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Midwinter Blood: A Thriller

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"The cold stinks." "Maybe. But it still doesn't seem to have any smell, does it?" I have been on quite a Nordic crime fiction kick lately (along with everyone else), so the publication of Kallentoft's MIDWINTER BLOOD in English (as the first of four novels following Superintendent Malin Fors of the Linkoping police) was exciting for me. While all Nordic crime fiction speaks of cold and isolation, MIDWINTER BLOOD adds another dimension that sets it apart: insight into nearly every character's thoughts, even the dead ones.It is cold. Bitterly cold. The cold rises from the pages to make the hottest summer afternoon seem chilly. February in Linkoping is always cold, but this winter is extraordinary. Malin Fors is melancholy, musing on her lost relationship, struggling with her daughter's teenage years, dealing with increasingly difficult aging parents. And now with a mutilated corpse hanging from a tree. A professor at the university contacts the police when the scene reminds him of a midwinter pagan sacrifice, which means the killer may not be finished. The escalating mystery is very well-done, with unexpected twists and challenges. The dead man was an obese man who lived on the fringes of Linkoping, but not as an accepted part of it. Was the motive personal, or was he chosen at random, or because of his marginalization, for a ritual?The dead man thinks, "In a way, it's nice hanging up here." This is not a typical sentence for a thriller, and this is not a typical thriller. The gorgeous language not only describes the cold and unravels the threads of the mystery: it also gives us insight into the character's inner lives. At first, I was not sure the constant interruption of action to share character thoughts (especially of minor or dead characters) was going to work at all for me, but I soon settled into the style and found it illuminating. Fors delves into small-town rumors and innuendo, the torment of the dead man at the hands of cruel teenagers, a strangely isolated family that clings together, and the reader sees their actions and hears their words, but also witnesses their thoughts and feelings. The result is like no other crime novel.Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this novel courtesy of the publisher.
Stranger in the Room: A Novel

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The second novel in a series is critical; after all, a good first novel could be a fluke. The more I like the first in a series, the more I hope the second lives up to its potential, and I am pleased to say that Amanda Kyle Williams more than delivers with her second Keye Street thriller, STRANGER IN THE ROOM. If you missed THE STRANGER YOU SEEK, Keye is a disgraced FBI profiler-turned-P.I., her brilliant career derailed by alcoholism, who gets pulled in as an APD consultant when a serial killer terrorizes Atlanta. Keye is funny but competent, deeply flawed, and self-aware. She's as funny as early Stephanie Plum, but in more intense thrillers (think Karin Slaughter, early Patricia Cornwell). It's an addictive combination. Thrillers are often relentless (which is the point, of course-- to keep the reader turning pages) in gore, action, and suspense, but in a twist on the usual thriller formula, Williams has used her heroine's abundant flaws to inject substantial humor into her books. The suspense is still intense; humor simply provides another layer of enjoyment.Atlanta is practically a character in STRANGER IN THE ROOM. Having made it through a scorching summer, lines like "Atlanta's smoldering summer had dropped down around us like a burning building" really resonate with me. Keye observes of her private investigation business, "Missing persons, surveillance, bond enforcement, and process serving keeps the cash flowing when business slows to a crawl over the winter holidays. But when Atlanta starts to heat up and the glaring southern sun sets our bloodstreams ablaze, when the clothes get skimpy and overworked servers stagger out with trays of frosty pitchers at packed pavement cafes, my phone gets busy." Details of locations and mouth-watering descriptions of restaurant offerings (more on this later) add to the authenticity. Keye struggles with sobriety, and Williams treats alcoholism with great sensitivity and understanding, even as Keye cracks jokes about it.STRANGER IN THE ROOM starts out with Keye's troubled cousin, Miki, asking for help; she's being stalked. Keye isn't sure how much of Miki's account to believe, but when a body turns up in Miki's house, Keye is convinced. Miki is possibly more screwed-up than Keye. "'Are you all right?' she asked, then went on without giving me time to answer. 