Will cast him as a man and up his salary.

But Will has little time for the wild Richard. The Shakespeares and their royal patron are caught up in a bitter rivalry with another playhouse which similarly enjoys a royal patron. Good plays are the ammunition that fuel the war but they are few and far in between. There is no copyright protection, moreover; whoever has the manuscript puts on the play. Fresh material means big income and Will’s new play, written for a wedding the queen herself may attend, is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Until the handwritten manuscript is stolen.

Cornwell masterfully uses the political upheaval caused by Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and resulting purge of Catholicism in England to drive suspense. Not only does he offer the minute details of Elizabethan England such as dress, habit, and food, but London has never been so noisy, so gritty, so perfectly captured.

Maybe I’m partial to the book because A Midsummer Night’s Dream features in a nightmare sequence in my suspense novel AWAKENING MACBETH.

Also, I played Tatiana in a high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But that’s only one more reason to enjoy the historical suspense of FOOLS AND MORTALS.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews is a gripping Cold War espionage thriller in the style of John le Carré’s thrillers. Except longer.

SPARROW starts with a heart-pounding and authentic scene of spy tradecraft in Moscow. Nathaniel “Nate” Nash is stalked by Russian security services as he meets with an important SVR agent—SVR being the successor to the Soviet KGB intelligence service—who hands him valuable intelligence files from the SVR vault. The agent isn’t identified and Nate hangs onto the goods, but his cover as an economic officer at the US Embassy in Moscow is tainted. He’s sent home, into CIA career limbo.

Next we meet Dominika Egorova and follow her road to becoming an SVR “sparrow,” an intelligence officer trained in the art of sexual seduction and recruitment. Her backstory is long and complicated as she goes from prima ballerina derailed by a rival to trained intelligence officer to “demotion” to sparrow. Her Uncle Vanya is a ruthless spymaster who manipulates Dominika and her career, holding family matters hostage so Dominika does his bidding.

Dominika is also rather unique in that she can see auras, so she knows when people are lying or have killed, etc.

Huh? Trust me, Matthews makes it work.

Given a second chance, Nate is assigned to the US Embassy in Finland. Dominika is sent there to get to know the American and find out who he met in Moscow.

Soon Nate and Dominika are stalking each other at a public swimming pool in Helsinki and the Great Game of spy versus spy begins. The reader is immersed in the uncertainty and duplicity.

Does Nate recruit Dominika or does she recruit him? Are either of them a double agent?

Do they really fall in love? Or are both using sex to advance their careers?

Former KGB puppetmaster and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (this is before he was president) floats in and out of the narrative, perfectly described as a “blond scorpion with languid blue eyes.” Before the era of Facebook and online hacking, Putin’s intelligence services are up close and personal with their targets. They hunker down in Lada cars watching Americans walk the streets of Moscow and conduct psychological war through human proxies like Dominika.

Like le Carré’s THE LITTLE DRUMMER GIRL, the theme throughout RED SPARROW is who is real and who is false. Who is using and who is being used. There is so much meaty backstory that we are tempted to dig for buried clues. But there are many layers before we get to Russian bedrock.

There is also a short recipe at the end of every chapter in RED SPARROW, tempting us with delights like “Sparrow School Tokmach Soup.” At first I wondered if this was a joke, or a misguided effort to make an espionage thriller appeal to foodies. But in truth, it is just another way that Matthews lures us into his seductive world of spy versus spy. (If you are wondering about Soviet eats, check out the fabulous memoir MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING by renowned food critic Anya Von Bremzen.)

The new RED SPARROW movie starring Jennifer Lawrence has gotten mixed reviews. I haven’t seen it, but if Hollywood followed the book faithfully, a lot has been crammed into two hours. For those who want to spend more time in the world of cloak and dagger, RED SPARROW is the start of an absorbing trilogy, which includes PALACE OF TREASON and THE KREMLIN’S CANDIDATE.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Book Review: Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

Book Review: Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA by Nicolás Obregón is a dense and layered police procedural set in contemporary Japan. The title is that of a song which keeps playing in the mind of the main character; like the song, the book is one I won’t soon forget because of evocative descriptions, dramatic character flaws, and the double twist ending.

Inspector Iwata is a youngish but experienced detective reassigned to Tokyo after an extended leave. The reason for the break in his professional life isn’t revealed right away and is one of the elements that keep us guessing.

Iwata quickly runs into a cranky boss, abusive coworkers, and a junior partner with a chip on her shoulder. He is assigned to a murder case previously handled by a cop who committed suicide.

