Review: When in Doubt (V. K. Powell)

Jeri Wylder has a problem: she’s told she shot an unarmed man during a raid on a drug house, but can’t remember any of it. She’s riding a desk and headed for therapy while the investigation of those circumstances continues.

Simone Sullivan also has a problem, as it happens. As the part owner of a building a developer wants to buy in order to knock it down and replace it with a new development. She also happens to be a therapist.

The two meet when Wylder shows up to a report of an arsonist at Simone’s building – against policy, and against her desk-riding current assignment. Since this is at least partially a romance, it includes the tried and true instalove between them.

Strictly speaking, I am not against this – it’s a trope for a reason, and it saves time. But in this case, I just did not get it, and through the book continued to not get it.

Jeri, on the outs with her girlfriend (and in an “open relationship” she claims), drinks too much and clearly suffers from PTSD. She treats people terribly. I really didn’t like her as a character, although I understand PTSD can significantly change how people behave – to the point of Jeri almost crossing a line when Simone was telling her no, something that I don’t think I would have excused. Simone, as a character, was fine except for what I thought was terrible judgment getting involved with Jeri. Simone’s “friends”, however, are nasty pieces of work.

The mystery part of the book was fine. The search and unmasking of the villain was expected, and it was rather straightforward.

There’s nothing explicit in this novel, which was fine, too – sometimes the characters are in bed having graphic sex so often you’d think they wouldn’t have time for anything else. It’s more mystery than romance, and the romance itself is carried out the way most are.

I’m giving this a four out of five stars for the mystery. The romance gets a two, because I didn’t like it. At all. I’ll split the difference and put it at three of five stars.

Thanks to Bold Stroke Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Bad Day in Minsk, Mathematical Mystery #4 (Jonathan Pinnock)

Tom Winscombe is having a very bad series of days, although the title refers only to one. Perhaps it refers only to the first day,when a planned heist go terribly wrong.

This is book four in the Mathematical Mystery series, and although I have not read the first three books, it can work as a standalone on some rather shaky legs. I’d highly recommend reading the books in order, if only to become acquainted with Winscombe’s team and the relationships between them. While there are shot talks given that reference the first three, I believe reading those would have lent far more depth to the characters I was meeting for the first time.

That said, this book is of the madcap, how can things possibly get worse genre. Winscombe seems to be a bad luck magnet,first kidnapped in the above referenced heist, then sent into Belarus,then kidnapped by Belarus mafia types, and then standing on the top floor of a building that’s on fire,with a firefight of the gun variety going on below as well.

It was quite funny in places, and not as serious as I think it should have been in others, but that’s simply my preference in books in the mystery/thriller genre, and I can’t ding it for that reason, as the writing tells me this is just the nature of this particular beast, and the story knows what it’s doing.

Beyond saying that the first three books would be of immense help to read before this, I’m still giving it three out of five stars.

Thanks to Duckworth Books/Farrago Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Heron’s Cry, Two Rivers #2 (Ann Cleeves)

I love Ann Cleeves’ cranky old broad Vera Stanhope, so my expectations for this, the second in a new series, were high. I’ve not read the first one (will soon rectify that), but this works fine as a standalone.

The book opens at a party, with one of the officers who works for Matthew Venn – the primary character in this series – as a guest. Dr Nigel Yeo approaches the fairly freshly divorced Jenn, wishing to speak to her about what could be a police matter. He doesn’t want to give her the details, mainly because she’s drunk, but takes her number and says he will call.

The next morning, Yeo is found murdered in the glass blowing shop where is daughter does her work, with a shard of one of her creations in his chest.

Venn is called out to the scene, and soon gathers his team. He’s very thorough, with a quiet sort of command that I really liked. It’s inevitable that I’ll always compare this to the Stanhope books, but Venn is very different than Stanhope: her methods of drawing people out to speak works, but that sort of approach does not suit Venn, who was raised in a cult-like group called the Brethren. Where Stanhope is garrulous to the point of rambling, Venn often barely speaks. Where Stanhope often appears to be unorganized (but is not, it is simply her method), Venn is meticulous and orderly.

