Book Review: Doors Open by Ian Rankin

Book Review: Doors Open by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin is one of my favorite mystery writers, with robust, imaginative characters that are true to their environment, beautifully paced plots, and locations that I’ve visited and love despite the flaws he exposes. Up front I’ll admit that I’m prejudiced in favor of his Detective Inspector John Rebus books. My favorites are Resurrection Men, the Falls and Exit Music.

DOORS OPEN by Ian Rankin is a standalone suspense novel with a plot that revolves around Edinburgh’s art scene. The main character, rich and bored Mike Mackenzie, ends up with two unlikely cohorts in a scheme to steal paintings from the National Gallery of Edinburgh. The partnership is anything but smooth–no one truly trusts anybody in this novel, for good reason–and soon the action is complicated by thugs and cops.

Rankin’s heavy in the book, Chib Calloway, is a reincarnation of Big Ger Rafferty in the Rebus books, but with a bit less finesse. “My town, my rules,” the character snarls at one point.

The ending has a bit of a wow factor, in that everyone gets what is coming to them, but the book moves more slowly than the Rebus books. The theme of doors opening, as in new opportunities, is overused and soon gets tiresome. While I won’t say don’t give it a try, if you’re looking for a great suspense novel set in Scotland, go with one of Rankin’s Rebus novels. They are all 5 star winners.

P.S. A movie was made from the book, starring among others, Stephen Fry who in his youth starred opposite Hugh Laurie in the wonderful Jeeves and Wooster BBC series based on the P.G. Wodehouse books. Others will recognize him as Mycroft Holmes in the Robert Downey Sherlock Holmes movies.

Fry obviously couldn’t keep the DOORS OPEN movie from a lukewarm reception, however, and it only rates 5.9 out of 10 on imdb.com: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2371315/

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

Book Review: The Lost Ones by Ace Atkins

THE LOST ONES by Ace Atkins is a well-crafted police procedural featuring the new sheriff of a small Mississippi county. Quinn Colson is back in his home town, fresh from war, and his old high school buddies are, too. Not everyone has come back to gainful employment, however, and Quinn has his hands full as an old crony gets into a gun-running scheme and another turns to drink as a way of escaping the misery of being left with only one arm. Quinn himself has ghosts to lay to rest that include a messed-up sister whose backstory is entwined with Quinn’s–and skillfully explained in a series of flashbacks–as well as the legacy of his uncle, the former sheriff whose last days were marred by scandal.

Perfect-pitch voices

Ace Atkins has a gift for capturing the voices of his characters and is able to assemble a cast who speak to each other–and the reader–with clearly defined personalities which all perfectly fit the rural Mississippi location and their divergent motives. Quinn is clearly the good guy, trying to do the right thing while keeping his own vulnerabilities under wraps. He’s the star of the ensemble but the gun-runner is painted the perfect shade of gray–a once likable small-time guy who went to the show and now finds the small town too confining–but isn’t smart enough to see very far beyond it. By the same token the women in Quinn’s life–notably his mother and his best deputy–have fit themselves into the small town and are trying to make the best of it.

Although the personalities take top honors in this mystery, the action moves  along at a fair pace as Quinn hunts for a couple who are selling children and mistreating them along the way. Switches between Quinn’s investigation through the wilds of rural Mississippi and the crony who is selling weapons to a Mexican gang keeps the suspense going.

Ace Atkins as Spenser

The two plotlines converge nicely and the book wraps up cleanly, making for a classic police procedural mystery. Quinn and the supporting cast make for an excellent read and a series with all the hallmarks of the very best a reader cold want in this genre. It is clear why Atkins was selected to continue Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series–he has the same tempo, gift for authentic dialogue and ability to create compelling characters.

Book Review: Over the Shoulder by Jason Beech

Book Review: Over the Shoulder by Jason Beech

Not only do I write thrillers and a mystery series, but I read them, too. I post reviews on amazon and Goodreads as well as on this site.

Over the Shoulder by Jason Beech is a Goodfellas-type crime drama set in Sheffield, England, where a dysfunctional family of small-time thugs is trying to be more than its individual members can manage. In a clever premise, the would-be patriarch Tony Mortimer, has gathered together his motley assortment of half-siblings in an attempt to honor his criminal father, build an empire, and bring local neighborhoods under his “protection.” His efforts put him in competition with Sheffield’s big-time crime boss, for whom Tony works as an enforcer. Add into the mix a series of doomed relationships, tenuous drug and smuggling deals, and a thick streak of Mortimer family mental instability for a fast-paced and engrossing tale of a dog-eat-dog criminal underworld.

The writing is confident, occasionally providing some descriptive gems. Flashbacks are used to good effect, giving the very different backstories of the three main Mortimer brothers. Hidden details are key and the conclusion is built piece by suspenseful piece as Tony and his brothers use each other in a series of nail-biting love-hate moves. The end is a twister and an ultimate Goodfellas moment. For such a well-plotted book, however, the numerous punctuation and spelling errors were an unwelcome surprise. Fortunately, they did not detract from the suspense or character development of this raw gem of a book.

