Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

For those mystery lovers who reveled in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, his new stand-alone novel Midnight Sun will be a bit of a surprise. Midnight Sun is easier on the blood pressure than Harry, with a sympathetic protagonist and the wooded setting of Norway’s  remote Finnmark province, home to Norway’s indigenous Laplanders, also known as the Sami people.

Related: Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Ulf is on the run from an Oslo drug kingpin named The Fisherman and gets off the bus in the Sami village of Kasund. It’s a random choice but a lucky break: Ulf meets Lea and her son Knut who buy his story of coming for the grouse hunting. Ulf is soon installed in a hunting cabin with the rifle of Lea’s late husband, thought to be drowned at sea.

As Ulf considers what to do next, his backstory unfolds. It includes a drug-dealing past, his daughter’s death from leukemia, and his inability to shoot a rival dealer. He’s got a pile of money from the rival dealer, which The Fisherman wants back, and Ulf knows the hunt is on until The Fisherman sees Ulf’s dead body.

Like The Blackhouse by Peter May, I had the feeling that Nesbo wanted to write about a place and people that get little attention. He did so very well, using Ulf as the outsider looking in and sharing his experiences with us. Nesbo serves up great local color: the reindeer scratching its antlers against the cabin, the sun shining at all hours, the Sami’s homemade hooch and 3-day celebrations. Nesbo also gives us a window into a local brand of puritanical Christianity that both helps and hinders Ulf’s situation.

The plot was hugely satisfying, if largely linear and without the heft of the Harry Hole series.  I would have liked more about the remote Finnmark plateau; the harshness of the weather, the psychological impact of 24 hour days so close to the Arctic Circle, the (only hinted at) tension between the Sami people and central government in Oslo.

Verdict: A nicely paced thriller with a unique and absorbing setting.

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Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

In The Blackhouse by Peter May, the setting is the remote, windy, and rainswept Hebrides islands off Scotland’s western coast. The murder is gruesome and mimics a recent killing in Edinburgh being investigated by police detective Fin McLeod.

Fin’s young son has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver. His lukewarm marriage has fallen apart. So he heads to the Isle of Lewis, where he was born and raised, to vent his grief and see if the two murders are connected.

The Blackhouse is rich, dense, and real. More than just a typical whodunit, I got the feeling it was written to illustrate a unique place few have seen and fewer still have truly experienced. Life in the Hebrides is remote and difficult, squeezed between rock and ocean and constantly buffeted by winds which have scoured trees off the land.

The setting is another character, one both capricious and perverse. May often refers to the changing sky, the remorseless wind, and the rage of the ocean and never forgets their impact on a scene. Local customs are rooted in the simple need to survive. Religion is as severe and unforgiving as the wind. Both physical and emotional comforts are luxuries few can afford.

While the setting sets The Blackhouse apart from the majority of tartan noir novels, May also uses flashbacks unlike any mystery author I have read. The book is written in third person, with Fin as the central character. But Fin also narrates many flashbacks of his youth on the Isle of Lewis, which mostly deal with his childhood friend Artair, whose father tutored both of them, and Marsiali, the woman Fin alternately loved and discarded until she finally left him and married Artair.

Fin’s flashbacks don’t come at us in chronological order but are seemingly random (but highly relevant, as we will see) memories prompted by present-day encounters. Fin runs into the unhappily married couple Artair and Marsiali. Artair is now an abusive drunk and his son has gotten a girl pregnant. Donald, another friend, is a clergyman and father of the pregnant girl.

The big climax comes with a hefty dose of local Lewis custom: the annual 12-man trip to a tiny and remote rock in the Atlantic to kill guga sea birds, considered a local delicacy. The custom has been going on since time immemorial and to be included in the guga hunt brotherhood is a rare honor.

It is at this point, we realize what a master storyteller may truly is. He draws all the threads—both from the flashbacks and the present-day murder investigation—into whole cloth as thick and durable as the Harris tweed still woven on the island. The ending is huge and heart-pounding.

The Blackhouse is the first of May’s trilogy about Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis. All use the flashback device to good effect, although in the second book, The Lewis Man, the flashbacks belong to a man suffering from dementia, which is handled brilliantly. In The Chessmen, we are back to Fin’s flashbacks, most of which deal with his high school days but lack the strength of The Blackhouse’s Artair-Marsiali tension.