Yeo, it turns out, was looking into the suicide of a 19 year man, the son of the owners of a pub that a local philanthropist has helped bankroll. The parents and sister of that man were very angry with the handling of his case, and blame the local system for releasing him due to lack of beds because he did not see, to present himself as a danger. Thereafter, he committed suicide. Yeo was looking into this when killed, so the team looks into it as well.

Soon, other people are murdered, in much the same way as Yeo, and the team now has a serial killer and an ever growing list of people they have to look into for the crimes.

One ding from me would be the actual talking to all the people. There are more than a handful the teams talks to two or three times, where eventually we get more of their stories pulled out.

Meanwhile, Venn’s husband Jonathan tells him that he has invited Venn’s estranged mother to lunch, and this weighs heavily on Venn’s mind as he roves around, trying to untangle the web of suspects, their motives, and how they would have carried out their crimes.

As things race to their conclusion, it’s possible to determine the killer if one is paying super close attention, and the endgame for the capture of the killer seemed a little off to me. I won’t say more than that, as it would give away too much, but it seemed a tad forced and out of character. But it was plausible, at least, so I didn’t ding it for that.

This is not a fast book. While the murders and the investigation take up most of the attention, there is quite a lot of character-driven material in between, as Cleeves further draws out complete pictures for her primary group of characters.

Recommended, and four out of five stars from me.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review – The Auschwitz Photographer (Luca Crippa; Maurizio Onnis)

Wilhelm Brasse spent an astonishing five years in the Auschwitz concentration camp as a photographer in the identification office. His history of recollections are the basis of this book, although they are not direct survivor interviews, but a BBC interview and also a book he himself wrote. The sourcing of this is rather thin, and I have automatically removed a star for that reason.

That said, Brasse was arrested after refusing to fight for the German army after the invasion and capture of Polish. Although born in Poland to a Polish mother, his ancestry on his father’s side was German. For his refusal, he was arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately sent to Auschwitz. At first selected for hard labor, he was pulled from that work to head the new identification office, so the Nazis could keep track of the many Jews and others sent there to be exterminated.

The timeline in this narrative details how Brasse kept his head down and rarely looked out a window while at work- the better to survive what a part of him knew might very well be his eventual death in the camp.

After many chapters given over to the photographs of people arriving via train, the Nazis decided that cataloguing Jews and undesirables was a waste, since so many were killed straightaway. Brasse’s job then shifts more into portraiture: SS soldiers and officers getting their portraits made to send to their parents, for instance, and when the Birkenau barracks were constructed, the women bound for those instead of the crematoria that run nonstop.

There is a brief suggestion of an almost romance between Brasse and a Polish interpreter for the German kapo in charge of bringing female subjects for Brasse to photograph, but this eventually goes nowhere – how could it be otherwise, the way prisoners were kept to a rigid schedule.

Brasse and his office lived in better quarters and had steady, indoor work during brutal winters. They even managed to barter their services with the kitchens to keep themselves well fed.

When a large group of Russian POWs are brought the the camp, they are dutifully photographed for identification purposes, and like all the others, Brasse pushes their fate out of his mind as well as he can until someone tells him the Nazis are doing nothing to them: not selecting them for work or not, not feeding them, not anything. They are simply starved to death. Brasse happens to pass the area where they are being held and describes them as ghosts, thin, with their bones protruding as though they will break the skin, and with blank, dead eyes. He claims to have strayed near the fence where a Russian was standing, and reached through the wire to touch the Russian’s hand. The Russian soldier tells him that he is not a communist, then falls over, dead. This seems to be an iffy portion, as it is backed up by nothing other than Brasse saying it happened. We do know that Brasse was given an amount of freedom most other prisoners were not – his skills as a photographer saving his life, after all – but would he have been allowed to be anywhere near the Russians, as he was simply walking between one place and another through the camp?

Eventually, his boss calls him to what is a small viewing room, to show him a film. In it, the Russian prisoners are taken to a building that has been boarded up, and marched inside. The Nazis then throw canister of what are presumed to be Zyklon B into the building and close and seal the door. His boss has set up a camera inside the building, and has filmed the chaos of the people within trying to find an exit, only to find none. Throughout the book, Brasse claims that his boss speaks to him about declaring that he is German, and that it could be arranged for him to visit his family in Poland before he is sent to his assignment. He claims his boss attempts yet again to sway him, after viewing this film.

