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White or red?

White with Fish, Red with Murder: A Frank Swiver Novel by Harley Mazuk (Driven Press, $15.99, 372 pages)

white with fish

White with Fish, Red with Murder is a debut work by Harley Mazuk.  This is a mystery novel with some clever locations, quirky characters, and pitch perfect 1940s dialogue.  The narrator, Frank Swiver, is a private detective in San Francisco – circa 1948, who is eager for a paying client.  As luck would have it, Frank’s interest in wine is the ticket to a job!  Retired General Lloyd F. Thursby has planned an excursion on his private rail car with wine tasting as the entertainment.

“Hey, sweetheart.  Sorry I was late.  You look like a million bucks, you know?”

The general has an ulterior motive.  His good friend Rusty O’Callaghan was murdered and the general wants Swiver to finger the guilty party as the train wends its way from Oakland, CA to the wine country.  Swiver, under cover as a writer, brings along his trusty secretary/girlfriend, Vera, ostensibly as his date; but actually Vera is working with Swiver.  The party becomes complicated as each of the invitees boards the train.  The most notable guest, as far as Swiver and Vera are concerned, is Rusty’s widow, Cici O’Callaghan.  And, to make matters more complicated, Swiver and Cici have a shared romantic past.

“Look kid, I know you’re sore at me.  But the surest way to get you out of here is to find the real killer…”

Author Harley Mazuk has done his homework.  The cast of characters is straight out of a black and white mystery movie ala George Raft and Edward G. Robinson.  Even their names are indicative of the era.  And the language fits the period:  “A dame who may have been on the make perched at the other end (of the bar).”

Mazuk’s attention to detail is remarkable.  Of course it helps that this reviewer’s all-time favorite movie is the 1944 classic, Laura, making me a suitable critic of these matters.  And, I think mystery readers of all ages will be sure to enjoy the train trip and ensuing action to its conclusion.

The only slight detraction lies with the book’s cover art.  Yes, the story could be considered to be of the noir genre; however, the color and placement of the author’s name is far too dark.  Mazuk deserves better billing.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was received from a publicist.

“A delicious throwback to the  PI stories of Hammett and Chandler when all the dames had shapely gams.”  Alan Orloff, author of Running From the Past.

 

 

 

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Get Your Danish On!

America the Anxious: How the Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks by Ruth Whippman (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 247 pages)

america the anxious

Happiness is so individualized and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – of circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences, and personality quirks – that anything averaged over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.

Is it possible for a British writer and documentary filmmaker to capture the underlying cause of what seems to be a pervasive sense of anxiety in the United States of America?  Ruth Whippman is transplanted to Berkeley, California when her husband takes a job across the pond.  She brings with her the typical negative/sarcastic attitude acquired in her homeland. (“Cynicism is the British shtick, our knee-jerk starting point.”)

This slender gray volume appears to be a survey of what makes American anxious; however, it segues into a memoir of the author’s search for happiness in the Golden State.  Ms. Whipmann begins her residency with her husband and one toddler and adds another child along the way.  The local experiences she describes vary from playground interactions with other moms and kiddies to encounters with her apartment neighbors.

To her credit, Whippman travels to other regions of this anxious nation to gather a broader view of her topic.  The seemingly content and happy Mormons in Utah are the focus of her fieldwork.  She also delves into academia, parenting and workplace standards of contentment.

The accolades on the book jacket extolling the author’s wit and hilarious humor are relatively accurate, if exaggerated.  Although America the Anxious does have its share of laughs and comic relief, the quote above left this reviewer with a sense of being let down.  We may be portrayed as a nation of Nervous Nellies but not everyone is pursuing happiness with a negative result.

This may  have made for a fascinating inflight article.  As a book, it’s overly padded with one person’s viewpoints, anecdotes, and opinions. Therefore, it is recommended only for those with the preexisting view that the U.S. is a nation of sad, miserable people.