May has also collaborated with photographer David Wilson on a small coffee table book of the Hebrides. The book beautifully captures the moody sky and ocean so close to the Arctic Circle and contains excerpts of some of the novels. My one complaint about Hebrides is that occasionally May’s description of the land was on the left facing page and a book excerpt (using a subtly different font) was on the right. The format broke up the continuity of both. But the Hebrides also tells the story of how May, a BBC producer, came to the Hebrides in the first place and their impact on his life.

Verdict: Read these books. Now.

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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...

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Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Michael Stanley is a deeply authentic visit to Botswana, hosted by Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the country’s Criminal Investigation Division. The novel stands alone but if you like international culture wrapped up in a mystery, I recommend all the books in the Detective Kubu mystery series.

Kubu, which means “hippo” in Setswana, Botswana’s native language, is an apt nickname. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, perhaps the best known books set in Botswana, would describe Kubu as “traditionally built.” The book even opens with Kubu’s dream of eating an enormous meal.

The murder of Kubu’s father, a traditional healer suffering from Alzheimer’s, shocks everyone. Kubu is shut out of the investigation to keep from prejudicing any future prosecution and is assigned to look into the suicide of a government official dealing with mining licenses. Botswana is a top producer of diamonds and uranium.

With a little help from an American consultant, Kubu realizes that the suicide is really murder. Murky connections lead to a village debate over expansion of a Chinese-run uranium mine. The tribal chief has the final say over the expansion but doesn’t know his son has made a deal with the Chinese. The son gets the young unemployed of the village on his side by plying them with cheap Shake Shake beer in shabeens—the local bars.

The chief announces his decision not to allow the expansion at a town hall event, which erupts in violence. The chief, council members, and police are killed. Election of a new chief is supposed to rotate between five tribes, but the late chief’s son takes advantage of the turmoil to claim the throne and make good on his promise to the Chinese mine mangers.

Meanwhile, to get Kubu out of the way of the investigation into his father’s death, he is sent to New York for an Interpol conference. His trip perfectly captures wintry New York City through the eyes of someone who lives without snow, skyscrapers, crowds, or constant urban abundance. He didn’t want to go to the conference, but it gives him insights needed to break open the mining drama at home. Kubu may be a product of Botswana, a small country, but he knows how to find the wider context.

At times the narrative is a bit slow, Kubu is admonished too many times for sticking his nose into his father’s murder investigation, and I guessed the connection between Kubu’s father and the Chinese mine far earlier than he did. These nits are forgiven because I really admire how the novel, and the entire mystery series, demonstrates the critical issues facing Africa today: unemployment, corruption, violence against women, tension between traditional authority and the laws of the state, and China’s growing investment and influence at the local level. The issues are handed deftly and naturally; they are simply part of Kubu’s landscape.

As a reader, you are caught up in the tension between old and new as you feel the bewilderment of the chief as he attempts to navigate the modern world by relying on tribal customs. You march into the Chinese compound with Kubu, and realize that a fiefdom has been carved out to take and never to give.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY starts as a murder mystery. But it ends as a snapshot of contemporary Africa that should be mandatory reading by anyone travelling to or studying the continent. Highly recommended.

Book review of Detective Kubu mystery series novel

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Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

I write mysteries and thrillers and love to read them, too. In this book review, I look at JIHADI APPRENTICE by David Bruns and J.R. Olson, a very modern thriller with an insider’s ring of authenticity.

With a compelling scenario and characters at cross purposes, JIHADI APPRENTICE exposes the  motivations and manipulations of global terrorism as well as the Herculean burden carried by those hunting terrorism’s ringleaders. In the style of Ken Follett’s TRIPLE or Brad Thor’s latest offering, we watch the bad guys with mounting dread and pray for the good guys who must work in sync but are primed for mistrust.

Related: A Chat with Thriller Author David Bruns

The centerpiece of the story is the recruitment of Aya, a Muslim teen in Minneapolis, by Imaan, a Somali folk singer who uses her fame within the global Somali diaspora to recruit terror cells. Their interpersonal dynamics draw on the Somali community’s search to find its footing in American society in Minneapolis; Imaan is easily able to exploit the restless Aya and put words in her mouth. But Imaan is being manipulated as well, and we see up close and personal how terrorist leaders ruthlessly use others to advance their creed.