Later, Brasse becomes the photographer of choice for the doctors performing medical experiments, like forced sterilization of young women, and the various experiments performed by Josef Mengele himself, who wanted images of twins and dwarfs, along with another doctor who was fascinated by the prisoners with eyes that were different colors from one another.

There is a section describing the images and plates struck of counterfeit currencies, although this is very late and not very useful to the Nazis in the end.

As we know, the war was moving inevitably toward Germany. Toward the end, Brasse’s boss drives away to escape the advancing Russian army, and orders Brasse to destroy all of the negatives, photos, and especially the film of the Russian soldiers who were murdered there. As Brasse and his colleagues attempt to do so, these items will not burn. They concoct a story about how they tried, and even throw the tiny office into disarray, as if they had feverishly tried to follow the order, but Brasse stops them, and settles himself in to inform his boss of same, knowing it could mean a bullet in the head. However, his boss does not return, nor do any of the other SS men who escaped west toward Germany and away from the Russians.

After a few days, the camp is emptied and all the prisoners are forced to march out of Auschwitz. Brasse winds up in Mauthausen, and is eventually liberated. At 27 years old, he is finally a free man again.

After some time with his family, he sets out for another town in Poland to try to find the woman he’d met in Auschwitz, and of whom he had taken a portrait- the only thing he took with him when the prisoners were marched out. He does find her,but is disappointed when he finds her somewhat distant. He presents her with the photo, which she tears apart and allows to fall on the floor. She told him she didn’t like herself when she was there, and who could blame her? He leaves, dejected, and recalls his uncle saying something basically that meant women couldn’t be pleased, which I thought was a really shitty thing to include, regardless of whether or not it was true.

An afterword tell us that Brasse eventually married, had children and grandchildren of his own, and died peacefully, surrounded by family. Interestingly, he could not bear to become a photographer again for a living, after having taken and developed between 40 and 50 thousand photos in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so went into a different line of work. I can’t say I could blame him for that.

There is also an afterword by the authors, indicating their sources, as I noted in the opening. The third item on their source list is Night, by Elie Wiesel, which I thought an odd inclusion.

At the end, there are also photos, although there are notes that indicate not all of these photos may have been taken by Brasse.

Overall, it is a challenging read because of the nature of the work Brasse and his colleagues did and the often arbitrary treatment of the prisoners in the camp. Squeamish readers may wish to skip the parts describing the work of the crematoria crews and the experiments carried out by Mengele and others.

Is it a good oral history from a survivor? It is well written, in a straight timeline, and the horrors witnessed by Brasse and other survivors is all too shamefully real, as we well know. The very small sourcing pool, though, should be held for more scrutiny. I would recommend it with these caveats

Three out of five stars.

Thanks to SourceBooks and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Whitby Murders – A Yorkshire Murder Mystery #6 (J.R. Ellis)

I suppose at times, this is just the way things go: I’ve had two DNFs in a row. This time, it’s The Whitby Murders.

Unlike the last one on my DNF list, this one didn’t have a huge number of characters flung at the reader in the first few chapters, so it wasn’t that. No, it was the writing, which I didn’t like. At all; Why?

First, it’s just meh.It’s easy enough to read, don’t get me wrong, but there’s just no pizazz to it. It’s a very dry recitation of what’s going on and what the characters are saying and feeling. It feels to me to be a bit amateurishly written, and the head hopping within the same chapter, in my opinion, should have been edited to at least contain each head in its own chapter. There is also a great deal of repetition of things. The ream investigating the crime lays out some information they’ve found. Then they have to lay it out for everyone. Then they go over it again. That sort of thing made me skim here and there, and I stopped at 60% on my Fire.

Second, in dialogue, people are often doing something while they speak (“Blah blah blah,” she said, smiling at him.) or there are far too many descriptors after the dialogue that are entirely unnecessary if the character’s mood can be discerned from what they’re actually doing. Example: a woman and a man, who are a couple, are having some kind of argument. (“Suit yourself then!” Dominic shouted aggressively, and hung at the back of he group, apparently in a sulk.) Do we really need to know that he shouted “aggressively? Aren’t most people aggressive when they shout? This was the last in a round of dialogue involving two people.. There are only four exchanges, and we have “shrieked”, “said”, “replied”, and the aforementioned aggressive shouting.

