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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Review: The Book of Stolen Tales by DJ McIntosh

Opening sentence: Firelight on the faces of the villagers showed their lust for the burning.

A follow-up to the best-selling art-history thriller “The Witch of Babylon,” this sophomore novel is a sophisticated, literary thriller, rich in both modern European culture and centuries-old book history.

John’s quest takes him through libraries and bookstores that will garner the envy of every bibliophile. Each city he visits is infused with colour and life, from the rain-washed roads of London to a sun-drenched Naples marketplace. Landscapes parallel and enhance the action, whether angry seas on a rocky shore or the barren, sulfurous plain of the Solfatara volcano. A hint of the paranormal is as chilling as the inky waters of the Thames.

A new character is almost the antithesis of the cultured, book-loving John, and equally skilled in his own, very different sphere. An unexpected twist dramatically raises the stakes, drawing John into a second and even more deadly search. The two quests intertwine in the hands of a masterful storyteller. This is a gripping and literate race against evils old and new, from New York across continental Europe and into the sands of Mesopotamia.

Penguin, 2013

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Sitting Lady Sutra by Kay Stewart

Opening sentence: RCMP Constable Danutia Dranchuk pinned another crime scene photo to the board, this one showing Esther Mike’s distorted face, her eyes and neck bulging from the red ribbon used to strangle her.

More than a mystery, Sitting Lady Sutra is a culturally fascinating tale of families forced apart – and drawn together – by violent crimes. While the investigation into a serial killer forms the backdrop for this novel set in 1996 Victoria, BC, the characters and their interactions are the greater draw.

Constable Dranchuk is intent on proving herself as Special Investigator into the serial killings of Aboriginal women while maintaining an unspoken rivalry with Corporal Farrell and a guilty avoidance of her parents’ phone calls. Ex-con Ritchie, torn between hope and fear over his daughter’s whereabouts, is putting off phoning her mother for fear of what he might hear. Surinder Sharma juggles his fractious sons, furious mother, and conflicted, half-Anglo niece in between mentoring Danutia through her investigation. Troubled Trav watches his mother die of cancer and drink.  Behind them are other ex-cons, other cops, parks workers, party people, Aboriginals young and old, all going about their lives while Sitting Lady Falls rush and ebb with the cycles of seasonal rainfall, and the Gorge waterway seduces the unwary with its deceptively smooth surface, and death walks among them.

While the natural waterways flow through the story, racism runs like a sewer through the lives of these characters. It is balanced by the beauty of Emily Carr’s art and by delicately performed cultural rituals. This feels like a much larger story than is contained in the slim hardback put out by Touchwood. I look forward to reading the next in the series, “Unholy Rites,” in hopes of resolution to some of the issues haunting Corporal Dranchuk both personally and professionally.

#2 in the Danutia Dranchuk Mystery series

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Day into Night By Dave Hugelschaffer

Day into Night 
By Dave Hugelschaffer

Opening sentence:  By the time I arrive, the fire has grown to an area the size of a small city.

From this alarming opening, and in breath-stealing smoke and ash that quickly feels all too real, we follow forest fire investigator Porter Cassel through his preliminary search for a point of origin. The fire is an arson, one of a string started in similar fashion by someone who knows just how to take advantage of natural fluctuations in wind and humidity, and the crews all know they are in for a long battle.

For Porter, the battle quickly becomes personal. Not only do the arsonist’s signature materials match those of the eco-terrorist known as the Lorax, but the fire boss is none other than the father of Porter’s girlfriend, who died in a previous Lorax-engineered explosion. As the smoke streamers turn black, blocking out the sun, Porter searches among the locals, the tree huggers, and the fire crews for any possible leads to the identity of the Lorax.

With one fire under control, the long, hot summer looms ahead, providing endless opportunities for another big blaze. Suspects are many, and another explosion costs another life. Porter spends too many hours in his truck, too many more in meetings of an inter-agency task force, and runs afoul of more than one disgruntled citizen in his determination to solve the explosions and resolve his guilt over his girlfriend’s death.

The author spent ten years working for the Forest Service in Northern Alberta as a Ranger, a timber cruiser, and a firefighter. He knows his terrain, tools and crews, and the behavior of a forest fire, better than anyone writing mysteries in Canada today. “Day Into Night” is both a primer on forest fires and a gripping personal quest for truth.

Day Into Night

Published by CormorantBooks

Review: "Hard Currency" by Steven Owad

Hard Currency 

by Steven Owad

Opening sentence: Between the train station and the shoe factory stood reminders of why Julian had brought Krystyna here: a butcher shop without meat; a line of people outside a bakery that wouldn’t open for an hour; bottles in gutters; listless men lolling on park benches, the morning hours grinding by in slow motion.

This is the ‘before’ of Poland – in 1983, still in the grip of Communism – a brief, evocative scene establishing both the repressive political climate and Julian Krol’s love for his little sister. A few pages and nine years later, Poland is celebrating its post-Solidarnos economic and political freedom, and Julian has lost touch with Krystyna. When told she is dead, an apparent suicide, he cannot reconcile what he hears about her tawdry life in prostitution with the intelligent, ambitious girl she had been. Setting out to learn how she came to that end, he stirs up an unexpected hornet’s nest of political corruption and economic game-playing that threatens him and everyone he comes in contact with.

Julian draws on his journalistic resources to trace a translation job Krystyna was doing on the side, one that required her knowledge of languages and dialects stretching all the way to Pakistan. His determination to discover who was behind that job attracts the attention of both the official police and ugly enforcers from several criminal classes. Interspersed with the present action are Julian’s memories of Krystyna, of his political agitation that got her flagged by the State as a potential enemy, of their final parting of the ways three years earlier. By the time the reader has all that history in place, the present is a grim one indeed for Julian and several associates of both his and Krystyna’s. The rest of the novel is an almost McInnes-like scramble through hills and towns, even underground, to avoid harm and reach the truth.

Landscapes and city streets come to life with equal strength. Characters, whether heroic or villainous or occasionally both, are well drawn, deeply credible in their roles and in their movement through the tumultuous post-Communist country as it struggles to find its feet. This author lived and worked in Poland during the early years of freedom from Communism, and paints a vivid picture of the old, the new, and the old wearing a new Armani suit. 

Hard Currency 

Published by Gale FiveStar

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Review: The Slickrock Paradox

by Stephen Legault

Opening line: She was not there.

The first paragraph of this claustrophobic, taut tale takes us, paradoxically, to the wide-open Utah desert, where Silas Pearson is searching for a missing woman. He knows his quest is likely hopeless. This expanse of red sandstone may look flat but it is creased with crevices, some of them hundreds of feet deep. An unwary hiker might break an ankle stumbling across a narrow rift and die of heat exhaustion under the sun, or fall into black depths and drown as the next rainstorm funnels through the gully. Yet Silas keeps looking, obsessively mapping the terrain a few days each week, marking off his search areas in 7.5 inch grid squares on the small-scale topographical maps that paper his living room walls. He has done this, we learn, for the past three-plus years, seeking his wife.

By the end of Chapter One, I shared Silas’ obsession, drawn in by his close observation of the rock itself, by his attention to every nuance of weather and geography that might offer a clue to her end. My desire to learn his wife’s fate, and to understand the web of emotions that drove his obsessive hunt, carried my eyes from sentence to sentence, page to page, while the sere landscape built itself in my mind.

The Slickrock Paradox takes us through terrain as unforgiving on the outside as Silas’ inner country is to him. This is a novel for those who love wilderness as passionately as they do a gripping, suspenseful mystery.

#1 in The Red Rock Canyon Mysteries