Book review: Finland’s Maria Kallio police series

Book review: Finland’s Maria Kallio police series

Detective Maria Kallio is the first female police detective in the Violent Crime and Repeat Offender unit in Espoo, Finland.

She is Finland’s answer to Detective Emilia Cruz and I love her.

SNOW WOMAN is the fourth book in the Maria Kallio 12-book crime fiction series but a great introduction. I stumbled upon it by accident because the same reviewer trolled both SNOW WOMAN and one of my books. When I saw that Lehtolainen is Finland’s top crime fiction writer, with many awards for the Maria Kallio series, I knew I was in good company!

In SNOW WOMAN, Maria is assigned to make a presentation at a self-defense seminar at a famous women’s therapy center called Rosberga. A few days later, the director Elina Rosberg is murdered and found frozen in the surrounding forest.

Everyone who was at the center is a suspect, including a woman exiled from the ultra-conservative Laestadian religious sect, an angry pole dancer from a gritty Helsinki neighborhood, and a poet who was Elina’s sometime boyfriend.

Meanwhile, a character from a previous book, Markku “Madman” Halttunen, escapes from prison. Maria and her partner put him in jail and know he’s after revenge.

Both threads play out with help from a great cast of secondary characters including Atti, Maria’s mathematician husband; Laskinen, her handsome boss; and Ström, the hard-drinking fellow detective who constantly harasses her.

Modern Finland is on full display, as seen through Maria’s eyes. Espoo is the rapidly expanding second largest city in Finland. The seasons of long dark winters and all-too-short summers in this northern country affect moods and crime statistics. Assault, rape, and drug overdoses are common. Heavy drinking is the norm–whiskey and anise vodka are Maria’s own tipples of choice. She likes Finnish punk rock and the Ramones.

Yet fitness, environmental concern, and healthy eating are key elements of the Finnish lifestyle. Maria skis and runs, and often bikes to work while her husband rails against “private driving” and is a dedicated protester.

Maria narrates all the books, which get more complex as the series progresses in terms of both crime and her personal life. Indeed, there’s a strong “slice-of-life” element to the series as we follow Maria’s cop career. She’s often impulsive and short-tempered. Dedication to her job and obsession with crimesolving hurt her personal relationships. She works in the city but longs to be sailing or running in the forest or bird watching. Through it all we cheer for her, cringe at her mistakes, and hope she doesn’t take the wrong turns that are offered along the way.

The writing style is clean and direct. Like the Vera series by Ann Cleeves, suspicion falls on multiple characters. Details become essential to figuring out who done it. A few more speech tags (“said,” “asked,” etc.) would be nice but aren’t essential. Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce the Finnish names.

The Maria Kallio series books are published in English by Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s foreign translation subsidiary.

Find SNOW WOMAN on Amazon: https://amzn.to/36Ilhpm

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book review: AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

Book review: AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS

AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS by Mario Giordino is a delicious whodunit, yet for this book review, it defies easy categorization. It’s one part Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri and one part Don Camillo series by Giovanni Guareschi. Add a light sprinkle of AUNT JULIA  AND THE SCRIPTWRITER by Mario Vargas Llosa and you have a wickedly funny tale that is truly original.

Poldi is the nickname of Isolde Oberreiter, a 60-year-old German woman whose Sicilian husband recently passed away. Descriptions of her evoke Elizabeth Taylor in the 1970’s—caftans, bouffant black hair, imperious manner, lots of alcohol.

She takes a house in a small village in Sicily to be near her three sisters-in-law. Poldi, an ex-hippy, ex-costume designer, and the daughter of a German cop, plans to sit on her new rooftop terrace, look at the sea, and drink herself to death.

To refresh your memory, Sicily is the roughly trapezoidal island positioned at Italy’s toe, eternally waiting to be booted into the Mediterranean. A ferry trip across the Straits of Messina is a grand introduction to Sicily’s charms: almond and lemon groves, picturesque towns with cobbled streets, olde worlde trattorias where the locals meet for coffee, and pizza joints run by the Mafia. (Also creepy guys pestering women for phone numbers but, alas, I was 20 and this probably wouldn’t be an issue now.)

Related post: Book review: THE DOGS OF ROME

Poldi’s plans take a left turn when a young man who does odd jobs for her is murdered. As Sicilian law enforcement bumbles about, Poldi decides she will solve the crime herself.

Along the way, Poldi makes several enemies, runs into a poetry-spouting aristocrat and his Doberman, and is threatened by both a Mafia talisman and a dangerous intruder. She also becomes enamored of a detective who actually seems to know what he is doing.

In the end, Poldi unravels the case with the help of her sisters-in-law and the handsome detective, but the case nearly unravels her, too.

Related post:  2 Tickets to Venice

Part narrator and part Greek chorus, Poldi’s unnamed and unemployed German nephew shares her story with us. From his room in her attic, he’s perpetually writing the first chapter of a novel we know will be quite terrible.

It took great skill to craft a book this way and it shows. His narration never intrudes, but like the Vargas Llosa book, is a charming addition to the main plot. Descriptions are priceless, ranging from wryly humorous to laugh-out-loud funny. Dialogue deftly transitions from Poldi’s escapades to her brisk discussions with the nephew.

If you know a bit of Italian or simply love Italian food, you’ll appreciate AUNTIE POLDI AND THE SICILIAN LIONS all the more. The author doesn’t assume you are intimately familiar with Sicily, however, only that by the end of the book, you’ll never want to leave.