Three, there are a huge number of filter words in this. The latter example above is a good one. “Apparently” in a sulk? “So and so looked bewildered” – how? Raised eyebrows? Furrowed brow? “No, Dad, no!” Louise was getting increasingly agitated and her voice was getting louder.” We got the louder part – she is, after all, shouting. And if she’s getting agitated, how do we know this? There is a bit of back and forth with her father, and at a time when dialogue tags could be helpful, along with some kind of descriptor. But there is nothing that indicates she’s getting wound up. Is she pacing? Fidgeting in her seat? Don’t know!

Four, there is a large amount of telling versus showing. This also involves filter words, but applies as well to the author telling how someone feels versus showing us, or just giving us an infodump about a character. For example, the “apparently in a sulk” business. Who is making this determination? How could they tell he was “apparently in a sulk”? What exactly was he doing when he was hanging at the back of the group? When we get an infodump, we really do not need to know virtually everything about them right at that moment in a narration. Show us what they’re doing to assign them the characteristics you want them to have. That will let the reader draw a fuller picture of the characters, and even if those conclusions are not what you planned, they will at least not be cardboard cutouts.

Five, there are certain things that have to be taken with a giant grain of salt. Senior DI able to just walk out of his office after getting his daughters call, and head to the town she’s staying, and taking a DS with him? Red herrings presented (good) but being cleared up in a page or two (bad)? The police continue to investigate a murder with not just eyewitnesses but video as well that backs them up, because of a gut feeling the daughter has? That all seems unlikely, as does the DCI father seemingly on the verge of tears whenever he thinks about his daughter close to the murder. He’s a veteran police officer. Why is he on the verge of tears about this all the time? We also get a great deal of narration about his personal life that adds nothing to the overall story.

Again, sorry for the DNF on this.

Two stars out of five (rounded down from 2.5 stars).

Thanks to Amazon Publishing UK and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Nantucket Penny (Steven Axelrod)

I’m afraid this one wound up as a DNF for me. Why?

There are a ton of characters introduced right off the bat. There are also conversations and musings by a couple of characters that were boring and mentioned even more people, and it was difficult to keep track of them. Mike, Mark, Mitch., Cindy, Vicky, Larry, Cody, some guy whose name I’ve forgotten while typing this, Sippy, Doug, the Australian detective whose email the chief ignores, and so on.

In one of the opening chapters, we also get a story on how the chief has moved his mother out of a retirement condo building in California back to his house in Nantucket. Why? Who knows? As I’ve said about books that detail a character’s every transition from point A to point B, unless we absolutely need to know about what they were doing or the details of their actual move, leave it out.

I gave up at about 25%, as I was getting fairly annoyed. I skimmed through a bit from there, found the reveal at the halfway point, and reckoned I was happy to have stopped when I did.

Sorry, this one just did not work for me, and lands in the DNF list. Two stars out of five.

Thanks to Poisoned Pan Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Into the Forest (Rebecca Frankl)

Into the Forest is a nonfiction book about the Rabinowitz family living in Zhetel, in what is now Belarus. It’s an astonishing tale of hardship, survival, and, in the end, love.

A chance meeting at a weeding puts a young man on a path to find the woman who saved him from being shipped off to a camp and killed.

There is a brief introduction in the first few chapters about the family – how they landed in Zhetel, what their businesses were, what their houses looked like, and so on. Normally, this would be well less than interesting, an infodump that the author did not weave into the narrative, but it works here, as the immersion into that time and that place are both necessary and fascinating.

The woods of the title refers to the large forested area in the vicinity. As WWII begins, and Nazi troops begin pouring through the country, first depriving Jews of their rights and then of their lives, the Rabinowitz family escapes the ghetto and hides in the forest for an amazing two years. They dig dugout shelters and disguise them to hide from Nazi (and their collaborators) due to raids. There is never enough food during the years, and never enough heat in the harsh winters. Disease runs rampant, and the family is forced to relocate their shelter when the smallish community of those hiding in the woods is found by the Nazis.