Related: Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception by David Bruns and JR Olson

Ranged against Imaan and her shadowy puppetmaster are three US officials we met in the authors’ WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION; an workaholic FBI agent, a Navy officer with a covert operations background, and an intelligence officer with an unlikely working relationship with an Iranian counterpart. They each have a piece of the puzzle when it comes to hunting terrorists and stopping recruitment, but are operating blind for the most part, digging up fragmentary information, encountering red herrings, and coping with  competing agendas. The job takes its toll, notably on the romance between the FBI agent and the Navy officer. Even the secondary characters are well drawn and relateable. In particular, a female Mossad agent makes a powerful cameo that illustrates the risk of collecting intelligence in the terrorists’ territory.

Related: Book Review Cheatsheet: Learn How to Write a Review that Matters

The pacing is terrific, the situations are believable, and the action keeps up a truly unrelenting tempo. The last quarter of the book is like dominoes falling; you can’t help but keep reading. The only problem with JIHADI APPRENTICE is that the next book with this cast of characters won’t be here soon enough.

Get it here on Amazon

Verdict: An exciting and contemporary page-turner in which terrorism is a high-stakes game played with people’s lives on a global scale.

 

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My most recent book, 43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6, was inspired by the events of September 2014 when 43 students from a teacher's college in the town of Ayotzinapa, near Acapulco in Mexico's state of Guerrero, disappeared in the nearby town of...

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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...

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Book Review: Bangkok Rules

Book Review: Bangkok Rules

Carl Engel is hardly the typical hero of a mystery series but he’s the main character in BANGKOK RULES by Harlan Wolff. The mostly drunk Brit has been in Bangkok for 30 years, surviving as a fixer who plays both sides of every local intrigue. He is well known to both the long-term expatriates and the succession of Thai government and military officials who swing in and out of power. There is money to be made out of Thailand’s perpetual chaos and Carl has the bravura and connections to be that person. The income isn’t steady but he’s got a tab going in every bar and that’s what seems to matter for the crusty Brit.

He’s asked to find a man likely hiding out in Bangkok under an assumed name. The employer is a wealthy American who says the missing man is his brother. Carl takes the lucrative case, only to find that the target has become a Thai citizen with an assumed ethnic name. The employer is soon murdered and Carl must use all of his colorful contacts to figure out why. The case ties back to the Vietnam War and an elaborate drug smuggling ring. Meanwhile, a serial killer is rampaging through Bangkok and yes, the two cases tie together with a clever and exciting ending.

The plot was intricate and the descriptions wonderful. The reader can see Bangkok’s seedy dives, the cranky domestic help, the has-been expatriates secondary characters who live in Carl’s world. Some of the dialogue needed the word “said” sprinkled in, and Carl jumped to a few conclusions, but my biggest issue was with Carl’s drinking. He’s a well written character but yet another in a long line of literary alcoholic detectives.

The Amazon description says the book has been optioned for film. A great role for Kenneth Branagh now that he’s done playing Kurt Wallander.

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The Ayotzinapa tragedy 4 years later

My most recent book, 43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6, was inspired by the events of September 2014 when 43 students from a teacher's college in the town of Ayotzinapa, near Acapulco in Mexico's state of Guerrero, disappeared in the nearby town of...

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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...

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Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Like spy and military thrillers? Books based on current events? Polished prose? Great plots? WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION is for you.

WEAPONS is a high caliber thriller, using a very plausible Iraq War scenario as its core: Saddam’s sons move the country’s nuclear weapons to Iran for safekeeping as US forces begin to move against his regime. They use the same frenemy as welcomed Iraq’s fighter aircraft in the Gulf War, knowing the terrible gamble they are taking.

That frenemy turns out to be three half-brothers. One is a ayatollah, one a military intelligence officer, and one whom the other two are able to manipulate into joining a sleeper cell in South America.