The case might be a random killing but Iwata discovers a clue in the form of a symbol of a black sun. Days later, the sun is seen at a second crime scene. The symbol is an eerie reminder of the book’s prologue, in which the soon-to-be-dead cop sees it tattooed on a woman as she jumps to her death.

More clues to the murder cases flicker by in subtle and elegant fashion as Iwata grapples with his personal misery and the lyrics to the title song play in the background of his inner voice. Iwata’s mystique is further reinforced by scenes that call into question his current sexual preference and reason for his inner turmoil. His backstory unfolds in a series of flashbacks in a style reminiscent of Peter May’s THE BLACKHOUSE. These tragic vignettes slowly put his current actions into perspective.

In what becomes a “last man standing” device, the black sun investigation is hamstrung by Iwata’s fellow detectives and his partner’s truculent attitude. When Iwata is finally able to corral some help, the climax delivers surprises I never saw coming.

BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA is a moody, poetic, and immersive read with a deeply troubled hero whose sanity is challenged even before a police investigation leads him into dark places. Obregón has a lyrical yet unflinching writing style, and the ability to twist a mystery plot in upon itself.

In short, BLUE LIGHT YOKOHAMA is an intriguing start to a new and unusual Japanese noir police series.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The Postman Always Rings Twice

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by James M. Cain is a noir classic from 1934. I stumbled on a copy in a used bookstore and realized I’d never read it. I didn’t know what I’d been missing all these years.

Frank Chambers is a drifter, roaming around the American Southwest with empty pockets and clenched fists. He’s been in and out of Mexico and in and out of jail, only to wind up at a dumpy truck stop in southern California run by Nick, a Greek immigrant, and wife Cora.

Soon Frank and Cora are steaming up the windows and plotting to run away together. But they have to get rid of Nick first.

And get away with it.

Frank narrates the book. He’s a restless type, always ready to hit the road and see where it takes him. We don’t like him but at least he’s honest about it.

Even as the lovers plot to kill Nick, and deal with the aftermath, neither Frank nor Cora fully trust the other. Will one double-cross or kill the other?

And then there’s the crooked lawyer, who in 1930’s slang, “flimflammed” them.

The writing is sparse and lacks dialogue tags, no “said” for Cain, which occasionally leads to confusion as to which character is speaking. Yet the swiftness and sparseness works for the noir genre; there’s nothing to weigh down the growing sense of unease or the final impact. The characters, especially Frank and Nick, are expertly drawn. Every scene is a visual filled with restless and scheming people under the hot California sun. No doubt this is why it has been made into a movie at least twice, the first in 1946 with heartthrob John Garfield and pinup girl Lana Tirner.

In the end, punishment is meted out to the guilty. Bottom line? This tautly written novel packs a hefty literary sucker punch.

Oh and if you are wondering about the title, I think “postman” is a euphemism for accountability. If you don’t pay the price of your crime the first time, the postman will come by again to make sure you do.

note: carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Sally Andrew’s deadly and delicious Tannie Maria mysteries

Sally Andrew’s deadly and delicious Tannie Maria mysteries

I’ve never been to South Africa and the only thing I know about the Afrikaans language is that it is derived from Dutch. But in the Tannie Maria mysteries, RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER and THE SATANIC MECHANIC, author Sally Andrew weaves a spell to reveal both country and language.

Recipes for Love and MurderMaria van Harten is a widowed foodie living in South Africa’s Klein Karoo region. With an English father and an Afrikaans mother, she straddles two of the many ethnic groups that form South Africa’s history and culture. As with many women of a certain age, she’s referred to as Tannie Maria, or Aunty Maria.

Maria lives out of town, with chickens to keep her company as she sits on her stoep (porch). She drives a blue bakkie (truck), and is at peace with the kudu, springbok, and other wildlife that stray into the action. More importantly, she’s either cooking, planning to cook, or thinking up recipes. Tantalizing treats with Afrikaans names, like potjie, meat and vegetables baked in a fire—the South African version of a luau—or dessert dumplings called botterkluitjies, grace nearly every page.

We first meet her in RECIPES FOR LOVE AND MURDER, in which Maria becomes the advice columnist at the Klein Karoo Gazette in the town of Ladismith, answering letters and emails with wisdom and recipes suitable for the lovelorn and aggrieved. A correspondence with a women who seeks advice, then later ends up dead, sends Maria–as well as her boss Hattie and the paper’s single investigative reporter Jessie–into a maze that includes the dead woman’s female lover, a cruel husband, and strange doings at the local grocery store.

Maria ends up in perilous danger. Not to mention the risk of losing her heart to a dashing detective with a chestnut moustache who owns a lamb named Kosie.