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking (William Morrow, $19.99, 221 pages)

little book of hygge

Right off, readers intent on quality of life improvement might recognize a physical similarity between The Little Book of Hygge and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Spark Joy by Marie Kondo.  All three books measure slightly over 5″ x 7″ and their covers are coated in that smooth durable finish meant for ease in handling without wear and tear.  After all, if one is planning to absorb and implement the wisdom within its covers, a book must be portable and sturdy.

little book hygge all year around

The lovely illustrations generously sprinkled among the words of encouragement written by Meik Wiking are immediately recognizable as Scandinavian.  Just as Ms. Kondo’s cute and dainty illustrations are very much in keeping with the modern Japanese style of Hello Kitty.  While Ms. Kondo’s are neat and tidy primers on folding and storing one’s possessions, Mr. Wiking’s contain ample clues to the elements of Hygge that the Danes enjoy year round.  Clothing, candles, yummy recipes, fireplaces and, did I mention candles?

little book hygge definitionAuthor Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute located in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Readers may not be aware of the fact that Denmark is considered one of the happiest nations in the world.  (More than Disneyland?  – Ed.) Ample graphs and charts comparing Denmark to other nations establish this fact along with a more than sufficient amount of text explaining this phenomenon.

What secrets are lurking in this volume?  Well, maybe not exactly secrets so much as a comprehensive examination of the definition of Hygge that is parsed out into human, environmental and psychological elements.  These elements, when combined, can provide the comfort and even a sense of well being that each of us truly needs in the current world.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

 

 

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A Six Pack of Mystery Novels

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A Death at the Yoga Cafe: A Mystery by Michelle Kelly (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 261 pages)

What could be more wholesome than a yoga studio/vegetarian cafe in a small English village?  Everyone knows everyone else; Keeley Carpenter, the proprietor of said studio/cafe, is dating Ben Taylor, the local detective.  The bucolic atmosphere in town abruptly shifts when a prominent citizen is found murdered.  Of course Keeley, who is a curious and bold young woman, jumps right in and does some detecting of her own.  It’s a recipe for danger!  This book has a bonus feature.  Scattered among the chapters are instructions on yoga poses.  The most appropriate entry is corpse pose, which is located at the end of the chapter in which the murder is discovered.  Death at the Yoga Cafe is the second book in a series featuring Keeley Carpenter.

Well recommended.

teetotaled

Teetotaled: A Mystery by Maia Chance (Minotaur Books, $24.99, 291 pages) 

The era is the 1920s and the action takes place in and around New York City.  Widowed socialite Lola Woodby and her former cook Berta Lundgren have teamed up to form a business, the Discrete Retrieval Agency.  Lola’s husband died leaving her penniless after years of enjoying the high life.  Their cases have mostly focused on finding lost pets for well-to-do clients.  A high stakes case finds its way to their office/apartment.  A diary belonging to the daughter of Lola’s mother’s best friend must be purloined.  The revelation of corruption, war crimes, envy, greed and determination uncovered by the lady detectives are timeless, yet author Chance makes them fun to read about when mixed with her wry, droll humor.

Highly recommended.

The Champagne Conspiracy: A Wine Country Mystery by Ellen Crosby (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 360 pages)

champagne-conspiracy

This book, the seventh in the Wine Country Mystery series, is heavy on detail regarding grape growing, wine production and family dynasties in present day Virginia and California as well as both locales during American Prohibition.  The lives of many of the characters are interwoven both in the past and the present.  Lucie Montgomery inherited the family estate vineyard in Virginia and she is determined to produce a high quality product.  Her comrade in wine making is Quinn Santori, a fellow with a closely guarded past.  Together they face some rather harrowing scrapes with death while planning the bottling of a sparkling wine, a new addition to their carefully crafted line.  Readers new to Crosby would doubtless appreciate a bit more character introduction.

Recommended.

Buried in the Country: A Cornish Mystery by Carola Dunn (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 324 pages)

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The charming fourth installment of the Cornish Mystery series set in the 1970s is an escape to a bucolic area of the United Kingdom where the pursuit of criminals requires the navigational skills of local fixture, Eleanor Trewynn.  Ms. Trewynn is a retired executive of an international nonprofit agency who now gathers donations for a local thrift shop.  Her skills at cross-border negotiation are what lead to involvement in a secret conference regarding apartheid held by a friend in the Commonwealth Relations Department.  Ms. Trewynn’s niece, Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow, is to provide security at a hotel on the coast.  There are evil spies who want to derail the event.  One crime leads to another and the reader is brought along for a wild ride through the Cornish countryside while the bad guys bumble along back lanes and impassible roads just ahead of the police.

Highly recommended.