Thank goodness, Poldi’s second mystery, AUNTIE POLDI AND THE VINEYARDS OF ETNA, came out earlier this month.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book Review: le Carre’s A LEGACY OF SPIES

Book Review: le Carre’s A LEGACY OF SPIES

A LEGACY OF SPIES is the long sought-after backstory of le Carre’s first bestseller, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (henceforth THE SPY), a slim volume that taught many readers how the Cold War was fought. This week’s book review is all about connecting the oh-so-cold dots.

To refresh your memory, in THE SPY British intel officer Alex Leamas, a hard-drinking, hard-driving spymaster in Berlin, pretends to get fired and fall on hard times. It is a ruse, however, for Alex to be “recruited” by Soviet/East German intelligence so he can save an odious East German intel officer who is Britain’s greatest asset inside the Iron Curtain. To position himself to be pitched, Leamas develops a relationship with an unwitting librarian named Elizabeth Gold who brings him along as her plus one when she attends a socialist conference in East Germany—all orchestrated by the brilliantly quiet George Smiley.

Related post: Book review: RED SPARROW by Jason Matthews

In A LEGACY OF SPIES, it is 50 years later. The offspring of Leamas and Gold sue the British government to find out how and why their parents disappeared. The new generation of British spooks, who want to make the lawsuit go away, find that the files on Leamas, as well as the East German agent codenamed Windfall, have been purged.

With no memory of the Cold War and no appetite for its justifications, they bring in Peter Guillam (BTW, Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the 2011 movie with Gary Oldman as George Smiley). No one can find Smiley; but as the infamous spycatcher’s right-hand-man, Guillam will do.

Guillam narrates the book, which moves across time. At first we are in the present when he is summoned to London, there to find that long-held secrets are on the verge of being exposed. Then through his memory, we are transported to a Cold War landscape. London plots and directs. Spies sneak in and out of East Germany which is replete with Stasi brutality and Communist paranoia. There are shortages of everything, except informers.

The look into the past gives us the first case in which Smiley is led to believe there is a mole inside British intelligence and reveals how Windfall came to be recruited to the British side. These elements set in motion everything that happens in THE SPY.

A LEGACY OF SPIES is another le Carré espionage tour de force. Haunting writing, the sense of wheels-within-wheels. The back and forth across time is handled deftly, without confusion.

Subtle clues abound. Gather them carefully—le Carré is never obvious.

The book is a standalone, but will be a richer experience if you have at least read THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (or saw the 1965 movie starring Richard Burton. FYI Dublin substituted for Berlin).

Other bestsellers featuring Smiley and his team, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY and SMILEY’S PEOPLE, are also referenced in A LEGACY OF SPIES. Peter Guillam was with Smiley through the entire Cold War, you see, and he has a long memory.

Highly recommended.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Louise Penny’s KINGDOM OF THE BLIND

Louise Penny’s KINGDOM OF THE BLIND

In Loise Penny’s latest Armand Gamache mystery, KINGDOM OF THE BLIND, the Canadian crime fighter has been suspended from his job as head of the Sureté, the top law enforcement agency in Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province. The storyline is a continuation of the previous book, GLASS HOUSES, in which Gamache lets known shipments of drugs slip into Quebec in order to follow the trail of a major drug kingpin.

Truth be told, as someone who writes about drug smuggling and cartel kingpins, I found the premise of GLASS HOUSES ludicrous and the ending painfully naïve. Most of the previous Gamache novels focused on art-related crime with deep dives into relationships, motive and psychology. KINGDOM OF THE BLIND returns to that winning formula, but cleans up the mess left by GLASS HOUSES.

Thank goodness.

Related post: Department Q and THE KEEPER OF LOST CAUSES

Gamache, awaiting the results of an official inquiry into his failed counterdrug actions,  is surprised to find out he’s been named executor of the estate of a woman he never met. Myrna, his neighbor in the tiny village of Three Pines, is also an executor as is a young builder from Montreal.  The unknown deceased was a cleaning lady who liked to be called “the Baroness.”  Her three children are surprised to have three strangers enter their lives in connection with their late mother’s will.

DUAL plotlines

As Gamache pokes into the Baroness’s background, KINGDOM OF THE BLIND branches out in multiple page-turning directions. The Baroness was a descendant of a European industrialist whose fortune has been tied up in courts for more than a century. Who knew? Was it possible she was going to inherit? Gamache is sent spinning in yet another direction when the Baroness’s house collapses and one of her sons is found murdered.

At the same time, Gamache is tracking a cadet who was kicked out of the Sureté training academy for allegedly dealing drugs. The girl was once a crackhead and she immediately hits the streets in search of the carfentanil shipment which slipped through Gamache’s fingers in GLASS HOUSES. While Penny wants us to believe she’s gone back to her old ways, it wasn’t hard to guess that she is undercover.

Character-driven

While the drug scene excerpts were more believable this time around, the Three Pines cast of characters is what makes KINGDOM OF THE BLIND another Gamache winner. There are several epic meals, with everyone chiming in around the table in the bistro or someone’s home in the village, all talking over each other as they puzzle out murder, mayhem, and the strange legacy of the Baroness’s ancestors.

This is perfect “chorus of voices” writing. The dialogue crackles with insider jokes; each comment perfectly pitched to the speaker. The various personalities shine through, laced with humor and empathy. These scenes contain the best group dialogue I’ve ever read.

Someone asked a Facebook mystery group to name their favorite book setting and the response was a near unanimous “Three Pines.” Readers wanted to curl up in Olivier’s Bistro with a hot chocolate in the evening or enjoy café au lait and pancakes in the morning. KINGDOM OF THE BLIND does a wonderful and much-needed job of bringing us back to Three Pines for another memorable Gamache story.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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?

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.​​​​​​​

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

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