 

The Friday Fiesta: An Odyssey, An Artist, Manners, and the Radio

dog and globeAs a fiction author I love to weave  unique cultural gems into the plot. Most of the time I draw on my own world travels and experiences living in Mexico and Central America.

In these Friday Fiesta posts I highlight cultural stories worth celebrating. The unique, the odd, the thought-provoking. Enjoy and share to make the world a little smaller today.

His Odyssey Expedition

Daily Telegraph reporter Graham Hughes started 1 January 2009 on a trip that would take him around the world without any airplane travel. After 1,426 days on the road and more than 200 countries across six continents, Hughes wrote this fabulous wrap-up in which he said: “I undertook this challenge for many reasons: to set a Guinness World Record, to raise money for the charity WaterAid, to have great stories to tell the grandchildren. But the main reason was that I wanted to prove it was possible: to show that all the great travel adventures have not already been done; to show that the world isn’t the terrible scary place so often portrayed in the media; to show that, yes, with a British passport, a fistful of dollars and the right amount of tenacity, grit and patience you can – if you really want to – go anywhere.” Hughes’ determination, accomplishment and the resulting article are all terrific.

 In the Tradition of Art Saving Wildlife

Following in the tradition of the Audobon Society and the World Wildlife Fund, both rooted in work by noted wildlife artists, California artist David Tomb has started a conservation effort called Jeepney Projects Worldwide to save endangered birds including the great Philippine eagle. A Huffpost article quoted him as saying: “Making artwork of the birds is a way to connect and personalize my experience of seeing the birds . . . The ultimate goal is to have people think: ‘That animal is incredible.'” Tomb’s artwork, included in the article, is also incredible and worth a look, if for no other reason that the Philippine eagle, weighing in around 18 lbs., is an arresting and unique creature.

 Asian Etiquette

Did you know that religious views play a role in good manners in Asia? The website backyardtravel.com, devoted to Asian travel, writes “The sole of the foot is considered such a dirty thing that it is even seen as an aggressive, rude gesture in Thailand to show someone the sole of the foot – similar to ‘flipping the bird’ in the USA, or ‘putting two fingers up’ in the UK. Continuing the theme on feet, shoes must also be removed when entering someone’s house in Asia, and in Thailand never, ever stand on anything with an image of the King on, like money or postage stamps for example.” This short and useful article gives other good tips for showing good manners when travelling in Asia. Related to this is my Rude in Any Culture post, with a similar foot warning.

Salaryless Radio Host in Peru Still Going Strong

Peruvian radio host Maruja Venegas has been on the air for 68 years, making her the longest-running radio host ever, according to Guinness World Records. Venegas is 97 and her fans are still listening to her show “Radio Club Infantil” which airs Sundays at 6-6:30 pm on Santa Rosa, a religion-oriented station. The show, which started in 1944 as a broadcast for sick children, has expanded and contracted over the years—impacted by Peru’s political and economic circumstances. Venegas, who has never been paid for the show, is her own producer and has got her formula down; the show now always includes a story, music, advice and commentary. The story is a salute to tenacity and for doing something you love and think is important enough to do, regardless of the reward.

A 9/11 Story

A 9/11 Story

I was sitting in a small auditorium at the Colegio Americano in Mexico City waiting for the meeting to start. The room was full of women and the occasion was the annual meeting of Mexico’s Secretariat of Education with the school’s parents. I knew I wouldn’t understand most of it; my Spanish listening skills were still feeble although I’d temporarily mastered numbers. But the school administration had sent home shrill notes insisting that parents attend, claiming a correlation between continued accreditation/funding with the number of parents that showed up.

We were new at the school that year. I didn’t see anyone I knew from my vantage point near the rear exit. The murmurs around me were all in Spanish.

As I leafed through my Filofax, a soft exclamation in English sounded from the front row. A blonde women turned to someone behind her as she waved a cell phone. “A plane hit the Twin Towers in New York,” she whispered loud enough for me to hear.

A small plane. A Cessna, I thought. A private pilot must have had a heart attack and veered off course. The plane would have splintered into pieces against the skyscraper. How sad.

With great ceremony, some school officials and a large man in a glen plaid suit mounted the stage and crossed to the podium. There were introductory remarks. The glen plaid suit started speaking on behalf of the Secretariat.

The warm air in the auditorium thickened with a mixture of boredom and expensive perfume. The speaker’s face was moist above the microphone. I had no idea what he was saying.

Whispers again rippled out from the front row in a language I could understand. A second plane had struck the Twin Towers.

No one left. The sweaty Secretariat man droned on for another 30 minutes until finally the school officials thanked him and dismissed the meeting. Maybe he took questions. I don’t remember.

I drove home and turned on the television. It was 11:30 am. At 11:32 I realized the world had fundamentally changed.

And that’s my 9/11 story.

Click here for the 9/11 digital archive. The Archive contains more than 150,000 digital items, a tally that includes more than 40,000 emails and other electronic communications, more than 40,000 first-hand stories, and more than 15,000 digital images.

Click here for the 9/11 memorial website.

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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.

 

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

Get it today on Amazon

Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy http://elbazaarsabado.com/mx/#expositores

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9070692

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.

Cuidadela

The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.

Insurgentes

Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.

Coyoacan

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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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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