The Reek of Red Herrings: A Dandy Gilver Mystery by Catriona McPherson (Minotaur Books, $26.99, 295 pages)

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This 1930s British murder mystery from Catriona McPherson featuing Dandy Gilver and her partner in detecting Alec Osborne will delight readers.  Dandy and Alec have been working together for eight years; however, the outlandish predicaments these two willingly take on here are by far the best of the series.  Christmas time or not, the two accept a job from Mr. H. Birchfield, an importer and distributor of fish, herring to be precise.  The partial remains of a human have sullied a barrel of his product.  Birchfield wants Dandy and Alec to travel to Banffshire coast and solve the “who” and “why” of this creepy occurrence.  Never mind that Christmas is but a few days away and Dandy will miss celebrating with her husband and sons.  The treacherous cliffs along the seacoast, rain, wind and seriously inbred inhabitants make for ideal subjects of this the fifth in author McPherson’s series.  Be prepared for laughs and groans as she fills the pages with puns and outlandish characters!

Highly recommended.

Murder at the 42nd Street Library: A Mystery by Con Lehane (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 320 pages)

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Con Lehane presents the first mystery of his new series featuring Raymond Ambler, a mild mannered librarian at the world famous 42nd Street research library located at 476 Fifth Avenue in New York City.  Ray, as his coworkers refer to him, is the curator of the crime fiction collection.  While the collection is a figment of Author Lehane’s imagination as is Ray’s boss’s office, the rest of the library is accurately depicted in stunning detail.  Who knew that a cold blooded murder could take place within the hallowed halls of the glorious Beau Arts building that is guarded by two fierce lion statues?  The lives of several famous and infamous mystery writers are tangled into a confounding web of murders and past evil deeds.  This is no breezy read because the details matter and not all the clues lead to a convenient solution.

Well recommended.  

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

 

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Take it Easy

moments-mindfulness

Moments of Mindfulness: Anti-Stress Coloring & Activities for Busy People by Emma Farrarons (Boxtree Ltd., $9.95, 112 pages)

It’s a first aid kit for stress wrapped in the covers of a book – more than just a coloring book and less than a full-blown self-help treatise.  Author/illustrator Emma Farrarons infuses each page with her cheery and charming approach to life. Her drawing style is flowing and energetic, in a positive energy way.  A third of the book is devoted to mindfulness activities that are scattered among the pages.

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The activity topics vary widely from small exercises like neck stretches that can be accomplished anywhere to regular daily tasks done at home such as ironing and food preparation.  There is even a template for embroidery.  Farrarons realizes that life in general offers opportunities for releasing stress and becoming mindful, hence the suggestions for walking along a different route to work or while out walking for exercise.

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The book is 5″ by 7″ by one-half inch, making it just the right size for slipping into a tote bag or jacket pocket.  There are many small sets of colored pens and pencils available for purchase in art supply stores or over the Internet to complete an anti-stress kit.  Of course crayons will work as well.

Moments of Mindfulness delivers on its promise.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Three for the Read

fallout

Fallout: A V.I. Warshawski Novel by Sara Paretsky (William Morrow, $27.99, 448 pages)

The latest V.I. Warshawski mystery (the 21st in the series) moves away from V.I.’s usual stomping grounds in and around Chicago to Lawrence, Kansas in the heart of the Midwest.   As the tale begins, V.I. has been hired to find two missing persons, a former movie star and a trainer at the local gym who also happens to be a videographer.   Emerald Ferring and August Veriden disappeared the week prior without leaving an itinerary or contact information.   August’s cousin, Angela Creedy, and V.I.’s young friend, Bernardine Fouchard, are adamant that something awful has happened.

Author Paretsky explores the racial and regional biases within the area surrounding Lawrence.   She takes a 360-degree view that includes the clergy, the military, university cell biologists, and private industry.   There are flashbacks to the mid 1980s when protest by local militants included encampments at a Minuteman missile silo.   Paretsky lets fly with her views on the cruel actions taken to cover up the serious harm inflicted on innocent civilians.   V.I. and Paretsky are on the case!

Well recommended.

Fallout will be released on April 18, 2017.