Related post: Book Review: Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

The action moves from the Middle East to the US where the action follows main character Brendan McHugh as he graduates from the Naval Academy, becomes a SEAL, and fights in Iraq. By accident he runs into one of the Iranian brothers, beginning an odd connection that underpins the rest of the novel. McHugh’s career is stalled by a serious combat injury, taking him in an unforeseen direction during which he comes full circle back to the Iraq war and the hunt for nuclear weapons.

Some of the best parts of the novel are scenes in which the three Iranian brothers create their private nuclear arsenal with the appropriated Iraqi weapons. They are a team in some ways, but also three separate entities who have different motivations, backgrounds, and personal lives. The set up is plausible and wonderfully described with a great visual narrative.

After such a phenomenal story, the ending wasn’t the big deal I expected but upon reflection probably more in keeping with real life. I hope this writing team of Bruns and Olson has more to offer and the McHugh character is welcome to repeat his starring role. Highly recommended.

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The Ayotzinapa tragedy 4 years later

My most recent book, 43 MISSING: Detective Emilia Cruz Book 6, was inspired by the events of September 2014 when 43 students from a teacher's college in the town of Ayotzinapa, near Acapulco in Mexico's state of Guerrero, disappeared in the nearby town of...

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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...

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Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Based on a true family story, THE RAGMAN MURDERS is clearly a labor of love. The novel tells the story of two immigrant families, the Amatos and the Tassones, and the circumstances that bring them into conflict within Hartford CT’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods in the early 1900’s. I read it at the same time that PBS brought out its documentary “The Italian-Americas,” and the descriptions in RAGMAN resonated deeply.

RAGMAN’s action moves between an interview with one of the grown daughters of Maria Carmella and Guiseppe Amato, and flashbacks of the Amatos’ immigration experience from Serra San Bruno, Italy. Other flashbacks show Guiseppe’s involvement with the Black Hand gangsters that preyed on newly arrived fellow Italians, and the story of the tragedy-prone Tassones. While the back-and-forth narrative is well explained, the construction would have been tighter if there had been more of the storytelling daughter in the flashback sequences, perhaps showing that she and the father had a special relationship. That would have also justified the plot twist (no spoilers!) at the end.

That point notwithstanding, RAGMAN is a piece of the Italian-American immigrant experience. It is based on true events and has so many characters because all of them actually took part in those events. News stories no doubt shaped some of the narrative, and lend a period writing style to the last fourth of the book. Highly recommended for those who are interested in the history of Italian-Americans and Italian immigration to the US.

Coming 17 July

AWAKENING MACBETH is a serialized novel of romantic suspense by Carmen Amato. Episodes are released on carmenamato.net, Pinterest, and Facebook on Tuesdays and Fridays. Carmen’s other novels are available on Amazon and include THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY as well as the Detective Emilia Cruz mysteries CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS. Please use the link below to sign up for the Mystery Monthly mailing list for exclusive excerpts, book release news, and sales alerts.

Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

Book Review: Devoted to Death by Andrew Chesnut

If you want to understand Mexican culture, DEVOTED TO DEATH must be in your personal library. It is a detailed examination of Santa Muerte, Mexico’s most famous folk saint. Santa Muerte is regarded as the personification of death; a active deity with amazing powers.

I expected dry and factual content that occasionally strayed into the scary and creepy. But R. Andrew Chesnut, a professor of religious studies, has a very readable style blending field research, academic rigor, and personal humor. The book is organized into chapters based on the color of candle lit at many a Santa Muerte altar. Each color represents a different petition or characteristic of the folk saint, who is always shown as a female skeleton holding a scythe and a globe. Chesnut explains all of the symbolism related to the folk saint, as well as its origins and profiles of today’s worshippers.

His research took him to the altars made by devotees across Mexico. He also explains the Catholic Church’s opposition to Santa Muerte, the saint’s links to drug cartels, and the relationship in Mexico’s narrative with the Virgin of Guadalupe. A fascinating read and the only book of its kind I have found in English.

Book Review: The Orphan Uprising

Book Review: The Orphan Uprising

The Orphan Uprising is the riveting last book in the Orphan Trilogy by the father-and-son writing duo of Lance and James Morcan from New Zealand. I hear they are making a movie based on the books and if so, it ought to be a blockbuster.

