Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky
by Margaret Verble
Entertaining and thought-provoking historical fiction. (9/25/2021)
When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is the third novel by American Pulitzer Prize finalist, Margaret Verble. It’s 1926 and Cherokee horse diver Two Feathers is performing at Glendale Park and Zoo near Nashville, Tennessee, regularly sending money home to her family at The Miller Brothers One Hundred and One Ranch in Oklahoma. She loves the animals of the zoo, especially the bison, and enjoys the company of three friends: Marty and Franny Montgomery, the Juggling Juggernauts, and Hank Crawford, the stable hand.

Two is used to propositions from male fans, but had her heart broken during the winter at home so she is wary of communications from a man who calls himself Strong-Red-Wolf, clearly a fake Indian name. Little Elk, on the other hand, is no fake, but she’s mostly unaware of his presence. It takes him a while to understand why he has, once more, been drawn from the afterlife into the in-between: “To kill the murderous night-going witch. To save the woman and animals.”

James Shackleford, owner of Glendale, consults with Two about establishing a box-turtle race as an attraction. Before this can get going, though, disaster strikes Two’s act and she ends up on crutches after being rescued from an underground cave-in by Clive Lovett, the Zoo’s general manager. Her enforced inactivity allows her to see certain things from a different perspective: the sick hippo, the romantic pursuit by the charming college anthropology graduate, and her performing future.

Verble populates her tale with a large cast, some of whom she allocates a vignette, while others receive much more than a potted history. And those characters are not exclusively human: buffalo, bear, monkey and hippopotamus also make a significant contribution.

Perhaps the most interesting are the zoo manager who, haunted by his wartime experience, becomes aware of spirits present in the park; Two Feathers, with her strong connection to the animals and her distrust of most whites; deep-thinking Hank whose genuine care for Two is unstinting; and Little Elk, whose naive perspective on a modern world occasionally provides humour.

Verble easily evokes the era with the customs of the day and the mindset of the community with regards the black population and the Indians, and the controversial Scopes trial and appeal. Her plot manages to include a scalping, theft from a tomb, electrocution, a spirit with a tobacco craving, several romances and, trigger warning, the death of three animals.

Verble states in her notes that many of the characters are based on the lives of real people, while certain activities and events have basis in fact. It is clear that her research on such topics as massacres omitted from teaching, and mass robbing of Indian graves, is thorough. Entertaining and thought-provoking historical fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Blowback: Enzo Files Series
by Peter May
an enjoyable read (9/20/2021)
Blow Back is the fifth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. Having achieved more than the French police had managed to with four of Roger Raffin’s cold cases, Enzo Macleod heads to the auberge at Saint-Pierre that houses Chez Fraysse, a Michelin-three-starred restaurant.

Unlike the reception he received with earlier cases, he is made welcome by both the young Gendarme, Dominique Chazal, and the victim’s widow and older brother: all claim that their most fervent desire is for Enzo to solve the murder of celebrity chef, Marc Fraysse. On his customary afternoon run, seven and a half years earlier, Marc was shot dead in a buron on the ridge track, his mobile phone missing. But not everyone at Chez Fraysse seems happy with Enzo’s presence.

Elisabeth Fraysse maintains that Marc was loved by all, had no enemies except for the food critic who made public a rumour that Marc was about to lose a star. Dominique tells Enzo she was unimpressed with the detective high fliers who came to investigate. Finding Marc’s laptop still in his bureau, Enzo concludes she may be right. Incredibly, it seems that investigators, when they did not find a document stating in 36-point font “My killer is XX”, looked no further. Enzo does, with an interesting result.

Enzo has set up someone on staff to helpfully provide inside information, although that backfires in an unexpected manner. The gossip thus garnered does provide three possible suspects; perusal of the draft of Marc’s memoir yields further motives; and a certain compulsive vice of Marc’s points to yet more.

As usual, Enzo attracts a woman: this one conveniently owns the sniffer dog that comes in handy later. There’s an attempt on his life, a couple of trips to Paris, some welcome and some unwelcome news about his daughter, Kirsty, and a favour called in from a documents expert. Three young women press Enzo to demand access to the baby son he has not yet seen.

While it’s true the setting is a gourmet restaurant with a seventy-thousand bottle cellar, Enzo waxes lyrical about meals and wines so many times that it does get just a bit tedious. And it seems odd that Enzo only reads the earlier parts of Marc’s memoir (which, incidentally set him off on uncomfortable reminiscences of his own) when the most recent might have provided more relevant information.

Despite a few plot holes, this is still an enjoyable read: there are plenty of red herrings (not all of them convincing) in the lead up to a dramatic climax that involves guns, quite a bit of spilled wine and broken glass, and the twist is excellent. The next instalment, Cast Iron is eagerly anticipated.
False Witness
by Karin Slaughter
a brilliant read as always (9/10/2021)
False Witness is the fourth stand-alone novel by best-selling American author, Karin Slaughter. Leigh Collier has only worked for mega legal firm, Bradley, Canfield and Marks since COVID shut down her sole practice a year ago, so she’s surprised to get a call from partner Cole Bradley. Apparently, the client, Andrew Trevor Tenant is the scion of luxury car dealership chain, Tenant Automotive Group, and has insisted she represent him.

Andrew has been charged with a particularly violent rape and aggravated assault, has dismissed his lawyer two days earlier, and his trial starts in just over a week. Even as she is introduced, in the opulent partners’ conference room, to Andrew, his fiancée and his mother, Leigh is puzzled by their request.

It’s the smirk that she recognises from some twenty-three years earlier, and her unease quickly turns to dread as Andrew later hints at impossible knowledge of a crime committed by two teenaged sisters. The details of his own alleged crime, and possible earlier ones, unsettle her deeply. What does he know, and what does he want?

Callie and Harleigh emerged from a dysfunctional childhood and adolescence, Callie’s cheerleading injuries producing a junkie, Harleigh’s hard work and determination yielding a lawyer. Neither would claim to be a saint, both have spent time in juvie, but if Andrew knows about this incident from their past, then exposure will demolish the lives they are living now.