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No Place to Die: A Novel by Clare Donoghue (Minotaur Books, $27.99, 372 pages)

Clare Donoghue has developed a relatively new mystery series featuring London police officers Jane Bennett and Mike Lockyer.   No Place to Die is the second installment in this classic British police procedural set in present day London.   Bennett is the featured character in this tale.   The way she is portrayed brings to mind Maeve Kerrigan in Jane Casey’s crime novels.   The diabolical nature of the crimes to be solved by Bennett is reminiscent of Peter James’ Roy Grace series.   There are the typical British words and phrases liberally used throughout the text – bottom of the garden, fringe (hair bangs), etc.

No Place to Die includes victims buried alive that need rescuing in very short order.   Each chapter examines the action from various characters’ viewpoints.   Jane Bennett is dealing with her absentee boss, Mike Lockyer, who was traumatized by their prior case.   Jane’s son, Peter, is autistic.   Jane must rely on the assistance of her somewhat helpful mother who steps in to care for Peter when casework calls Jane away after school hours.   Life is not easy!

Well recommended.

poisonous

Poisonous: A Novel by Allison Brennan (Minotaur Books, $25.99, 354 pages)

Back in the USA on the west coast we meet Maxine Revere, an investigative reporter who is contacted by an 18-year-old developmentally disabled boy named Tommy.   His half-sister died as the result of a fall from a cliff in Corte Madera, California more than a year ago.   Ms. Revere, or Max as she is known, becomes entangled in the issues of a very dysfunctional family.   There are the usual matters of jealousy and bickering that happen among teens.   When you add divorce and remarriage by the dad to a woman who has her own teenager, there’s bound to be trouble.

Allison Brennan has had over 20 novels published since 2005.   Poisonous is her latest.   Clearly, Ms. Brennan is very good at character development as well as weaving plot threads.   The book is engaging if not a bit challenging.   Perhaps the array of relationships that sometimes confused this reviewer could have been simplified with a chart of the characters.   That aside, I’m unable to resist enumerating the parallels between Ms. Brennan and myself.   They are threefold: we both reside in the same community; each of us has worked in government; and we share an astrological sign.

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I look forward to reading more of her books.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Of Cabbages and Kings

the-muse

The Muse: A Novel by Jessie Burton (Ecco, $27.99, 390 pages)

At first glance, The Muse presents as a carefully constructed novel composed of six distinct parts each of which is titled and separated into time frames – set in 1936 and 1967. Upon further examination, the reader might notice that the chapters set in 1936 are numbered sequentially with Roman numerals while the ones set in 1967 are numbered with Arabic numerals. The final chapter is an afterward. Moreover, the last element is a bibliography that attests to the author’s immersion in the lives and events of her characters.

Thoughtful and elegant book design is integral to the experience of the novel contained between its covers. The Muse delights the reader with illustrated pages that define each part. The illustrations are black, white and grey tone depictions of paint on canvas with a type font typical of the 1930s era. They serve as a reminder that the underlying theme of the tale is the convoluted history a work of visual art may have hidden in the daubs of paint applied to the canvas.

Author Jesse Burton has written a most engaging tale about two women of artistic talent who endure deeply emotional journeys for the sake of their work. Odelle Bastien, an emigre to London from Port of Spain, Trinidad is stuck in a dead end job at a shoe store. Odelle and her best friend, Cynthia, have shared a flat for five years. Cynthia encourages Odelle to pursue her gift of writing. The chapters that are narrated by Odelle are set in 1967.

Olive Schloss lives in the bucolic countryside of pre-civil war Spain near Malaga, Southern Spain. Her father, Harold Schloss, is a Jewish art dealer who only sees value in the paintings created by men. Olive yearns for success and acknowledgement as she paints with her heart and soul in the attic of the rented house she, her father and beautiful mother, Sarah, occupy. Their chapters are narrated in the third person and are, of course, set in 1936.

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As each life contains a bit of mystery, so do the lives of Odelle and Olive. Rather than a procedural “whodunit”, this book unfolds organically and weaves back upon itself. Author Burton is in her mid-thirties and by most standards rather young to have crafted such an elegant tale. There’s no need to rush through the pages. The experience is well worth savoring.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Muse was released on July 26, 2016. Jesse Burton is also the author of The Miniaturist, a New York Times bestselling novel.

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Four on the Floor

Four British Mysteries featuring Inspector Banks by Peter Robinson.

peter-robinson

Peter Robinson is an author who has been busy creating an engaging series of mystery novels since 1987. He’s wildly popular and yet, somehow this reviewer has missed out on the entertaining Inspector Alan Banks series. Enter a selection sent by the publisher containing the most recent work, When the Music’s Over (#23), and two trade paper versions of previously released books, In a Dry Season (#10) and In the Dark Places (#22).