The first two books, The Ninth Orphan and The Orphan Factory, lay the groundwork: the shadowy Omega group is bent on world-wide domination and through genetic testing has evolved a group of people with super mental and physical capabilities. They have been raised with numbers for names, based on their birth order, and raised in a secret orphanage where they learned to be uber-intelligence agents to help Omega get rid of enemies and solidify members in positions of global power and influence.

But Orphan Nine, the best yet not the most ruthless, wants out. And so the saga begins.

The books move like Hollywood action scripts, combining elements from The Boys from Brazil with YA action akin to Divergent. Part sci-fi, part political thriller, all of the books are great fun but Uprising is the best. Nine has successfully broken from Omega and lives with his son and pregnant wife in French Polynesia. But Omega has somehow learned of his offspring—who would be valuable from a genetic testing standpoint—and kidnaps him. Nine has a heart attack at the crucial moment. Barely recovered, he goes after the boy, into Omega controlled territory including a string of genetic testing laboratories. The trail leads Nine around the world in 80 breathless days of action, drama, and well described unique locations including Greenland and the Congo. It’s a page-turner right to the end and a hefty read to boot. The Morcans don’t skimp on the action, making this an excellent entertainment value.

As a mystery and thriller author, I look for plot twists and turns, engaging characters, and balanced construction that makes a book review a pleasure. The Orphan Uprising delivers on all counts.

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Book Review: Smokescreen, a thriller

Book Review: Smokescreen, a thriller

Smokescreen by Khaled Talib is a thriller for today’s audience. It’s got a politically driven plot based on current events, an everyman hero, and enough double-dealing and deranged killers to keep the reader flipping pages and skipping meals.

What makes Smokescreen such a contemporary stand-out, however, is that unlike most popular thrillers, the hero is neither American nor British. Imagine that! Nor does the action originate in  either Washington or London. Instead, our hero is a mixed-race citizen of Singapore, but with a lifestyle and motivations that have universal appeal. The Asian nation of Singapore, portrayed in the novel as an international espionage crossroads, is a surprisingly terrific setting for a thriller. I started checking on flights just to go follow the novel’s path and see the sights.

Related: Book review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Jethro “Jet” West is a pampered local journalist of mixed descent who writes a society column, takes martial arts classes, and is sleeping his way through the ladies of Singapore’s upper crust. But he also plans to edit a new independent newspaper, a move which gets him some unwanted attention. He’s identified to be the convenient fall guy in a plot to assassinate the Israeli Prime Minister by radical members of the Israeli military—aided by a sympathetic Singaporean official and his hired guns–when the PM visits Singapore. Seems the PM is going soft on Palestine and has offered up one too many concessions for the hard right wingers in Israel. They know how to fix things, although a spy within their midst passes on the information and the scene is set.

In order for the plot to work, West must be regarded as a plausible evil-doer with a criminal past. So the radicals will give him one. When the PM bites it, their logic runs, no one will be surprised that West is the culprit as he’ll have a “past” that fits his newly minted profile as a killer run amok. Talib does a good job of keeping West confused and angry by what is happening, yet figuring out how to survive and close down the plot. In the end, it’s West’s talents as a journalist that will be the key.

The book has the thriller’s edge of a Ludlum. West’s comfortable world suddenly implodes and he finds himself on the run. A shadowy American ambassador-cum-spymaster is his only help. Yet that man has his own agenda, questionable contacts, and reasons for helping. More characters are gray rather than wholly bad, yet the plot stays linear and the reader isn’t confused, which is an improvement over most Ludlum novels.

I would have liked the big climax to have circled back to the Israeli PM’s visit. But the right things happened and there’s potential for Jet West to make a repeat appearance. If he does, I hope he’s still in Singapore. Sights, sounds, and smells are on full display in the book, ensuring that the setting provides stiff competition to the action.

As a mystery and thriller author, I am always on the lookout for books with the elements most important to me: a great setting that draws me onto the streets and into intereesting palces, twists and turns in the plot, and multi-dimensional characters. Smokescreen has it all.  Highly recommended.

Khaled Talib visited this blog last year, letting readers know his favorite books. Check out what he’s serving for dinner, too.