Faced with the dilemma that pits justice, her reputation as a lawyer, and her job against the safety and sanity of her husband, her sixteen-year-old daughter and her sister, can Leigh do her job, act within the law in defending this psychopath and still somehow remove his power to harm? Or does she submit to his control? And for how long?

Her sister Callie, a graduate with honours of the school of hard knocks, plays by a very different rulebook, and the implied threat to her niece has made her very angry indeed. To what lengths will she go to neutralise the menace he poses?

What a talented author is Karin Slaughter! She manages to take some very gritty subjects (the poor management of drug addiction, the grooming of children by paedophiles, discrimination in sexual assault cases, to name a few) and build a story that addresses these convincingly, if quite graphically. The narrative is filled with tension, relieved occasionally by traces of black humour, and a dash of romance. There are red herrings and twists, some of which will have the reader gasping.

Slaughter is skilled at creating both characters to care for (and get choked up about in certain emotional moments) and characters to thoroughly despise (several of those are offered here), and has the reader cheering on these two strong women, for all their very human flaws, as they face a test of wits and guts. Two men who provide solid support also deserve admiration.

Slaughter does not shy away from the existence of the COVID pandemic, does not set her novel in an alternative present that knows no virus, but rather, realistically includes it in her story with the mention of Zoom, masks, distancing, hand sanitising, and with protagonists who are survivors of it, giving her novel authenticity without overwhelming it. A brilliant read, as always.
The Man Who Died Twice: Thursday Murder Club Mysteries #2
by Richard Osman
Hugely entertaining (9/9/2021)
The Man Who Died Twice is the second book in the Thursday Murder Club series by British TV presenter, producer, director, and novelist, Richard Osman. After the excitement of all the recent murders, things have calmed down at Coopers Chase retirement village, but Joyce Meadowcroft notices that, at the most recent meeting of the Thursday Murder Club, her good friend Elizabeth is a bit distracted.

Turns out, one of the units at Coopers Chase has temporarily become a safe house for an ageing, politically incorrect spy and Elizabeth is roped into baby-sitting a man she knows too well: her former life has come calling. This man makes an unwelcome declaration of love and a confession which concerns the reason for his concealment.

While DCI Chris Hudson and PC Donna De Freitas (ineptly) practice their covert surveillance skills on Fairhaven’s newest drug baroness, Ibrahim Arif has cause to regret his decision to make a solo outing into town when he is mugged by a teenaged trio. His friends are certainly not going to let that go unanswered…

Ostensibly a builder, Bogdan Jankovski is actually a man of many talents, be they playing chess with a demented husband, acquiring ten thousand pounds worth of cocaine (a disappointingly small parcel), or assisting Elizabeth “I’ll also need you to drive me to meet an international money launderer today, if you’re free?”

International money launderer, Martin Lomax has a bit on his mind: competing are thoughts of the Ukrainian who has just agreed to buy some decommissioned Saudi anti-aircraft missiles for twelve million dollars for which he plans to kidnap a racehorse as down payment, the Open Garden Day Martin is hosting, and the missing twenty million pounds worth of diamonds that the New York mafia are going to want back soon.

Ron Ritchie may be in his seventies, but he, too, is a versatile fellow, hosting his clever and inquisitive eight-year-old grandson as well as convincingly posing as both a plumber (overalls are so comfy!) and a London drug dealer.

Joyce’s (badly-)knitted, sequinned friendship bracelets are gently foisted upon almost everyone she meets. These, along with a cheap locket, a crisp packet, a left luggage locker key and the employment of some old spy tricks, play a significant role in the location of Martin Lomax’s missing diamonds, and the discovery of the identity of the murderer.

Whether describing outings like the Eurostar to Antwerp in her chatty journal entries, or signing up for Instagram with an innocently-chosen but unfortunate handle, or hiding diamonds, Joyce is an utter delight: she may often seem preoccupied by something mundane, but should never be underestimated, because she catches every detail. She is terribly pleased to learn she is on MI5’s radar, then thrilled to be blindfolded and interrogated by them, a session that is laugh-out-loud funny.

Once again, a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour that should probably not be read in the Quiet Carriage of public transport as it is likely to have readers chuckling, snickering and even guffawing. Hugely entertaining.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK
The Thursday Murder Club
by Richard Osman
a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour (9/4/2021)
The Thursday Murder Club is the first book in the series of the same title by British TV presenter, producer, director, and novelist, Richard Osman. When builder, property developer and drug dealer, Tony Curran is bludgeoned to death in his kitchen, the members of the Thursday Murder Club are inordinately delighted. They are accustomed to discussing cold cases from police files; a real live case is much more exciting!

The Thursday Murder Club meets weekly in the Jigsaw Room at Coopers Chase retirement village, of which they are all residents. Their leader, Elizabeth, is circumspect about her former life but it possibly involved espionage; Ibrahim Arif is a former psychiatrist; Joyce Meadowcroft, who strikes most people as quiet and sensible, was a nurse; Ron Ritchie, an infamous trade-union leader; and their now non-verbal, but never excluded member, Penny Gray was a Detective Inspector with Kent Police. PC Donna De Freitas, ex-London Met, has recently become an unofficial member.

The members, two of whom saw the pair arguing, are fairly certain that the owner of Coopers Chase, Ian Ventham murdered Tony Curran: he had motive, means and opportunity. Donna would love to be involved with the Murder Squad, solving this crime, but is relegated to school visits and home security talks. Until, that is, Elizabeth wields her mysterious influence, and she becomes DCI Chris Hudson’s shadow. After all, the Thursday Murder Club needs a reliable information source.

Elizabeth and Joyce manage to track down some interesting facts that point to motive. Before they progress very far with the case, however, there is another murder, during a blockade of the adjoining cemetery, and present are residents, neighbours, members of the TMC, and their two tame cops: a not-inconsiderable suspect pool.

Meanwhile, a set of bones is located where they shouldn’t be, and one of the suspects dies, all keeping the police and the TMC busy investigating and second-guessing the conclusions they reach.