THE SATANIC MECHANIC draws us even more deeply into both the South African bush and Tannie Maria’s backstory. Her late husband was abusive and his memory is getting in the way of Maria’s new romance with detective Henk Kennemayer of the chestnut moustache.

As her friend Jessie interviews Slimkat, a Bushman tribal leader celebrating a major lawsuit against a diamond company for the rights to traditional land, Maria joins a PTSD therapy group led by a mechanic who once dabbled in the satanic arts. When Slimkat is fatally poisoned in front of Maria, Henk investigates, but her therapy group becomes an additional focus of attention when a member is killed during an outdoor session.

Could the two murders be linked? Is the satanic mechanic a killer as well as a healer? What will Maria bake for the group when it’s her turn to bring dessert?

Andrew has a beautiful writing style that effortlessly draws us into this rough, yet exotic setting. South Africa’s troubled past and unsettled society play pivotal roles, but the poetry found in Maria’s Klein Karoo will captivate you.

Maria and Henk’s relationship is tender and authentic. Plants, birds, animals, and food become real experiences for us as much as for Maria. The books are peppered with Afrikaans terms, which are not italicized as is usual with a foreign language. The format suggests that English and Afrikaans are so entwined as to be impossible to separate.

I love unique mysteries in which the setting is integral to the plot to the extent the story simply could not take place anywhere else. The Tannie Maria novels are perfect examples and I can’t wait for the next. Highly recommended.

Note: carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Architecture, canals, and history make it a prime setting for a mystery. Two favorite authors, Donna Leon and Martin Cruz Smith have new books set in Venice that take you on two very different journeys to La Serenissima.

THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH by Donna Leon is as intricate, glorious, and absorbing as a trip to Venice can be. As Commissario Guido Brunetti, aided by fellow detective Claudia Griffoni—a relatively new character in this long-running series—and the stouthearted uniformed cop Vianello, you walk the riva on the side of the canals, you crowd with them into the vaporetto water taxis, and you share the unfamiliarity of riding in a car. But most of all, you are inside Brunetti’s questioning mind as he investigates an accident that occurred 15 years ago which left a young woman with the mind of a child. Her grandmother, an aging socialite who runs a foundation dedicated to preserving Venice’s sinking architecture, believes that her granddaughter did not fall into a canal by accident. With little to go on besides the woman’s intuition, Brunetti begins to poke into the past. In the process, he must enlist allies, manipulate his superior, and uncover a related murder. Much of the time he comes up empty-handed, but Leon leaves tiny clues like diamonds in a handful of sand. The writing is brilliant, the characters are fully-developed and endearingly familiar, while the meals never failed to make me reach for the nearest Italian cookbook.

Related: Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

Unlike some of the other Brunetti mysteries, this one closes with all the loose threads woven into a cloth nice enough to be the pocket square in Brunetti’s suit jacket. Having read all the books in the series, THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH (a double entendre but I can’t say why) ranks in my personal Top 5.

I consider Martin Cruz Smith to be a role model as well as a favorite writer. Author of the ground-breaking Arkady Renko series set in Russia, he is also the author of several romantic thrillers. After a several-year break, he’s got a new website, new book covers, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is his new romantic thriller.

It is the end of WWII. Venice is riven by suspicion and fear as Mussolini’s regime cracks apart. The action takes in the muddy lagoon and poor fishing communities that fringe the palazzos and piazzas of central Venice.

Cenzo Vianello is a barefoot fisherman barely scraping by and hoping to avoid the chaos of his collapsing country. The Germans continue to prop up Mussolini and Cenzo frequently runs into German patrols as he cruises shallow waters in his fishing boat. One night, he finds a dead woman floating in the lagoon.

But Guilia isn’t as dead as he thought. A strong swimmer, she faked her death to escape the Gestapo after her Jewish family’s hiding place was betrayed. Cenzo kills a German officer hunting for her, then hides the girl in his fishing shack on the outskirts of Venice.

Cenzo has enough problems without being arrested for murder or protecting a Jewish girl for whom the Germans are hunting. He was kicked out of the Italian Air Force when he refused to gas the populace in Ethiopia. His wife was stolen by his brother who is a famous actor and Mussolini insider. She died, leaving Cenzo and his brother with unfinished business.

Turning to a friend from his piloting days, Cenzo arranges for Guilia to be spirited out of Venice and sent to the partisans in the mountains. When the friend is killed, Cenzo goes looking for Guilia in an odyssey that sees him reunited with his brother and plunged into the strange court of Mussolini’s last days. While I was impatient for him to find Guilia, the book became an absolutely fascinating glimpse into this suspenseful snippet of WWII history, as seen through some superbly drawn characters: a would-be moviemaker, the wife of a Brazilian diplomat who is also an expert forger, and Cenzo’s matinee-idol brother who is also Mussolini’s radio spokesman.