'Oh, right. The alcohol thing. What's the big deal, anyway? I won't let you get wasted. Just order a fucking drink.' 'That's the worst idea I've heard all day.' She reached into her bag and withdrew a tiny glass vial with a black cap. 'I've got some coke. Would a line help?' That's my Miki, always thinking of others." Meanwhile, APD Lieutenant Rauser has asked for Keye's insight in a serial killer case. These two mysteries make up the main plot, with Keye's private investigation business providing the subplots. One is a bail bonds case that provides quality comic relief (and by "comic relief," I mean, "uncontrollable laughter"), and the other takes Keye up to rural Big Knob, where she investigates odd happenings at a crematorium. The Big Knob case introduces one of my favorite characters in any book in any genre: the politely racist Mrs. Stargell. In a less nuanced novel, Mrs. Stargell would have been a one-dimensional character to hate, but Williams rounds her out nicely, and she steals every scene she's in. I kind of hope future cases take Keye back to Big Knob.Keye's supporting cast is fantastic. Williams is skilled at crafting complex characters, no matter how few words they have in the book. Keye's relationship with Rauser continues to develop in interesting and unexpected ways. He's a great cop: "'Listen to me, people,' Rauser snapped. 'All that DNA shit, it's gonna be great in court. But it's good old-fashioned police work that closes cases. Don't ever forget that.'" But he has a goofy side, too: "Rauser's hand went to his weapon, then slid away when we saw the gray tabby from next door pulling himself up and over the fence. He balanced on top for a couple of seconds, then jumped to the ground and sauntered over to the patch of neglected garden. He dug around, sniffed, turned a few circles, sniffed, dug, then laid back his ears and did his business. 'Little bastard,' Rauser growled, watching the cat with Wile E. Coyote eyes. 'Fucker's looking right at us.' I had to bite my lip and look away. Rauser had unintentionally built a giant cat box in his yard." Her coworker, stoner savant Neil, is hilarious and strangely competent. He and Keye exchange great childish banter that brings out Keye's silly side. "Neil had his electronic devices out, and he was balancing a hotel coffee mug. 'This is going to be one of those three-hour tour things, isn't it? Big Knob's the Minnow and you're Ginger and I'm the professor and we're never getting off the island.' 'You see me as Ginger? Really?' I glanced at myself in the rearview."I'm tempted to quote all the passages I marked that made me laugh out loud (and, in one case, literally slap my knee), but I don't want to spoil the joy for new readers. I'm also tempted to quote all the passages about food (seriously, don't read Williams on an empty stomach!), but I'll just give one example: "She grew poblano peppers in her own garden and stuffed them with cheese and cubed acorn squash she'd sauteed in garlic. She skewered fresh peaches on cinnamon sticks and bathed them in bourbon and honey on the grill until their meat was sweet and smoky. She filled tiny pastry cups with goat cheese and homemade lime curd and glass pitchers with sweet iced tea and fresh thyme. Southern cooking gets a bad rap. But when it's done right, it's a beautiful thing." Besides their other attributes, I think Williams's books could be the foundation for a spectacular cookbook.STRANGER IN THE ROOM stands well on its own, but I can't possibly recommend skipping THE STRANGER YOU SEEK. Do yourself a favor and read both. Quoting extensively in a review is the highest compliment for me: it means the writing is so good, it's best to let it speak for itself.Source disclosure: I received an e-galley of this title courtesy of the publisher and purchased my own hardcover edition.