Before they manage to solve two (or three?) murders, a trip to a Cypriot prison, a skating rink and a Folkestone florist are made, some evening spadework at a gravesite is done, a disused chapel confessional is brought into play, chess is played and much tea, alcohol and cake are consumed.

The story is told through a narrative from multiple perspectives interspersed with Joy Meadowcroft’s chatty journal entries. With its hugely entertaining dialogue, this is a perfect mix of cosy crime fiction and British humour that should probably not be read in the Quiet Carriage of public transport as it is likely to have readers chuckling, snickering and laughing out loud. The follow-up, The Man Who Died Twice, is eagerly anticipated.
Apples Never Fall
by Liane Moriarty
A perfect mix of humour, heartache and drama, (9/3/2021)
Apples Never Fall is the ninth novel by best-selling Australian author, Liane Moriarty. When sixty-nine-year-old Joy Delaney goes missing on Valentine’s Day after a garbled text message to her four children, they are understandably concerned, especially as certain things (an argument that morning, scratches on his cheek, a professional car clean) sort of make their father, well-known tennis coach, Stan Delaney look guilty.

Joy’s disappearance and her subsequent lack of communication is completely out of character so, of course, the Delaney siblings report their mother missing. Stan is strangely reticent when questioned by the police, and his adult children are being quite selective with what they reveal about their family.

Detective Senior Constable Christina Khoury is finding it difficult to get a handle on this family. “On the surface they seemed loving and cheerful but she could sense dysfunction bubbling ominously beneath their sporty, matter-of-fact demeanours.”

While the siblings are all very different, they do seem to agree that a potentially precipitating incident occurred during the previous September, when a mysterious young woman named Savannah was staying with the Delaney parents, and when tennis star (and their father’s former protégé) Harry Haddad announced a comeback.

Only much later is it admitted that this was when some sensitive revelations were made, criticisms voiced and long-standing resentments aired.

As well as split-time narratives from multiple character perspectives, the story is told by conversations overheard or gossip shared by the waitress, the beauty therapist, the physio patient, the Uber driver, the journalist, the neighbour, the receptionist, the hairdresser, and others.

Some readers may find this too much of a slow-burn as Moriarty lays down the detail of the lives of each member of the Delaney family, but patience and persistence is rewarded as the story develops, with each new twist, turn and wrinkle adding another layer of intrigue before the dramatic reveal.

Moriarty gives the reader a level of intimacy with these characters that may cause a lump in the throat on several occasions in the final chapters. A perfect mix of humour, heartache and drama, Moriarty’s latest does not disappoint.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia.
Anything Is Possible: Amgash Series #2
by Elizabeth Strout
another powerful read (8/19/2021)
Anything Is Possible is the second novel in the Amgash series by best-selling American author, Elizabeth Strout. There was, in Lucy Barton’s memoir, mention of a number of people whose lives intersected with her own when she lived in Amgash. Their recollections of the Barton family, and their encounters with the members of that family, and each other, provide different perspectives of the life she described, expanding on what she shared and providing a background to those lives.

As Tommy Guptill, former janitor at the high school, drives past the Barton farm into town, he recalls his concern for young Lucy; the book store has made a display of her memoir; on his return he calls in to check on Pete Barton’s welfare and hears a disturbing confession.

High School Counsellor, Patty Nicely loses her cool during an unpleasant encounter with Lucy’s niece, Lila Lane; conversations with her sister and her increasingly-demented mother recall incidents with the Barton family; reading Lucy’s memoir is a positive experience that inspires a good deed.

Patty’s older sister, Linda Peterson-Cornell and her wealthy husband host a photographer exhibiting at the Summer Festival. Yvonne Tuttle feels uncomfortable, apparently with good reason. What happens next has her assessing why she is so loyal to her perverted husband.

Vietnam vet and PTSD sufferer, Charlie Macauley gives the woman he loves a gift not his to give, then waits for the inevitable fallout in Dottie Blaine’s B&B.

Having decamped to Italy with her lover four years earlier at the age of seventy-four, Mary Mumford finally gets a visit from her dearest daughter, Angelina. Misunderstandings are cleared up, marriages discussed and Amgash gossip shared.

Pete Barton prepares for a visit from the sister who has not returned to their Amgash house in seventeen years. They are surprised by their sister Vicky’s arrival, and Lucy’s reaction to unearthed childhood memories baffles them both.

In her B&B, Dottie Blaine, second cousin to the Barton siblings, sees a passing parade of guests, some of whom share confidences she would rather not be burdened with; others, like Charlie Macauley, for whom she will always feel empathy.

When actress Annie Appleby returns to the family’s potato farm, her father’s long-held secret is revealed.

Abel Blaine, the second cousin who took Lucy Barton dumpster diving when they were dirt-poor and hungry, muses on his acquired wealth with a poorly-reviewed theatre actor.

These vignettes of peoples’ lives occur over a year or more, and illustrate that premise of six or less degrees of separation. Revisiting those characters from Lucy’s memoir, and learning more of their lives, is quite a pleasurable experience.

Strout gives many of them wise words and insightful observations: “This was the skin that protected you from the world – this loving of another person you shared your life with” and “They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil” are examples.

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives (although there are definitely some quirky ones doing strange things amongst them) and does it with exquisite yet succinct prose. Another powerful read.
My Name Is Lucy Barton: Amgash Series #1
by Elizabeth Strout
Powerful and ultimately uplifting. (7/25/2021)
“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

My Name Is Lucy Barton is the first novel in the Amgash series by best-selling American author, Elizabeth Strout. As Lucy Barton lies in her New York hospital room with its superb view of the Chrysler Building, trying to fight an infection after an appendectomy, she chats to her mother while waiting for the doctor, a kind, kind man, to visit.

Her ever-wakeful mother, whom she has not seen for many years, is there at the request of Lucy’s husband, William. Over the five days of her visit, they share stories and observations of people they both knew when Lucy was growing up in Amgash, Illinois.

