Fiction Review

So West: Crime Time

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Time to once again saddle up and ride the crime soaked mesas and saguaro studded vistas of Arizona.  The local chapter of Sisters In Crime, the Desert Sleuths, has a new anthology out and its hot as a pistol and dangerous as a cornered rattler.  Each year the gals(and a few guys) produce a new collection of Arizona-set crime tales.
This years brace of 20 tales is, I believe, the strongest yet.  Under the editorial lead of the immensely talented Deborah J. Ledford a great set of stories has emerged.  Called “So West: Crime Time” the Sisters In Crime have done themselves proud.
The stories range from comic to bloody.  There is irony and shocks galore.  The entire physical gamut of our state is made use of and the people we meet continually surprise us.  Rather than single out my favorites (I have no wish to incur the wrath of any of these lethally imaginative writers by slighting someone) I want to praise all 19 women and one man for their superior efforts.  These are stories to savor throughout the year.
Arizona has a strong and varied community of writers from all genres.  This collection is in the vanguard of getting that message out.  This is the third in the “So West” series and they are all fine examples of our homegrown talent.  All 3 collections are available at the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale.  This is a great chance to support a wonderful local resource and to get a great reading experience.

reviewed by Steve Shadow Schwartz

Chance by Kem Nunn

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With huge dollops of The Big Lebowski and rife with twisted noir tropes Kem Nunn’s latest book, “Chance” arrives like a run-away wrecking ball.  This dense and madly enjoyable novel has the requisite femme fatale, the big city corrupt cop and enough shady characters to please any fan of the psychological socio-crime novel.  This is a high-wire act of a book that runs flat out and never falters.  Mr. Nunn has always been an author on the edge and here he grabs his story by the throat and squeezes it for all it’s worth.
“Chance” is the title and chances are what Mr.Nunn takes in this roiling cauldron of a psycho thriller, social satire and gleeful gore fest.  Dr. Eldon Chance, a neuropsychologist, sets forth on a classic noir path that soon turns into a trip down a rabbit hole of horrors.  His journey becomes a series of switchbacks that gather speed towards a climax that is as hilarious as it is profound.
Since being overwhelmed by Kem Nunn’s first book, “Tapping the Source”, I have been a huge fan of his writing.  With “Chance” he delivers big time.  This is much more than just a crime novel.  Rich with echoes of Hammett and everything since, he pulls us along at lightning speed in this clever and richly plotted novel.  Issues of parenting, manhood, and the failures of the modern family ricochet around the central plot.  This is a rich and heady stew that charges ahead on twin rails of suspense and humor.  To reveal anymore of the story would be to temper the page-turning joy of this brilliant take on the classic San Francisco noir-clouded novel.  Clever, funny and exciting, “Chance” is the product of a terrific writer at the top of his game.  Don’t miss it.

reviewed by STEVE SHADOW SCHWARTZFor further reading:

Claire DeWitt and The City of the Dead by Sara Gran
The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Delivering Death by Julie Kramer

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delivering deathAnother page-turning, alternately funny and bone-chilling mystery from Julie Kramer. Riley Spartz, investigative journalist for Channel 3 in Minneapolis is still sparring with her intellectually stunted, over-sexed boss while trying to keep her career afloat. Then there’s her ex-fiancé, who she’s not so sure should stay exed, except he seems to be awfully tight with his attractive new boss so there seems no hope there. Misery does love Riley, but you won’t be miserable reading as Riley’s dry, cynical humor carries a twisty plot that will keep you guessing. Perhaps I should have opened with “tooth-aching” instead of bone-chilling because that’s the clue that starts Riley off on her lethal investigation—the arrival of human teeth in an envelope. Were they taken out while someone was alive? What on earth do they mean? Someone less brave (or less in need of a story) might have left it up to the police to sort out, but Riley plows right through a mass-marriage, a mortuary and any number of other gruesome settings to get things uncovered. Her persistence might get her killed—or someone else she cares about.

Reviewed by Judith Starkston

For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston’s novel, Hand of Fire (coming fr Fireship Press, Sept 10 2014), set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

Until Death by James Thane

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In a well written and skillfully rendered police procedural James Thane fulfills the promise of his first book, “No Place to Die”.  The compelling characters that we met in his first novel return and remain as vivid and fascinating as ever.  Sean, a police detective, is still recovering from his wife’s death.  He is consumed by his work and his grief.  His partner Maggie, not long divorced, is in a new relationship that she is very conflicted about.  Both cops are private people and how they cope with their respective problems while maintaining a healthy working relationship makes for a dynamic reading experience.

The story concerns a date book that is lost by a female “escort”.  Gina Gallagher is a personal trainer by day and a high class hooker by night.  When the men in her date book start showing up dead and threats are made to her, then Sean and Maggie start a hunt that is a race against time.

Gina is portrayed in a realistic and yet sympathetic manner.  The story ramps up quickly and becomes a page turner in the best sense.

We are presented with a twisted skein of false clues, unreliable witnesses and motives galore.

The novel is set in Scottsdale, Arizona and makes full use of this unique location.  Thane gives us a palpable feel for the place by using real locales.  We get a true sense of both the city’s shape, it’s people and it’s life.