Lemonade In Winter: A Book About Two Kids Counting Money

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It is freezing outside when Pauline decides to open a lemonade stand. No, make that lemonade, limeade, and lemon-limeade! Her little brother, John-John eagerly joins in, while their parents warn that no one will be outside in this weather. Pauline and John-John are undeterred, and head to the store after ransacking the couch cushions for quarters. They come up with twenty-four quarters, enough for lemons, limes, sugar, and cups. A lovely illustration lays this out visually, with the quarters needed for each item beside that item. They get to work and set up their stand...and no one is outside. They try a number of strategies to attract customers, including a cute little song that is repeated on several pages. They are not bothered by the dearth of customers and appear to be having the time of their lives as they happily bellow out their lemonade song, John-John does cartwheels, and they reduce the price in a lemonade sale. Once the lemonade, limeade, and lemon-limeade run out, they total their earnings, and Pauline is dismayed to realize that they spent more than they earned! John-John helps her find the bright side to this entrepreneurial failure, and the story ends with Pauline's very concise, entertaining explanation of American currency for John-John.I read this with my five-year-old daughter, and we both loved it. We loved the soft, muted illustrations, which include sly details like John-John assembling puzzle pieces under the table before the children head outside. I have tried to get my child interested in the values of coins, to no avail, but she sat rapt through Pauline's explanation (in which she says that nickels are confusing and she wishes they were purple or something). The story is utterly positive, from the moment the kids start their project in spite of their parents' gentle warnings that winter is not the best time to sell lemonade, and the looks of joy on their faces as they attempt to lure customers are priceless. The entrepreneurial spirit, the brother-sister joint project, the creativity the children display at their stand (rewarded by their bemused neighbors), and the lesson that profit isn't the highest value would have made for a wonderful story even without the clear, engaging math lesson! Seriously, my child has shown zero interest in the value of coins, but she was hanging on every word as Pauline explained it to her little brother. Available September 11. I recommend pulling it out on a cold, snowy day when the children are getting cabin fever!Source disclosure: I received access to an early electronic edition of this title from Random House Children's Books.
Potboiler

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POTBOILER by Jesse Kellerman: I haven't read Jesse Kellerman's previous novels, which appear to be complex thrillers, but based on the cleverness he demonstrates in POTBOILER, I'm very interested in reading more of his work. POTBOILER cannot be easily categorized. It's an affectionate parody of the thriller genre, but it functions equally well as a thriller in its own right. However ridiculous and implausible the twists and turns, this novel kept me chuckling at Kellerman's gentle mocking of his own genre while at the same time biting my nails in anticipation. I couldn't help but laugh at myself and how swept up in the absurd action I became.Arthur Pfefferkorn is a college professor with one critically acclaimed novel far, far in his past. He's avoided his oldest friend, William de Vallee, for years, jealous of his wife and his bestselling oeuvre of thrillers while contemptuous of the non-literary genre. When de Vallee disappears and is declared dead, Pfefferkorn takes a reckless step that pulls him into a world of international intrigue, conspiracy, and double crosses. To rescue de Vallee's widow (with whom he is still in love), he takes on a shadowy assignment from a questionable government agency and ventures into Zlabia, an utterly absurd nation divided into two entirely different cultures. Zlabia is a hoot, and it's to Kellerman's credit that I remained engaged in the action despite the ridiculous aspects of Zlabian politics.To point out the cleverest twists would be to spoil the unfolding plot. This is a book I will recommend to everyone I know just so I can talk about it with someone and say, "Wasn't it perfect when Pfefferkorn said X and then Y happened later?!" A devoted thriller fan who sees nothing amusing in the conventions of the genre will not enjoy this book, but anyone who read, say, THE DA VINCI CODE and rolled her eyes at the stilted prose and pat descriptions (while frantically turning the pages to see what happens next) will adore POTBOILER. I am even willing to confess my secret addiction to Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels to illustrate my qualifications in making this recommendation. The over-the-top writing drives me a little crazy and the stereotypes and predictable elements required of the genre make me roll my eyes; yet, I can't not read them.When Pfefferkorn finally reads a de Vallee novel, he is contemptuous:"The thirty-third installment in a series, the novel featured special agent Richard "Dick" Stapp, a brilliant, physically invincible figure formerly in the employ of a shadowy but never-named government arm whose apparent sole purpose was to furnish story lines for thrillers. Pfefferkorn recognized the formula easily enough. Stapp, supposedly in retirement, finds himself drawn into an elaborate conspiracy involving one or more of the following: an assassination, a terrorist strike, a missing child, or the theft of highly sensitive documents that, if made public, could lead to full-blown nuclear engagement. His involvement in the case often begins against his will. I've had it with this rotten business he is fond of avowing. Who in real life, Pfefferkorn wondered, avowed anything?"This over-the-top language turns up in elements of POTBOILER that highlight its absurdity, as in the fabulous