Her mother’s stories stir other memories for Lucy, much less pleasant to recall, of a hard childhood in an unhealthy family with parents who love their children “imperfectly”, doling out both cruelty and kindness. Does her mother not remember these? Or has she repressed them?

The real love and care that stands out in Lucy’s memory came from those unrelated by blood: the school janitor, teachers and counsellors, a cashier in a cake shop. And later, neighbours, a writer, that kind doctor. Her husband, frustrated that Lucy doesn’t understand she “could be loved, was lovable.”

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives, at least until they learn differently. Lucy says about her childhood: “that huge pieces of knowledge about the world were missing that can never be replaced” but she managed to learn how to act, to imitate others.

Strout’s prose is often exquisite “…I see now that he recognised what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me” and she gives her characters many insightful observations “.. she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” Powerful and ultimately uplifting.
Freeze Frame: The Fourth of the Enzo Files
by Peter May
addictive crime fiction (7/7/2021)
Freeze Frame is the fourth book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. When Enzo arrives on Ile de Grois to investigate a fourth cold case from Roger Raffin’s book, he is dismayed to see that, due to a local press headline, the whole town is watching him. Thibaud Verjean, the man who was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of English tropical medicine professor, Adam Killian almost two decades earlier, accosts Enzo as he steps off the ferry, taunting him to try to prove his guilt where others have failed.

The gendarme in charge, Richard Gueguen warns Enzo that officially he isn’t permitted to offer any assistance, but is just as eager as anyone else to see the case solved: he was a trainee in Grois at the time it happened. The only genuine welcome is from Jane Killian, who hopes he can resolve the matter. On Adam’s instruction, given moments before her father-in-law was shot dead, she has ensured that nothing has been moved or removed from his study.

Adam’s intention was for his son, Peter to interpret the instruction he left behind and complete the task he had begun, but Jane’s husband died in Africa mere days later. As a forensic expert, this sort of case is right up his alley, but when Enzo examines the scene, what he finds is a diary entry, post-it notes, an inverted poem and a shopping list, all too cryptic to understand. Clearly, he needs to think like Peter. Puzzling, too, is why anyone would want to murder a dying man: Adam would soon have been dead of lung cancer.

At a loss with Killian’s study, Enzo checks out significant spots on the island, talks to witnesses at Verjean’s trial and Killian’s physician. Apart from several nasty encounters with Verjean, though, he learns little. His scientific expertise is not helping, he is at a loss. Meanwhile, he is plagued by a black cat, freezing cold weather and a nightly strip-tease trying to tempt him.

When he (finally!) more closely examines the clues Killian left, he has a minor breakthrough that sends him off to Paris and Morocco. Before he manages to solve the case he is, however, distracted by what his erstwhile lover Charlotte Roux reveals. His paranoia sees him rolling in icy wet grass; poor judgement gets him beaten up, almost killed and his tires slashed.

Without doubt, this is the best of the Enzo books thus far. May lays a trail of clues for the astute reader to follow; some are very subtle, some quite blatant; enough that the reader will fix on the likely killer well before the reveal, only to find they are quite wrong. Addictive crime fiction.
Blacklight Blue: The Third Enzo Files
by Peter May
dramatic climax (6/17/2021)
Blacklight Blue is the third book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. It all happens very quickly: a nasty prognosis from his oncologist, an attempt on his daughter Kirsty’s life, then he and Kirsty are mugged, and their credit cards stop working. The gym of his daughter Sophie’s boyfriend is burnt down, and then Enzo is arrested for murder.

Of course, Enzo has not murdered anyone, but there is trace evidence and his alibi falls apart. Whoever is trying to frame him, though, hasn’t counted on the loyalty of his family, close friends and his star student, Nicole. And when he learns how the victim was killed, he understands that the murderer is the perpetrator of another of the unsolved cases from Roger Raffin’s book.

To keep those he loves (and their attachments) safe, Enzo moves the whole group to a vacant alpine house in Miramont owned by a woman who picked him up in a bar. From there, Nicole uses her tech skills to learn more while Enzo connects with the retired police commissaire and gets to examine seventeen-year-old evidence. Using modern technology, a voice recording, a bottle of pills and human secretions on a sweater provide information previously unavailable.

What follows for Enzo is quite a lot of travel, to Paris, London, Spain and southern France, as he traces a 1992 assassination to a 1986 identity theft to a 1970 kidnapping before a dramatic climax at a cable car station in a deserted ski resort. As well as demonstrating the title technique, May gives the reader a peek into the workings of the French Foreign Legion, and shows how expertise in spoken language can pinpoint the speaker’s origins.

While he is no doubt feeling a little sorry for himself at the time, Enzo does allow himself to be rather easily led by his male appendage, and even though he finds the murderer, if not the motive, in a third case from Raffin’s book, it seems there are now two parties with Enzo Macleod in their sights, so there’s plenty of scope for further books in the series; fans will be looking forward to #4, Freeze Frame.
Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir
Brilliantly funny, clever and original sci-fi. (4/28/2021)
“Am I barreling toward the sun, or away from it? It’s almost academic. I’m either on a collision course with the sun or on my way out to deep space with no hope of returning. Or, I might be headed in the sun’s general direction, but not on a collision course. If that’s the case, I’ll miss the sun … and then fly off into deep space with no hope of returning.”

Project Hail Mary is the third novel by American author and self-confessed space nerd, Andy Weir. When he first emerges from the coma, he has no idea where he is, or how or why. It seems to be a spaceship, he’s the sole survivor of a crew of three, and the onboard computer is insisting he proffers his name before allowing access to certain areas, but he can’t remember that either.

“This is like being in a video game. Explore the area until you find a locked door, then look for the key. But instead of searching bookshelves and garbage cans, I have to search my mind. Because the “key” is my own name.”

His memory is spotty, coming in fits and starts; gradually, the fact that he’s a junior high science teacher reveals itself; he’s Dr. Ryland Grace, formerly a microbiologist who spent his career working up theoretical models for alien life. And he’s a long, long way from San Francisco.

