Book Review: X

Five StarsxI’ve been a fan of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series since I first read K is for Killer in the early 1990s and discovered there were ten books written before it for me to read. I went back and read them all in order and have been grabbing the new ones as soon as they are published. Grafton doesn’t disappoint in X.

I noticed immediately that the 24th book in her Millhone series doesn’t follow her naming pattern. The title is simply X, not X is for something that starts with X. The inside page explains it all, though I didn’t realize it until I reached the final page.

X: The number ten. An unknown quantity. A mistake. A cross. A kiss. X marks the spot.

Grafton’s X is all of the above.

Three quite different stories weave through this novel. Contrary to what I expected, they are not all neatly tied together at the end.

First there is the mystery of Teddy Xanakis, the revenge-seeking ex-wife of Ari Xanakis, a successful and wealthy businessman whose generosity to the community ended at the same time as his marriage to Teddy. Why was she so eager to get in contact with a small-time bank robber recently released on parole? Does X refer to the Xanakises?

And there is the mystery of the assignment of Pete Wollinsky, a PI who was killed during a robbery gone wrong. He died before he had time to deliver a package he had collected from Father Xavier who had held it for safekeeping for more than 20 years. What was Pete’s motivation in hiding both the package and a list he felt compelled to encode to keep its contents secret? Does X refer to Father Xavier?

Finally, Kinsey and her landlord, Henry, draw very different conclusions about their new neighbors, Edna and Joseph Shallenbarger. Which of their conclusions were more accurate?

Grafton tantalizes the reader with these questions, allowing Kinsey to reveal her assumptions and conclusions along the way. But as is always the case with Grafton’s mysteries, there are twists and turns in each of the sub-plots, revealing unknown quantities, mistakes, crosses, and kisses. Assumptions are overturned. Behind each mystery hide even more mysteries.

I regret only two letters remain for Grafton’s alphabet mysteries. It has been too long since the most recent one, and I fear the final one will be here too soon.

• Genre: Private Investigators, Women Sleuths, Suspense
• Print Length: 512 pages
• Publisher: G.P/ Putnam’s Sons; Reprint edition
• Publication Date: August 2, 2016

Book Review: A Paris Apartment

aparisapartmentA mystery inside a mystery. April Vogt, Four starsContinental furniture specialist with Sotheby’s, gets the opportunity of a lifetime when the Paris office requests her assistance to assess the contents of a Paris apartment that had been closed for 70 years. Full of incredible furniture finds, as well as an unknown painting by Giovanni Boldini, the contents promise an exceptional auction. Then April finds journal entries of the woman who walked away from the apartment 70 years ago, Marthe de Florian, a 19th-century courtesan whose life intersected with many of the turn of the 19th-to-20th century Parisian personalities and her estimates of the potential auction proceeds skyrockets. But she can’t convince those in charge to follow her suggestions.

In addition, April is uncertain of the state of her marriage and is attracted to the lawyer for the apartment’s beneficiary who plays a key role in getting access to all the journal entries as well as to the woman who wants to sell the contents.

Gable’s story is full of all the key plot twists and turns authors are instructed to include, on two levels: April’s life as it plays out in the novel as well as Marthe de Florian’s in the journal entries. Maddeningly for April, the journal pages provide an incomplete picture of Marthe, leaving her convinced she needs to learn more in order to persuade her bosses to set up a special auction of all the pieces instead of breaking up the collection to add individual pieces to several general auctions. Or does she simply want to satisfy her own curiosity?

Gable’s story is intriguing, all the more so because its premise is real. The real life Marthe de Florian walked away from her Paris apartment at the beginning of World War II where the furniture and the Boldini portrait remained out of sight for 70 years. Love letters to Marthe were also found in the apartment. Gable invents a few characters, a relationship or two, but remained true to the bones of history.

While I enjoyed the characters, some of the relationship contortions that Gable has April put herself through diminished the entertainment, the reason I assigned only four stars.

Book Review: Deadly Little Secrets

Five StarsdeadlylittlesecretsIn Loren Zahn’s second Theo Hunter mystery, Deadly Little Secrets, her protagonist, sometimes freelance journalist Theodosia Hunter, agrees to help out an old flame, now a Catholic chaplain, Tony Machado. Father John Fairbanks, a priest, teacher, and coach years ago at St. Augustine’s, a private Catholic high school when Tony attended, was found murdered, with the word “rapist” written on the wall of the confessional. Convinced the word was an attempt to falsely smear Father John’s reputation, Tony asked Theo to contact a few of his classmates to get testimonials to Father John’s good character to include in his personal profile with the church.