Cenzo is a marvelous vehicle for this fishing trip through Italian history. He’s decent and unambitious; hardly fearless but willing to find his courage when he needs to. The attraction between him and Guilia, who is both younger and much better educated, develops slowly. You can see why it works—improbably—for each of them.

All of the pieces were in place for a big and stunning climax, but the ending wrapped without too much drama. There were also a few continuity errors; for example, Cenzo and Guilia have sex for the first time at least twice. But the prose is beautiful, the sense of history is remarkable, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is worth a prime spot on your TBR list.

These books made me wonder if Venice is really sinking. Yes, it is. Read about the looming issue in this article from The Guardian.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

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Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

CLAWS OF THE CAT is one of those books you wish you’d written, but grudgingly know you’d never come up with the premise.

Related: Author to Author with Susan Spann

Author Susan Spann takes us to imperial Japan in 1565. The Jesuits, in the form of Portuguese priest Father Mateo, have a toehold in Kyoto, from which he has the approval of the regional shogun, or warlord, to conduct missionary work. A shinobi, a covert agent trained in stealth—read ninja—has been assigned to protect him.

Hiro Hattori, from the distant city of Iga, is the shinobi. Hiro’s point of view, and whispered backstory, guides us through this exciting journey. The cracks in feudal Japan are beginning to show, yet society is still delicately balanced with rules and norms.

A teahouse “entertainer” girl, Sayuri, who has converted to Christianity, is found with a dead client. Father Mateo comes to see what he can do for this member of his nascent flock. Although Sayuri was found with blood on her kimono, she insists she woke to find the client’s throat slashed and the room bloody. The dead man’s enraged son, a local policeman, is entitled by law to execute his father’s killer. He gives Father Mateo two days to prove the girl is not the killer and find the real one; if the priest cannot the son will kill both the girl and the priest.

Hiro is bound to by oath to protect the priest. In only 48 hours, he must find a brutal killer, a task made even more difficult by his lack of authority, the uncooperative attitude of the teahouse owner, and the societal conventions which rule conversations, even those about murder.

All of Hiro’s training and resources are put to use. He and Father Mateo, both engaging characters who have achieved understanding and friendship in the two years they have been thrown together, play off each other as they question those who might have something to do with the murder. Clues lead in all directions. Why did the teahouse owner secretly burns her ledgers? Why did the dead man’s daughter, a female samurai, inherit everything instead of her brother, as would be normal? Why did the dead man seek to become Sayuri’s “patron” at the teahouse, i.e. take her as his mistress, when his brother wanted to buy her contract from the teahouse and marry her? What did the dead man’s death have to do with a rice trader who visited the teahouse yet also sought to buy guns from a Portuguese trader?

The misleading clues mount up, yet Hiro leads us through the maze as only a ninja can. He knows that “a shinobi’s first and greatest defense is misdirection” and that it works both ways. Spann effortlessly brings us into Hiro’s world of both violence and grace where katana swords and ritual burial armor coexist with the intricate art of flower arranging. The details reflect rigorous research, down to the measure of a room based on the number of tatami mats and the cadence of the characters’ speech. You can almost smell the cherry blossoms.

The ending is terrific. Hiro is able to pick out the anomalies and solve the case. Justice is meted out, Japanese-style. Just enough of Hiro’s backstory is there, too, like breadcrumbs along the path, to entice the reader on to more of this absorbing, authentic, and superbly written series.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

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Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

In A MADRAS MIASMA, New Zealand author Brian Stoddart takes us to India in 1920 with an extraordinary sense of place and time. India is on the brink of explosion and the murder mystery is another lit fuse on the powder keg.

Related: Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

British colonial authorities have created a culture unto themselves, with few ties back to the sceptered isle and unique social norms. Indian society is stratified and divided over continued loyalty to Britain. Discontent and political unrest simmers below the surface.

Enter Superintendent Christian Le Fanu, Indian Police Service in Madras (today’s Chennai), who stands on both sides of the deepening divide. He’s British, yet has no ties back to England where his soon-to-be-ex-wife has fled. A combat veteran of WWI, he now has an aversion to blood. A long-time resident of India, he’s part of the British ruling class but not in it. He doesn’t live in the British enclave part of town, his familiarity with Indian ways got booted him out of the golf club, he gives his Muslim Indian sergeant real responsibility, and he is secretly sleeping with his Anglo-Indian housekeeper. Roisin is smart and attractive but her mixed ethnicity makes her a pariah.