The “what” Grayson remembers fairly quickly: a dire problem facing his home planet, and the importance of his mission is clear, a mission to save mankind. The “how” poses a challenge that his scientific mind relishes. When Grayson recalls the “why” that has placed him on the Hail Mary instead of a highly-trained astronaut, he’s dismayed and angry. What is quickly obvious is that he is facing a suicide mission. All alone.

Except it turns out he’s not.

More is difficult to reveal without spoilers, but Weir has neatly constructed a narrative in which flashbacks/memories slowly reveal the exact how and why, but also just what the ship is equipped with and can do. Weir gives the reader sci-fi that doesn’t get too bogged down with dense sci-facts but is interesting and thought-provoking.

Weir’s protagonist is a delight, smart and resourceful; his ever-inquiring mind and excellent deductive powers see him maintain his optimism that he will complete his vital mission. Ultimately, Grayson surprises himself. He’s also got a great sense of humour, so his inner monologue, asides to the computer and other conversations entertain:

“The computer finishes its boot process and brings up a screen I’ve never seen before. I can tell it means trouble, because the word “TROUBLE” is in large type across the top.”

This is a tale with an action plot, twists and surprises, featuring a planet Earth where greenhouse gases are welcome and the Sahara is covered in foil. There are philosophical discussions on behaviour and intelligence, lots of space walks, vodka, beetles and five-legged spiders, laugh-out-loud moments and the odd lump in the throat. Brilliantly funny, clever and original sci-fi.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Random House UK Cornerstone
The Critic: The Second of the Enzo Files
by Peter May
page turner (4/25/2021)
The Critic is the second book in the Enzo Macleod Investigation series by Scottish journalist, screenwriter and author, Peter May. The prospect of raising funds for his new forensic department at the university where he teaches biology spurs former forensics expert Enzo Macleod to travel to Gaillac to investigate a second case from Roger Raffin’s best-selling book of notorious unsolved murders. But on his very first night there, Enzo almost dies twice and, the second instance, he is certain, was an attempt on his life.

Until his disappearance in 2003, Gil Petty was described as “the most influential wine critic in the world”. A year after he went missing, his body was found by pickers in La Croix Blanche vineyard, posed in the ceremonial garb of an exclusive wine fraternity. He had been pickled in red wine. It is soon apparent that he was unpopular with some winegrowers, and they weren’t the only ones with motive.

It’s quickly clear that Enzo’s investigation is not well received by all the locals. When he visits the young gendarme who investigated Petty’s disappearance and murder, he meets with resistance to the point of obstruction, but when another body is discovered in similar condition, the gendarme unbends enough to allow Enzo to assess the scene. After Enzo is invited by the juge d’instruction to consult on both investigations, the young man’s resentment as Enzo exposes his unwitting incompetence is evident.

The tiny gîte in which Enzo is staying is the former home of an eighteenth-century Petty ancestor, and also where Petty was living when he disappeared. It becomes increasingly cramped as his student and assistant, Nicole Lafeuille arrives with her gear, then Petty’s estranged daughter, Michelle, Enzo’s erstwhile lover, Charlotte Roux, and his daughter Sophie with her boyfriend Bertrand all crowd in.

After they manage to break through the security on Petty’s computer, Enzo decides they need to decode the cipher in which Petty wrote his tasting notes, reasoning this might point to motive as, while a high Petty rating would guarantee success for the vineyard, a low one would spell ruin. The way they go about this is terribly clumsy, but they do all get their fill of good wine.

Enzo’s other avenue of investigation, apart from the source of Petty’s death garb, is to trace the origin of the wine in which the victims were pickled using a wine fingerprint, which necessitates a plane trip to California in a kilt.

The mystery is intriguing enough to keep the pages turning: even if the murderer’s method is obvious by halfway, the motive and the identity are not. There are several red herrings to keep the reader guessing, and multiple attempts on Enzo’s life, at least one of which remains unresolved at the conclusion. That “I’ll just go to the murderer’s place to see if I can find the bodies, but I won’t bother to let anyone know where I’m going” trope is wearing a bit thin, though.

Enzo does seem to be juggling beautiful women in this instalment, shamelessly flirting even as he really has too many women around him, all giving each other black looks. May also demonstrates that the French bureaucracy has the same fondness for acronyms as other nations do. It will be interesting to see where #3, Blacklight Blue takes our transplanted Scot. At times blackly funny and also filled with winemaking facts, this is a page-turner.
Magic Lessons: The Prequel to Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Fans of the genre and this series will be enchanted, (4/21/2021)
“To any man who ever loves an Owens, let this curse befall you, let your fate lead to disaster, let you be broken in body and soul, and may it be that you never recover.”

Magic Lessons is a prequel in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. The curse that fosters angst in the lives of characters we meet in Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic was spoken from the gallows in Salem in 1686 by their ancestor, Maria Owens.

This prequel follows her life from when, as a baby, she was found by Hannah Owens in a snowy field with the crow; taught much of the Unnamed Art into which she was born; watched the women around her betrayed by men who saw evil where there was none; vowed not to deal with love, but taken in anyway, by the father of her daughter, Faith and sent to the gallows by his word.

And after that gallows curse, the search for a taken child whose direction takes a turn to the darker arts. And finally, to the building of that house on Magnolia Street, via imprisonment and witch trials and dunkings. As expected, there are herbal recipes, spells and familiars and, of course, that pesky deathwatch beetle, but also good, true, patient men, brave and loyal friends, and love. Fans of the genre and this series will be enchanted, and looking forward to the final volume, The Book of Magic.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
The Rules of Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Another charming read (4/11/2021)
The Rules of Magic is a prequel in Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic series. It is June 1960 when the Owens siblings, Frances, Bridget and Vincent, leave New York to spend summer for the first time with their Aunt Isabelle in the Magnolia Street house in Massachusetts. Their parents are resigned to this, but neither is pleased. Susanna has done her utmost to steer her children towards a normal life, and away from all things magical, but prohibition has been ineffective.