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Book Review: Top Secret Twenty One

Book Review: Top Secret Twenty One

The Stephanie Plum books are like Pringle’s potato chips—I can’t eat just one despite the fact I know they’ll be full of empty calories. Maybe it’s the salt. Whatever. Pass the can.

Top Secret Twenty One is the latest in the Stephanie Plum bounty hunter series by Janet Evanovich set in Trenton, NJ. With 21 books in a series, frankly, it must be hard to keep things fresh–I’m up to 3 novels so far in the Emilia Cruz series so am not speaking from experience. That being said, having read 1-20, I was pretty sure what to expect.

No crystal ball needed for this book review.

In “21,” Stephanie is still caught between Morelli, the Italian cop she’s sleeping with, and Ranger, the mysterious Latino god-cum-security-expert she’d like to be sleeping with. Ranger is always available to lend Stephanie a car or get her out of trouble, which is amazing as he’s not getting any.

Basically he’s the hottest, yet most unfulfilled, man on the planet . . . Babe.

Related: Learn how to write a book review that matters!

The novel has Stephanie hunting for a bail jumper named Jimmy Poletti who was arrested for running girls out of his car dealership. She can’t find Poletti but when a frenemy shows up at her door claiming that Poletti is trying to kill him (Randy the uber-short in a recurring role), Stephanie figures the odds have changed in her favor.

Babe. Bait.

There’s the obligatory scene at the funeral home, her mother still drinks and irons when stressed, Grandma Mazur and Lula take turns at being the inept sidekick, Ranger’s invitation remains open-ended, and there are more run-ins with the bad dudes on Stark Street. The formula is familiar but still works, although the chapter endings in this novel seemed flat as opposed to the cliff-hangers Evanovich normally leaves us with. The dialogue wasn’t as snappy, either, like soda that has lost some of the fizz.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll read “22,” sure that it will be the one in which Stephanie finally chooses between Morelli and Ranger. Or maybe that will happen in “23.” Or “24.”

Book Review:  The Witch of Napoli

Book Review: The Witch of Napoli

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker is an unexpected trip to 1890’s Italy, when Garibaldi’s unification of the country was still tenuous and Italy’s city-states retained their strong regional rivalries and flavors. At the same time, the study of the occult was all the rage. The reality and authenticity of the spirit world–and those who could access it–was hotly contested. Fame and fortunes were at stake in this historic time of debate about the afterlife.

The book is narrated by a young man, Tomas, who will rise to journalistic fame on the coattails of a medium. Alessandra is a beautiful woman with an explosive temper, seamy past, and abusive common-law husband, but her apparent psychic powers are mighty. Both she and Tomas are from Naples, where the action starts, and together they navigate treacherous waters as the Italian, and then European, cognoscenti try to prove if Alessandra’s remarkable power to connect with the spirits of the dead, including medieval monk and heretic Savonarola, are for real.

Schmicker is adroit in his handling of the central question—is Alessandra for real?—as Tomas describes her séances. Alessandra is a marvelous character, true to her rough upbringing and the culture of old Naples. She is by turns conflicted, fiery, confident, sick, in love, desperate—yet always remains true to herself as she hides both a secret anguish and the source of her psychic abilities. Tomas is also well drawn. He’s a young man ready for life’s adventures, half in love with Alessandra, and increasingly protective of her even when he knows she has made a bad choice.

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The Witch of Napoli, beyond its absorbing premise, is an excellently crafted book. Alessandra’s nemesis, a haughty Englishman bent on proving her a fraud, is introduced with just the perfect amount of suspense. Chapters end on cliffhangers. Secondary characters are as well written as the principals, with deft descriptions. The sense of time and place is exceptional as Alessandra’s skills as a medium are “tested” in many European capitals. London proves her undoing . . . until she’s back in her native land.

The discussion of the occult is never mawkish nor amateurish, yet neither is this a book about spiritual secrets. At its heart, the Witch of Napoli is about a woman with secrets and the wave of political and academic curiosity that tried to wash those secrets out of her. In a note at the end, Schmicker lets us know that the book was inspired by a real woman and provides research material.

I love reading mysteries and thrillers, as well as writing them, and this book contained all the elements I crave: a fresh premise, characters that intrigue, and both elegant and exceptional dialogue and construction. Bravissimo!

Highly recommended.

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