Throughout it all, the family stays together, occasionally making contact with friendly farmers in the area – people the Rabinowitz family knew to be sympathetic to their plight even before the Jews were rounded up in the area.

Eventually, WWI ends, and the family, along with other survivors, heads over another dangerous pass, this time to sneak into Italy as a step of making their way to what is now Israel. They ultimately give up on that idea and head to America instead.

It’s a fantastic story, well told, and I loved it. Highly recommended.

Five out of five stars.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

The Executive Order (David Fisher)

If you’re a trumpette or a far right conservative,you’ll hate this book and give up when the failures of trump’s administration are sorted out in the chapters following the initial terrorist attacks that open the book. You probably should not bother.

If that sort of factual relation doesn’t mess with your worldview, this is a middling superguy/journalist story that’s a fair read.

The book opens with attacks on the Lincoln Tunnel in NY, a dam in Louisiana, and the explosion of the USS Arizona in Hawaii. Deaths? Too many to count. The response of the 2024 President Ian Wrightman: in a nod to fighting terrorism, a rollback of some civil liberties. The slow erosion of rights continues to creep into the country until finally it’s simply a fascist government, with the Constitution basically suspended and neighbors encouraged to spy and report on one another, a la 1984.

Rollie Stone, paraplegic former SpecOps and now journalist, is following all this, wondering what is happening to his country. He writes stories about the attacks and then about the targeting of a house in Detroit that is blasted to pieces and everyone inside killed. As it turns out, the people inside that house were innocent, and the government has just murdered a bunch of people on US soil.

The book proceeds to follow Rollie as he watches the tightening of the country, to the point where the electronic newspaper he works for is shut down, as all media now belongs to the government and reports only good news. Rollie then becomes a rebel, fighting to bring information about a cyber hijacking of an airliner to someone who will listen. The remainder of the book is about that quest and the dangers of a fascist state.

But for complete incompetence and greed, we could have been in the process of becoming that fascist country under the former guy’s term. The term creeping fascism exists for a reason, and anyone who has studied WWII, or Germany’s descent into fascism will recognize the steps outlined in this book. This may hit close to home for some people, so be advised that there is also a televised hanging of “traitors” described in this book.

As I read, I wondered if the author was putting in easter eggs on purpose, or just coincidentally. The current President is Ian Wrightman – I, Wrightman – I, right man, as in the right man for the job. I also wondered if the author is a Dick Francis fan, since Rollie calls the two Feds sent to round him up as Dick and Francis. There are other things along these same lines.

I wasn’t bothered by a lot in this book, but one of the things that did bother me was Rollie not discovering who was actually behind this lockdown of the country earlier. It bugged me that we got a “It was so and so all along!” in the end, when it’s clear as day earlier in the book who it is.

If you can handle the mix of fact and fiction, it’s a good enough read.

Overall, three out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Shadow Hill (Thomas Kies)

This appears to be the second book in the series – I have not read the first; however, this can stand on its own without any problem at all. (Edit: it is book four in this series.)

Geneva Chase, former reporter, now freelancer and information analyst for Lodestar Analytics, is assigned by her boss to look at the apparent murder-suicide of Morris Cutter and his wife. While the local authorities see it as open and shut, Lodestar is hired by the family to go over it again. To Geneva and her boss Nathaniel, it is anything but apparent.

Cutter dies just days before he was to present a report before Congress, about environmental issues with fracking and so forth. Thee are plenty of suspects: the remaining family, Cutter’s brother, who accepted a buyout at a cheap price before the company they ran went public and was worth tons more than he got, a couple of radical environmentalist groups, and even the board of the company itself. There are some goons who appear – courtesy of the board – and offer Geneva $250K an then a half a million dollars to agree that it was a murder- suicide and issue a report saying so. Geneva refuses, finds that people are following her, and the stakes are even higher when Cutter’s daughter disappears, the lead scientist on the report vanishes, and Nathaniel is brutally beaten.

The pace of the book is good. There are no real laggy parts, and no giant holes in the narrative. I did have an issue with the ending – not with the ending itself, but with the main character screaming and seeming to be a it out of control. The circumstances were pretty dire, but still, I’d have liked her to not freak out “We’re going to die!!!” style.

Overall, a satisfying read, and a solid four stars.

Thanks to Poisoned Pen Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.