Even at fourteen years old, Vincent accepts that they are different, having sought out a copy of the banned Magus downtown. He freely shares his musical talents, but hides his clairvoyance, disturbed enough by it to resort to alcohol, and later ventures into the darker side of his craft.

When April Owens, their eighteen-year-old, rebellious second (or third or fifth) cousin, turns up at Magnolia Street, the sisters are wary, but the connection with Vincent can’t be denied.

It’s clear that his sisters have gifts too: seventeen-year-old Franny has an uncanny connection to birds; sixteen-year-old Jet can almost always tell what people are thinking. Vincent suggests his older sisters acknowledge what they are. Aunt Isabelle counsels that to deny who you are only brings unhappiness.

By the time they leave Aunt Isabelle’s, Franny has read Mary Owens’s diary and knows about the curse that afflicts all members of the Owens family: Ruination for any man who fell in love with them. Each of the siblings starts out determined not to inflict this on anyone, but how can you control falling in love? Besides which, one of the rules of magic from Aunt Isabelle’s Grimoire said “Fall in love whenever you can.”

Jet falls for Levi with tragic and far-reaching consequences, and life changes radically for the siblings. Vincent’s lover is someone who understands the curse and is ready to accept what fate throws their way. When Franny finally acquiesces to the love she has been denying for years, her lover has a clever plan to fool the curse.

Set against the backdrop of the sixties: the Summer of Love, drugs, the Monterey Pop Festival, the draft, Hoffman tells the story of those amazing aunts who played such an important role in the lives of Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic.

And what a marvellous tale it is: another enchanting story of family and love and magic. The characters are appealing and often a bit quirky, the romance is delightful and the magic fun. Hoffman gives her characters wise words and insightful observations about life. The prequel Magic Lessons, which tells Maria Owens story, is eagerly awaited. Another charming read.
Under Pressure: Lucas Page #2
by Robert Pobi
Excellent crime fiction (3/22/2021)
Under Pressure is the second book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an explosion at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum incinerates over seven hundred people, while leaving the building largely intact, Dr Lucas Page is unsure what he can offer to the investigation. But FBI Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, Brett Kehoe, wants his expertise with numbers.

“No system — and that includes a series of crimes — is intrinsically random; the observer just has an imperfect understanding of how said system operates. If you see something that appears to be random, you’re missing data. And hidden inside larger seemingly organized structures, you can find smaller ones that look like they’re nothing—statistical noise — but they’re not. They’re just part of a different pattern.”

The device is apparently highly sophisticated and its design, ensuring maximum cruelty, zero survivors and the destruction of artwork worth a billion dollars, suggests several possible motives. A warning email sent to a CNN journalist, which denounces humanity’s reliance on technology, leaves Lucas unconvinced even when the next target, an internet hub, fits this motive.

Lucas firmly believes they need to look for the money: who would benefit? But is that the right question? Further explosions and victims don’t clarify the issue of motive, but are all linked to the high-profile company whose gala IPO launch at the Guggenheim was bombed. Horizon Dynamics is a company using nano-technology and AI driven solutions for rejuvenation and repair of eco-systems, and its directors are linked to each event on several levels.

As more bombs explode and more people die, some of them potential suspects, initial theories are challenged, but the sadistic aspect of the bombs leads Lucas to conclude there is a personal element. Lucas enlists the help of his post-grad students to analyse a mountain of data that has stumped the FBI, reasoning that: “The bureau’s people were fettered by both protocol and lack of vision.” Not so his clever students.

Another excellent dose of Lucas Page and Alice Whitaker that features land mines, a puppy, a confetti bomb, sniffer rats, an opportune pair of handcuffs, and a very large body count. Once again, Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. Entertaining dialogue is another hallmark of this series.

Will Lucas work with the FBI again? While he enjoys the stimulation it offers his mind, his wife and family certainly don’t appreciate that it takes him away from them and potentially puts his life (and theirs) at risk. Nor is this the first occasion that his involvement seems to be associated with unfortunate consequences for the Special Agent In Charge of the case. It will be interesting to see if Pobi gives fans further installments of Lucas Page. Excellent crime fiction.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and St Martins Press
City of Windows: A Lucas Page Novel
by Robert Pobi
First-rate crime fiction. (3/16/2021)
City of Windows is the first book in the Lucas Page series by Canadian author, Robert Pobi. When an FBI agent is shot in his car on a Manhattan street during a snow-storm, Brett Kehoe, Special Agent in Charge of Manhattan, insists on analysis of the scene by Dr Lucas Page. But it’s been ten years since Lucas was part of the Bureau, and he’s wary. The victim’s identity draws him in; he works his magic and pinpoints the location of the shooter. And then Lucas hopes to walk away.

Within hours, another victim, another impossible shot, and Lucas again picks the spot from which the sniper took the shot. But while one of Bureau agents attributes it to random shootings, Lucas can’t dismiss it so easily: he is soon proven right when the victim turns out to be ex-FBI. By the time a third person is shot, under similar impossible circumstances, it is clear that someone is targeting law enforcement officers. But why?

Lucas Page is an interesting protagonist: an astrophysicist and college lecturer who is endowed with acute spatial awareness, making him a whizz at projectile geometry. The Event that ended his career with the Bureau, and his marriage, has left him with several bionic bits and, eventually, a new wife and a tribe of adopted kids. He’s devoid of tact, and shows no compunction about using his grad students to do some Bureau grunt work.

For this case, Kehoe teams him up with Whitaker, a female African-American, intelligent, formidable and with a delightful knack for anticipating questions. Their dialogue is very entertaining, and serves to provide some of Lucas’s backstory (the rest from flashbacks) as well as his strongly-held opinions and his intolerance of stupidity. The heroic Aussie double amputee also charms the reader.

His rant on terrorists is excellent: “Numbers don’t lie. And although everyone is allowed to have a position, not all positions are created equal. There are experts in any given field; one person’s ignorance is not just as valuable as another’s knowledge, and the fact is your average American has to worry about his neighbor more than terrorists by orders of magnitude.” And re gun sales “They weren’t buying protection – they were being sold fear.”