Any readers who like Michael Connelly and the tense urban dramas he portrays will find this book a terrific read.

 

A Shadow Review
Steve Shadow Schwartz

For further reading in a similar vein try:
PENANCE by Daniel O’Shea

The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

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Bilyeau’s first book, The Crown, brought us the determined but naïve Joanna Stafford, Dominican nun and daughter of a disgraced aristocratic family, during Henry VIII’s reign. InThe Chalice Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries has sent a more experienced but no less stubborn Joanna out into the secular world where she’s trying to build a quiet life as a weaver of tapestries. A mysterious prophecy and those who would like to use it to further their power and political desires drag her unwittingly into a bizarre plot against the king and his plans to undermine “the true faith” in England. The most powerful people in England once again tug and pull at Joanna, alternately threatening her life (and those she loves) and courting her as an essential element to their plans. Joanna’s devotion to the Catholic Church and her abhorrence of Henry’s destruction of the cloistered life make her willing to participate to a certain extent—a dangerous vulnerability as it turns out—but she becomes entangled in acts that she never anticipated and that violate her deepest beliefs. Faith, its value, and the willingness of supposedly true believers to exploit faith for their own ends, become intriguing, multi-faceted themes in this book. Bilyeau continues from her first book the subtle, complex development of Joanna’s character and combines that with a fast-paced, unexpected plot to hold the reader’s interest on every page. From mystical prophets to court intrigue to the challenges of romance and love amidst those who had once sworn themselves to chastity, The Chalice is writ large across England and the Continent as history and supernatural mysticism combine in this compelling thriller.

 

Reviewed by Judith Starkston

This review first appeared in The Historical Novels Review Issue 64 May 2013.
For other reviews, information about Judith Starkston’s novel, Hand of Fire, set during the Trojan War, as well as background history articles on ancient women, food, and daily life, go to JudithStarkston.com Judith can be followed on Facebook and Twitter

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstol

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This is the first submission in the Minnesota Trilogy, written by the award-winning, Norwegian author and translated by the esteemed Tiina Nunnally.  The setting is the northern part of Minnesota by Lake Superior and the small surrounding communities. The area is populated by Scandinavian immigrants inter-twined with the Native Americans. Lance Hansen, a U.S. Forest Service officer finds a badly wounded visitor and his brutally murdered traveling companion. Both have come from Norway to explore the area. Little is known about them, personally, but they have been observed to be pleasant and enjoying themselves on this trek. Because of jurisdiction requirements, the FBI is brought in, as well as a detective from Norway. Much of Lance’s life is wrapped up in the genealogy and history of the area. He’s been studying a 100-year old murder which gradually provides clues to the current crime, suggesting his estranged brother may have been involved. The tale is rich with history and environmental descriptions which add to the story. The author and his wife lived on Lake Superior for two years, adding authenticity. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys good writing, a strong sense of place and an interesting mix of characters.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Swedish and my last place of residence was Duluth, MN. Needless to way, there was some nostalgia but, more importantly, a reminder of the fury of blizzards and Lake Superior, which made me re-think another location.

Staff Book Review by K. Shaver

Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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“The Panopticon” is the title of a daring first novel by Scottish poet Jenni Fagan, and it describes a halfway house/rehab facility from whose center the administrators can look into the living quarters – including the bathrooms – of every youthful inhabitant, male and female. The story’s central character, Anais, is an angry, sexually-active 15-year-old juvenile delinquent who clings to her eroding humanity while completely mistrusting the adult world after dozens of failed foster home assignments and the murder of a prostitute mother-figure by a customer. To her, the  Panopticon is simply a continuation of the “experiments” the authorities (and life) have always put her through, trying to break her will. She has been sent to this detention home deep in the woods after allegedly beating a  policewoman bad enough to put her in a coma.  Anais, who is usually stoked on whatever drugs are available – and in the Panopticon, the drugs are freely shared via windows and shoestrings – cannot remember the beating despite frequent police interrogations. But the truth is almost irrelevant, since Anais is such a nasty habitual offender that the authorities seem willing to hold her responsible for the policewoman’s condition in retribution for her other offenses. Anais finds her natural “family” at the Panopticon. The lost children who inhabit the facility bond to survive, much like those in “Lord of the Flies,” or “A Separate Peace,” but with more sexual agility, and fiercely protect their own against administrators, guests, and outsiders whom they encounter when allowed out on tightly-scheduled free time. The authentic Scottish dialect is not at all hard to follow, and the writing is snappy, gritty, and profane, with humor often softening the nearly-unceasing misery facing these children . Fagan leads us into all the dark and personal places where her characters live, and we watch them as they abuse themselves and others, casually turn from one drug to another, and curse the irresistible life in which they seem forever trapped, without giving thought to the consequences of their actions or their futures, for they cannot imagine living long enough for either to be meaningful.  The book is alternately depressing, sad, and joyful. You will come away from “The Panopticon” desperately wishing someone would “save” Anais, but frustrated at her own inability to keep the demons at bay.

reviewed by: Lawrence A. Katz