What followed was a marathon session of immersion into this series. The bonus was finding a dated advance reader’s copy of Bad Boy (#19) that had been shelved in our library since 2010! Author Robinson is a master at bringing the reader into the atmosphere of his tale. City or country, each is thoroughly believable. Music also performs a role in setting the pace of the action as well as giving the reader a sense of his characters’ tastes and temperaments.

Robinson often develops two strong plot lines that converge in the solution to the mystery/murder case being investigated. These plot lines can be set in the past and the present, or simultaneously occurring the present. Of the four books I’ve read, all have been primarily located in London and rural areas of England with some travel to other countries.

The characters one comes to know and appreciate are: Inspector Alan Banks – later in the series he’s Detective Superintendent Banks; Detective Inspector Annie Cabbot – Banks’ sidekick and onetime love interest; Banks’ daughter, Annie, who ages as the series progresses; and various members of the police squads wherever Banks is assigned.

The main crime topic is always murder, usually with a side dish of criminal enterprises including kidnapping, drug sales, and general mayhem. As one would expect, there are ample red herrings to keep the reader working along with Banks, Cabbot, et al.

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In a Dry Season: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 442 pages)

In a Dry Season opens with a prologue dated 1967. A woman who has been recently widowed has a secret past. She travels to the town where she grew up, Hobbs End, which is now at the bottom of a reservoir. Next, the story shifts to present day (1999) where a young boy is exploring the ruins of Hobbs End that have been recently exposed due to a drought. The boy, much to his horror, unearths a skeleton.

What follows is a British police procedural complete with the attitudes toward female detectives prevalent in that era. Three well-developed plot lines provide the reader with a most engaging read.

Highly recommended.

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Bad Boy: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 352 pages)

Bad Boy features Tracy Banks, at this time a young adult, who is distancing herself from her father. Tracy is working at a dead end job after doing poorly on her college exams. Roommate Erin Doyle is not much better off in her waitressing job; although she does have an attractive boyfriend who gives her gifts and shows Erin a good time. Jaff, the boyfriend, has no visible means of support – hence he’s most likely the bad boy of the book’s title.

The young women and their respective families have been friends for many years. All the normal life that went before is horribly derailed by misguided acts that result in consequences that neither girl could have possibly anticipated. The tale brings the reader with Annie Cabbot and Alan Banks as they traverse the English countryside hunting for Tracy and Jaff.

Highly recommended.

In the Dark Places: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $14.99, 336 pages)

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In the Dark Places has the most convoluted and intricate plot lines of the four books I read. Inspector Banks and his team are challenged by several peculiar disappearances and subsequent murder discoveries. Their best detecting skills are needed when a young man goes missing and a truck driven by a seasoned driver tumbles off a slick and twisting road during a hailstorm killing the driver and tossing his cargo onto the steep hillside below the road.

DNA, cell phone records and GPS tracking are heavily relied upon in order to crack the multiple crimes committed by a devious and thoroughly ruthless mastermind whose obsession with money powers his actions. Author Robinson’s smooth writing allows the reader to be engaged while navigating the plot developments that are clever and even subtly misleading.

Well recommended.

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When the Music’s Over: An Inspector Banks Novel by Peter Robinson (William Morrow, $25.99, 421 pages)

When the Music’s Over is a slowly developing police procedural that follows two cases. The first is a cold case involving the rape of vulnerable underage teens perpetuated by a highly successful man in show business who is now in his mid-eighties. The second is the discovery of a brutally murdered white teen whose life was ended on a country road after being brutally attacked by men in a van.

The two cases are simultaneously investigated; the cold case is assigned to DS Alan Banks and the teen murder is assigned to DI Anne Cabbot. Although the exploitation of teen girls is the common theme of the cases, that’s where the similarity ends. A rich white man and a group of scheming Pakistani men could not be more dissimilar in their social standing. Regardless, the end justifies the means for both.

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This, the most recent of the series, tends to develop at a painstaking pace for nearly half the book. Once the groundwork has been completed, the action picks up and the reader is rewarded with some serious detective work involving bravery and solid instincts. Caution, this tale is not for the faint of heart.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publisher.

When the Music’s Over was released on August 9, 2016.

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