Pobi’s plot is clever, with lots of excellent deductive work, twists, red herrings, plenty of tension and a heart-stopping climax. More of this cast of characters is available to the reader in the second instalment, Under Pressure. First-rate crime fiction.
Raft of Stars
by Andrew J. Graff
An outstanding debut novel. (3/15/2021)
Raft of Stars is the first novel by American author, Andrew. J. Graff. Fish and Bread are on the run. Fish (sort-of-accidentally) shot Bread’s dad (a nasty, violent alcoholic), and they don’t want to go to jail or foster care. Bread leaves a note for Fish’s grandpa on his fridge to explain they are headed for the National Guard Armory at Ironsford to find Fish’s dad (who will know what to do).

The note promises to send money for what they have taken, and asks grandpa to please reassure Fish’s mom they will be OK: they have their bicycles, two cups, their fishing poles, some food, Jack Breadwin’s gun and five bullets, grandpa’s jackknife and sharpening stone, a flint, matches and a tarp. Please tell the Sheriff that Fish didn’t mean to kill Bread’s dad (he’s on the Breadwin kitchen floor).

Ten-year-old Fischer and his best friend Dale Breadwin are confident they can make their way through the Mishicot Forest to Ironsford, ninety miles to the north. They will build a cedar raft, follow the river, hunt and fish, poach if they have to.

Their plan does have a few small wrinkles: Fish hasn’t told Bread that his father died in the Middle East three years ago; both boys are likely discounting the danger of coyotes and bears; neither boy is aware that the forest harbours dubious characters running meth labs in riverside cottages; nor, perhaps most importantly, that there are dangerous, unnavigable rapids at Ironsford Gorge.

They soon realise that they have grossly underestimated the difficulty of raft-building with only a barlow knife, and when their food supply (Slim Jims, beans, tuna) runs out, they are dismayed to find not only that foraging and fishing less productive than they had anticipated, but also that killing a creature to eat it is not as easy or straightforward as they had believed.

Meanwhile, within hours, several people are on their trail. Fischer’s grandpa, Teddy Branson is a Korean War veteran who immediately understands the dangers these essentially good boys could face, and is determined to save them. Sheriff Cal is a newcomer to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, having departed Houston, Texas in disgrace to take up the post of interim Sheriff in Claypot. A year in Marigamie County has done little to take the city out of the man, and he’s unconvinced about such a trek on horseback.

Fischer’s mom, Miranda travels from Cedar to await news at Teddy Branson’s farm. Tiffany Robins, the purple-haired cashier at the Sit-And-Go Gas Station, was charged with caring for Sheriff Cal’s dog. The aspiring young poet, who is sweet on the Sheriff, joins Miranda when the blue heeler goes AWOL. But Miranda is a mother fiercely attached, a lioness who is single-minded about rescuing her boy, and cannot sit idle. These two women strike out in pursuit, proving themselves surprisingly resourceful.

As two boys on a raft face hunger and weather and wildlife, two men with horses, persistent mosquitoes and a machete slash a path north, while two women paddle a canoe towards those killer rapids. They face wild water, storms both physical and psychological, and discover untapped reserves of strength and courage.

As the story hurtles towards a dramatic climax, friendships are formed, loyalties are tested, truths are told and acts of true bravery are performed. Graff does it all with some gorgeous evocative prose: “Fish saw a stretch of river the length and width of a football field, marked by vertical cliffs on either side, with two or three craggy islands dividing explosive currents. The water seemed to fight itself. It tumbled into pits. It bellowed. It hissed and leapt. It beat against the faces of the islands in giant, upswept pillows of water. Downstream of the islands, the entire river disappeared again, presumably over another falls, sprays of water rising into the lightning.”

This is a tale of love and grief and valour which can favourably compare with William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Frequently funny (often blackly so), sometimes sad, and occasionally thought-provoking, this is a tale that would translate extremely well to the silver screen. An outstanding debut novel.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and HQ Fiction.
Prodigal Son: Orphan X #6
by Gregg Hurwitz
More please, Mr Hurwitz! (3/2/2021)
Prodigal Son is the sixth book in the Orphan X series by best-selling American author, Gregg Hurwitz. Now retired from his Nowhere Man role, Evan Smoak is disturbed by a persistent caller: “Evan, it’s your mother.”

He’s highly sceptical, but ultimately, can’t resist verifying, so he heads to Buenos Aires where, indeed, he meets a woman he believes to be what she claims. Veronica LeGrande wants him to help someone, but when he makes a cursory investigation, he barely survives an attack by a Hellfire missile. And he begins to wonder if coming out of retirement will end up voiding his unofficial Presidential pardon.

Andrew Duran’s life has been no picnic, and now a series of bad luck incidents finds him penniless, estranged from his daughter and her mother, and on the run from people he believes are out to kill him. In his poorly paid position watching over an impound lot, he has witnessed a murder without seeing the killer, but he is certain he is now a target.

Having neatly escaped the missile, Evan’s next stop is his personal tech expert, Joey Morales, interrupting the “normal” life he’s insisting she try to live. Together they research the victim and gradually uncover a disturbing situation: they are dealing with someone powerful and dangerous.

When Evan tracks down the man he’s meant to be helping, the reception is hostile, but he soon realises that he recognises Andrew Duran from his youth. Before long, both are the target of a nasty pair of siblings employed to do “wet work”

In this instalment, Joey’s prodigious tech talents are useful in gaining entry to three secure facilities, for one of which she tags along. Crashing a party (and rescuing a teen from a sexual predator) are in the mix. And of course, TommyStojack comes up with some nifty hardware when needed.

The interactions between Evan and Joey are always entertaining, and as usual, the dialogue is often darkly funny:
“Evan said, ‘Is that a bread knife?’
Duran regarded it. ‘Steak knife, I think.’
‘No,’ Evan said. ’I’m pretty sure it’s a bread knife. That curved end is gonna give you problems unless you plan to saw me to death.’
Duran considered. ‘Maybe I’ll just nick you and let you die of tetanus in five months.’”