description of a character's mustache: "Pfefferkorn could not tell his age, due to a full eighty percent of his face being hidden behind the largest, bushiest, most aggressively expansionist moustache Pfefferkorn had ever seen. It was a a with submoustaches that in turn had sub-submoustaches, each of which might be said to be deserving of its own area code. It was a moustache that vexed profoundly questions of waxing, a moustache the merest glimpse of which might spur female musk oxen to ovulate. It was a moustache that would have driven Nietzsche mad with envy, had he not been mad already. If the three most copiously flowing waterfalls in the world, Niagara, Victoria, and Iguazu Falls, were somehow united, and their combined outputs rendered in facial hair, this man's moustache would not have been an inaccurate model, save that this man's moustache also challenged traditional notions of gravity by growing outward, upward, and laterally. It was an impressive moustache and Pfefferkorn was impressed."Pfefferkorn is fond of coming up with outlandish ideas and wondering if they might be good premises for a novel. Naturally, these wild plot developments turn up in the Zlabian intrigue. Throughout commentary on the Zlabian hit show The Poem, It Is Bad! and the magical disguising power of mustaches, the overly complicated plot unfolds with precision in ways that are both predictable and unexpected. This is a masterful satire of the thriller genre, but at the same time, a fantastic thriller. It might be the ultimate beach read.Source disclosure: I received an uncorrected proof of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.
Criminal: (Will Trent / Atlanta series 3)

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CRIMINAL by Karin Slaughter: Her recent mysteries, featuring Will Trent of the GBI, are set in Atlanta, which is loads of fun for me. My only complaint about her books is that the violence is so extreme. More creative and horrifying torture methods than I'm really looking for. Doesn't anyone just shoot or stab or strangle without some sick, seriously disturbing abuse? But this is not usually a huge part of the narrative, so I read her anyway for the depiction of Atlanta, the excellent mysteries, and the believable, interesting cops.Many series start to lose steam and eventually plod along formulaically, but CRIMINAL is Slaughter's best to date. Will Trent has a troubled past and an odd relationship with Amanda, and Slaughter hasn't rushed to share every detail of his background. This installment is particularly revelatory as far as Will goes, but it's unexpectedly enlightening concerning the racist/sexist history of Atlanta, particularly in the police world. Slaughter has clearly done her research on both the legal/organizational details and the general atmosphere and attitudes of the time."The federal Law Enforcement Assistance Association grant that had created the Atlanta police sex crimes division required all teams to be comprised of three-officer units that were racially and sexually integrated. These rules were seldom followed, because white women could not ride alone with black men, black women - at least the ones who wanted to keep their reputations - did not want to ride with black men, and none of the blacks wanted to ride with any man who was white."That matter-of-fact paragraph sets the tone for a divided police department in which female police officers are laughed at, groped, and sent into danger as a prank. Seeing Amanda in this context gives the reader a full picture of her that we've never had before. Suddenly her tough-as-nails don't-give-a-shit attitude is completely understandable. She's a character who has always intrigued me, but I never thought I would find her sympathetic. Amanda's partner, Evelyn, is married with a child, which adds another dimension to the treatment of women:"Bill and I agreed that we shouldn't keep a loaded gun in the house because of the baby."Words clogged Amanda's throat. She screamed, "Your gun isn't loaded!""Well..." Evelyn dug her fingers into the back of her hair. "It worked out, right?" She let out a strained laugh. "Sure, it worked out. We're both fine. We're both just fine." She looked down at the pimp again.Evelyn's decision to return to the force after having a baby is viewed as utterly bizarre. Slaughter works in other details about attitudes toward women in 1970s Atlanta that are not specific to policing: Women can't open checking accounts, apply for a credit card, or even rent an apartment without cosigning by a husband or father.The racial division in the forcibly integrated police force is equally fascinating/horrifying:There were pockets all over the city where the radios had little or no reception, but that wasn't the problem. A black officer was calling for backup, which meant the white officers were blocking the transmission by clicking the buttons on their mics. In the next hour, a white officer would call for help and the blacks would do the same. And then someone with the Atlanta Journal or Constitution would write an article wondering about the recent spike in crime."It's a wonder that any crimes were solved in this era at all. The 1970s murders are only solved because Amanda and Evelyn ignore the harassment and abuse from the male officers in charge and place themselves in danger to seek out the culprit. Amanda's father would have kept her in line, but he has been temporarily relieved of his lofty position due to racially fueled politics. He has been in the force since Klan affiliation had been compulsory for all Atlanta Police Department members. Amanda is conflicted about carrying on her investigation with Evelyn, but the fact that the murder victims are girls and no one else cares about them spurs her on. The 1970s investigation is told in parallel with a related present-day murder investigation, and the mystery is complex and interesting. Will and Amanda's relationship is finally explained, and the revelations make me more eager to read the next installment in the series.Source disclosure: I purchased this book.