Le Fanu and Sergeant Habi investigate the murder of a young British woman whose body is dumped in a polluted canal. She’s identified as one of the “fishing fleet,” young women who come to India from Britain “fishing” for a husband. She and another woman made the rounds of parties where they met diplomats, military officers, and the upper crust of colonial society. The autopsy reveals that the woman had sex and took morphine before death.

The investigation proceeds as a series of interviews conducted with excruciating British politeness. In between, Le Fanu has to placate the higher-ups, including the impeccably drawn martinet Arthur Jepson, who habitually cracks his riding crop against his shoe. The secondary characters are historical figures, accounting for all the surnames starting with “W.”

Le Fanu’s murder investigation implicates senior British figures in Madras. At the same time, an Indian demonstration prompts British troops to fire into the crowd, killing many. The political fallout from the massacre shakes the entire British ruling structure in India, making Le Fanu’s own position precarious. He’s an appealing man in a sea of political operators, but his enemies know there are chinks in his armor and they are ready to exploit them.

MIASMA is a meticulously researched historical mystery. In many ways, it reminded me of Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA set in WWII Egypt; the crowded, noisy and politically precarious setting, the rigidity and stuffiness of British colonial rule, a British officer who has sympathy toward the local population and rides a motorcycle.

No Nazi spies in 1920, of course. Stoddart stays authentic to the world he’s pulled us into, with villains whose moral codes have been replaced by a sense of abiding privilege.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French is the 6th novel in the chronicles of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. Each is narrated by a different member of the squad, whose private life is somehow linked to—and tragically impacted by—the central crime. When in Dublin last year, I visited legendary bookstore Hodges Figgis and found a whole section devoted to Irish crime novels, in which French’s books held pride of place. THE TRESPASSER shows why.

Related: Book Review: In The Woods by Tana French

The narrator this time is Antoinette Conway, the sole female detective on the fabled Squad and I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to Detective Emilia Cruz in Acapulco. Both are tough, athletic, determined, and the target of their male colleagues. Neither have ever met their father. To round off the similarities, Conway is half Latino.

But unlike Emilia Cruz, Conway’s mood is sour and her temper is explosive. She’s fed up to here with garbage from fellow detectives. Her reports go missing, someone broke into her gym locker to pee on her stuff, and she and her partner Moran are permanently stuck on the graveyard shift.

Conway is ready to chuck it all for a lucrative bodyguard job when she and Moran are dispatched to investigate the murder of Aislinn Murray, an attractive secretary killed at home by a blow to the head.

A little scratching reveals that Aislinn was about to have dinner company. Guileless Rory Fallon owns a bookstore across town and has had a few dates with Aislinn. He claims that she never opened the door when he arrived but closed circuit cameras reveal he’d been stalking the victim for several weeks.

Enter the Murder Squad’s resident Mr. Cool, aka Detective Breslin. He’s got money, charm, flash suits, and a game show host smoothness that Conway sees as weapons he’ll use to discredit her and force her out of the Squad. Breslin is sure that poor Fallon is their killer, despite no witnesses or hard evidence. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of Conway and her partner trying to run down more angles, while he tries to circumvent their orders and nail Fallon. This makes for some great interrogation room dialogue. Every conversation reveals more competing agendas and French keeps the tension high.

In the background, Conway has her own Peeping Tom, Rory Fallon wasn’t the only one stalking Aislinn Murray, and there’s a subtle father-daughter relationship comparison happening. Aislinn Murray was obsessed with finding her long-lost father while Conway doesn’t even ask her father’s name when he finally turns up.

The plot is solid but the most engrossing thing about THE TRESPASSER is Conway’s deep point of view. It’s a mix of in-your-face Irish slang, slick cop jargon, and a harsh and headstrong irreverence for everything in her way. Conway is plowing through life with her fists up, looking for the fight; snarling and snapping and loaded with the local equivalent of Red Bull.

Get ‘em up, Rocky. THE TRESPASSER is a knockout.

Book review: Sherlock Holmes, twice as nice

A KNIFE IN THE FOG and DUST AND SHADOW are both sensational thrillers. The two books have a few things in common, including exceptional historical research, an investigative trio, and a satisfying conclusion, yet each offers an original take on Victorian...

read more

Open Letter to 2019

Dear 2019, With the benefit of having lived through your younger brother known as 2018, you will find me a bit changed. Older, wiser, and a bit more cunning.   Love, Carmen From 2018, with love Every year, instead of a list of easily-forgotten resolutions,...

read more

FYI: Carmenamato.net uses Amazon Affiliate links.

 

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