Flashbacks to Evan’s youth at the Group Home give the reader some more detail of his selection into the Orphan Program, and Hurwitz also challenges him with a raft of emotions he’s unaccustomed to dealing with.

If every book in this series is replete with hi-tech devices, this one, featuring AI, autonomous weapons and microdrones, is especially so. Evan gets a tour of an AI development lab and is witness to some jaw-droppingly scary tech adaptations, especially when there are glitches in ethical adaptor software. And the concept of “outsourcing the negative emotion associated with killing so our soldiers don’t have to feel it” is certainly unsettling.

Suspension of disbelief is needed, but once again, plenty of action, injuries too numerous to tally, a body count of eighteen, several exciting climaxes and one helluva cliff-hanger ending. More please, Mr Hurwitz.
This Tender Land: A Novel
by William Kent Krueger
a wonderfully uplifting read. (2/23/2021)
“Lying on my blanket beside Albert, I was happy to have him for a brother, though I had no intention of telling him so. I didn’t always understand him, and I knew that, more often than not, I was a bafflement to him as well, but the heart isn’t the logical organ of the body, and I loved my brother deeply and fell asleep in the warmth of his company.”

This Tender Land is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning, best-selling American author, William Kent Krueger. It’s 1932, and twelve-year-old Odie O’Banion, his older brother, Albert, his Sioux friend, Moses Washington and Little Emmy Frost are paddling a canoe down the Gilead River, heading towards the Mississippi. They’re on the run from the police, wanted for theft, kidnapping and murder.

The managers of their erstwhile “home”, the Lincoln Indian Training School, are also on their trail, and that’s a place they never want to see again, so they are doing their best to keep a low profile. Eventually they settle on St Louis as their destination, knowing it will take some time from Minnesota.

Why they are in flight, what and whom they encounter on the journey, and what happens at its end, is what fills this superb coming-of-age/adventure tale. They endure forced labour and corporal punishment, captivity and several narrow escapes. A still is built, a man is shot, a tornado devastates, a snake-bite is suffered, and Krueger demonstrates that dumpster-diving is no new phenomenon.

Group members join a Christian healing crusade, visit shanty towns, work in a restaurant, hop a freight train, and are on the receiving end of both the heartlessness and the kindness of strangers. Their experiences alter their beliefs in God, and teach them about love, trust, charity and loyalty.

“I did want to believe that God was my shepherd and that somehow he was leading me through this dark valley of Lincoln School and I shouldn’t be afraid… But the truth I saw every day was that we were on our own and our safety depended not on God but on ourselves and on helping one another.”

Krueger takes the reader to a time in the not-too-distant past when children had virtually no rights, especially if, as in this case, they were orphans or Native American children forcibly removed from their parents. While there were, of course, many genuinely good people amongst those in a guardianship role, a significant number of these children were at the mercy of unscrupulous adults who revelled in cruelty and to whom kindness was a foreign concept.

Krueger gives the reader a relatable cast of characters who are humanly flawed, neither wholly good nor evil, and endows some with insightful observations and wise words: “Albert, who was four years older and a whole lot wiser, told me that people are most afraid of things they don’t understand, and if something frightened you, you should get closer to it. That didn’t mean it wouldn’t still be an awful thing, but the awful you knew was easier to handle than the awful you imagined.” Subtly filled with fascinating historical detail, this is a wonderfully uplifting read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Simon & Schuster Australia.
And Now She's Gone
by Rachel Howzell Hall
A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner. (2/20/2021)
“Gray knew firsthand about men who could turn charm on and off like a beer tap. Love letters and expensive sea salt caramels one day, spit-flecked lips and bugged eyes two weeks later.”

And Now She’s Gone is a novel by best-selling, award-winning American author, Rachel Howzell Hall. After two years behind the scenes at Rader Consulting, Grayson Sykes is finally given her first proper case (not a Chihuahua): she has a missing girlfriend to locate. “She’d always been the nosy kid, the Negro Nancy Drew.”

Isabel Lincoln has been gone for six weeks, and her boyfriend, a hunk of a cardiologist named Ian O’Donnell, wants Gray to find her. “Once she realizes she’s being stupid, yes, she’ll come back.” Ian pointed at her. “I just need you to help me help her accept that sooner rather than later.” Isabel also took his dog, which angers O’Donnell, and Gray wonders if he wants the dog back more than the girl. She also wonders why he wants Isabel back: is it really love or is he concerned for his image?

Even before O’Donnell has told Gray repeatedly what a nice guy he is, she has already decided that Isabel has gone “Probably because she smelled the crazy on him and didn’t want it to get into her favorite coat. Hard to get the stink of nuts out of wool.” Familiar alarm bells are faintly ringing. The more people she talks to, the more Gray feels that Isabel was lucky to get away, and Gray should know: she has her own history to draw on. But O’Donnell is the client so she at least has to go through the motions.

When she does, though, something strikes her as not quite right: she’s getting conflicting information and begins to wonder if O’Donnell is an abusive, narcissistic and possibly dangerous man from whom Isabel Lincoln needs to escape; or if O’Donnell is a genuinely nice (if narcissistic) guy and Isabel is a vindictive gold-digger.

And those disturbing texts to the number generated for her dating app: has Gray’s own personal monster finally tracked her down? Because Gray is heartily sick of looking over her shoulder, of checking the rear-view mirror on every drive. She’s armed and feeling dangerous.

Wow, what a tale! The plot has so many twists that the reader might want to pre-book a chiropractic appointment. There’s plenty of dark humour in the dialogue and Gray’s inner monologue, quite a bit of action with knives, and the body count builds with each jaw-dropping revelation.

Howzell Hall’s protagonist can’t fail to appeal: Gray is smart and sassy, gutsy and ready to stand up for herself. Her rotten past has firmed her resolve against being a victim and to help others “Especially cases that helped women get away from dangerous men.” A clever and brilliantly twisty page-turner.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Macmillan Tor Forge

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