The Whisperer

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This book held so much promise. Translated from the Italian, it suggested an interesting setting, and starting off with six arms found in a field when only five girls have been missing--well, that's gripping. The setting never really coalesces and has none of the details that would make the locale real. It really could have taken place anywhere in Europe. The first half or so is very absorbing, as Mila Vazquez (a missing-persons expert and something of a loner) is brought into a special team dedicated to identifying and locating the missing girls. The plot soon wanders off the rails, though, and in attempting to be a European Silence of the Lambs, becomes convoluted and downright silly. Mila has promise as a damaged investigator, but neither she nor her supporting cast are really fleshed-out enough to feel real.
Death in a Wine Dark Sea

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DEATH IN A WINE DARK SEA by Lisa King is a fantastic mystery featuring an irrepressible female sleuth who is reluctantly drawn into a murder investigation. When we meet Jean Applequist, it is with these words: "Jean Applequist loved having sex on boats but had never managed it on this particular vessel, even though she'd been aboard several times." With this, King establishes her heroine as wildly different from the bland amateur-sleuth mystery heroines I'm used to, and Jean is a breath of fresh air in an often stale subgenre. Jean is on this particular boat for the wedding of her best friend, Diane, to Martin Wingo, whom Jean despises. When he ends up overboard before the cake is cut, Jean isn't exactly sad to see the end of him, but her loyalty to Diane wins out when Diane begs her to look into the death. Accompanied by the much younger Zeppo, Jean begins poking around, finding no end of viable suspects, and realizing that Martin was even more despicable than she had thought.The suspects and supporting characters are well-developed and complex, but the real gem is Jean. She may be the first feminist amateur sleuth, though I haven't done research to be sure. While many amateur sleuths blunder about and wander stupidly into danger, needing rescue, Jean knows her own mind and makes her own plans. She is refreshingly smart and resourceful, and she knows when to ask for help. She and Zeppo play off each other beautifully. Zeppo could be a caricature (horny younger man), but in King's capable hands, he is a rich, thoroughly imagined, interesting man. Jean's friend (and self-defense instructor) Roman and the hilariously complex Ivan are other standouts.King evokes San Francisco through the fog, the food and wine, the scenery. It's a great locale for a mystery, and Jean's day job as a writer for a wine magazine brings in fun tidbits about wine while her love of mystery novels adds its own dimension. The mystery itself is superb; the cast of suspects is large and interesting, and the solution to the mystery unexpected and satisfying. I would certainly follow Jean to future installments of a mystery series.Source disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. I enjoyed it enough to buy my own copy.