Knowing Theo’s investigative instincts might take over, Tony warns that she stick to getting the testimonials, not try to solve Father John’s murder. She tries to follow Tony’s instructions, but people keep getting killed. Theo recognizes the connections that mean she must dig deeper in order not to become a victim herself.

Deadly Little Secrets is a well-written thriller with just enough tension and plot twists to keep the reader turning pages. Zahn introduces us to believable characters with flaws, imperfections, and aspirations that allow us to laugh along with them and care about them. I look forward to getting to know them better in other Theo Hunter novels.

Genre: Mystery, Women Sleuths
Print Length: 426 pages
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC

Book Review: The City

Five StarsthecityDean Koontz knows how to tell a story. And his readers know there will be some fantasy, magic, or horror in his stories. In The City, there is no horror, and the fantasy or magic is understated, treated almost symbolically, as nine-year-old piano prodigy Jonah Kirk’s tells his story of confronting evil and protecting his mother from Jonah’s father who abandoned her and the near psychopathic group he ends up following.

Jonah experiences troubling dreams—the magic in the novel. Convinced there is truth in the dreams and that it is essential that he act on the knowledge he gains through the dreams, Jonah recognizes he must choose carefully whom he will tell and turn to for help. His choice: Mr. Yoshioka, a middle-aged neighbor living alone in an upstairs apartment, though he shares only as much as he believes he must to gain Mr. Yoshioka’s cooperation. The unconventional partnership offers both Jonah and Mr. Yoshioka reconciliation for events in the past and hope for the future.

Jonah doesn’t tell his mother about his fears because of his concern that, as the man in the family, he must protect her. Each of his thoughts and actions is believable for a nine-year-old boy. And because his behavior is reasonable, I willingly set aside the mystical source of his knowledge and enjoyed Koontz’s narrative. Jonah’s tale is about his childhood, but he tells it as the 50-something man, looking back, sharing with us both what he learned at the time and the larger lessons he has since realized as an adult.

I found the perspective of the tale—from the viewpoint of a child—refreshing. Because of this as well as the superb writing, I liked this book very much.

Genre: Paranormal; Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
Length: 593 pages
Publisher: Bantam
Publishing Date: July 1, 2014

Book Review: Death at Bishop’s Keep

Three starsAt the end of the 19th century, plucky, Irish-American Kathryn Ardleigh, orphaned as a child and raised in New York by an aunt and uncle on her mother’s side of the family, is without employment due to the recent death of her employer. Satisfied that she will be able to support herself minimally as an author of penny-dreadful novels, she receives a surprising offer from an unknown aunt on her father’s side of the family to come to England to work as the aunt’s secretary. Kathryn agrees, thinking that even if the employment doesn’t work out, she will gain knowledge of value for the protagonist of her novels. Once in England, she discovers she has two aunts she knew nothing of and they are keeping secrets she must solve in order to succeed in her new home.

This Victorian cosy features a modern and independent female protagonist who find herself thrown mid-stream into upper crust British society where servants and masters coexist, but not often graciously. Befriended on the train from London to Dedham, near the home her aunt has invited her to live and work, by Eleanor Marden, a lady of leisure somewhat younger, her brother Bradford, and Bradford’s friend, Sir Charles Sheridan. Sir Charles is Kathryn’s foil, a modern scientist, enthusiastic that photography, fingerprints, and detailed examination of evidence when solving crimes. Yet he can’t make up his mind if Kathryn’s modern ideas are rational or acceptable.

The pace of the plot in this story could have been faster since the title crime doesn’t occur until the last third of the book. Since this was intended to be the first in a serious of Victorian mysteries featuring Miss Ardleigh, the authors seem to feel the first two thirds of this book were necessary to set up the series, not just this first novel.

Genre: Historical Romance, British Detectives, Historical Fiction
Length: 304 pages
Publisher: Berkeley, reprint edition
Publishing Date: July 1, 1998

Book Review: The Black Velvet Coat

theblackvelvetcoatFive StarsTwo for one! The two tales interwoven in this debut novel are connected through a black velvet coat, something that was ordinary in the life of Sylvia, the central character of one of the tales, and extraordinary in the life of Anne, the central character in the other tale. No matter how different their circumstances, both women share the experience of facing challenge and each needs lessons on how to stand on their own, to make their ways in the world as independent and fulfilled women.

This book inspired and intrigued me in several ways. The stories take place largely in San Francisco, my favorite city, one I had hoped to return to, but haven’t yet. One of the characters speaks a version of British English sharedthe doll by my husband. How else can I explain her use of the term gobsmacked, one I hear often from my husband? I also made a black velvet coat for the doll I plan to give my granddaughter for Christmas. After meeting the author, I added a sparkly snowflake pin to the finished coat.

I loved this book.