In the Bleak Midwinter: A Clare Fergusson and Russ Van Alstyne Mystery

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This was a good mystery featuring a pair of complex sleuths, Russ Van Alstyne and National Guardman-turned-Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson. The mystery, which begins with a baby abandoned at Clare's church and escalates to murder, is engrossing. Millers Kill is a delightful locale. The atmosphere of the upstate New York town is spot-on, and the inhabitants are well-drawn. I go back and forth on whether Clare is a believable priest. She's certainly written much more "human" than other priests in fiction. She does exasperate me with her "too stupid to live female heroine syndrome," but that's easily overlooked. I enjoyed this enough to order the rest of the books in the series on my Kindle.
A Winter Kill

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A WINTER KILL by Vicki Delany is, as advertised, a "rapid read." It took me about twenty minutes. I was really interested to see whether a book written in this fashion (short sentences, limited vocabulary, novella-length) could provide a captivating mystery, and I'm delighted to report that it can. These books are designed for adults, but written at a grade level similar to the chapter books I read aloud to my five-year-old. Delany takes a complicated mystery, a rookie cop, and a host of witnesses and weaves it into an interesting tale. Highly recommended for reluctant readers, ESL learners, readers with literacy challenges, high school age and adult.
Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling: A Novel

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Charlotte Markham is the widowed governess at Everton, home of the handsome widower Mr. Darrow and his two sons. When Nanny Prum is murdered, Charlotte takes on a greater role in the boys' lives. She reluctantly agrees to take the children through the fog to the mysterious House of Darkling, where their dead mother reads them strange bedtime stories and a host of mysterious creatures is revealed.Charlotte is not simply a pawn in this game; she reasons out whether it's better for the children to see their mother or not, and she considers the complex reasons for her fascination with the House of Darkling. After all, she has lost family members, too; if Mrs. Darrow can reappear, why not Charlotte's parents or husband? The more she learns about this strange place, the more wary she becomes, until she finds herself in a contest of wills with the master of the House of Darkling, and if she is not equal to the challenge, more innocent humans will die.Boccacino invokes a delightfully chilling air of Victorian Gothic creepiness throughout the novel, but what I enjoyed most was that he constantly surprised me. This is an homage to Victorian horror, but it is not constrained by those conventions; rather, Boccacino gives his boundless imagination free rein. The creatures we meet in The Ending, the land where the House of Darkling is situated, are extraordinary. For example: "It was about the same size and shape as a grapefruit, but before he could get a good look at it, he glanced up at me, clearly frightened, sensing that something was wrong. The fruit quivered, and with a wet, tearing sound it began to unroll from the inside out, the air laced with the scent of peaches as the thing in his hands untwisted its arms and legs from the pulpy interior of its body and wrenched its head free from it's shell. A baby's face blinked at us with pale blue eyes as Paul dropped it on the ground with a look of utter terror, backing away, his gaze transfixed on the thing as it fell onto its back, protected by what was formerly the leathery skin of the fruit." You don't see that every day, even in horror novels.Charlotte herself is not a meek Victorian governess. That she is a widow sets her apart from the usual virginal girls in that role. Beyond that, she is conscious of her longing for Mr. Darrow and its impact on her decisions. Her formidable nature is hinted at in her discipline of two unruly boys: "'It's nothing to me if you want to kill one another,' I told them. 'I imagine that it would be much easier to care for one child as opposed to two. But I daresay your father would be furious with whichever one of you murders the other. If violence and murder are the methods you choose to use when dealing with family, then we can only surmise the tactics you might use when dealing with your peers would be that much worse. We would be forced to lock you away in the attic for the good of the village. I don't believe that such an existence would be a very pleasant one, but then it's not up to me to make your decisions for you.'" Her humor and assertiveness translate surprisingly well to a life-or-death struggle with otherworldly beings. I would have liked to have seen more of Charlotte's inner thoughts with regard to her dead husband and to Mr. Darrow. Her inclinations aren't very clearly drawn out; one moment, she wonders if her husband could come back from the dead, and the next she is daydreaming about the next Mrs. Darrow. It's a bit of a muddle, but the creepy atmosphere, snappy dialogue, and surprising otherworldly elements more than make up for this deficiency.Highly recommended to any reader who enjoys creative horror or Victorian gothic settings.Source disclosure: I received an e-galley courtesy of the publisher.
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